How Wilson Tang saved his Nom Wah Tea Parlor during COVID-19

Laveta Brigham

New York City restaurants come and go with alarming speed, even in the best of times. So when a restaurant manages to make it to 100 years old in the middle of a pandemic, it is a very special thing, indeed. Situated on windy little Doyers Street, which is known […]

New York City restaurants come and go with alarming speed, even in the best of times. So when a restaurant manages to make it to 100 years old in the middle of a pandemic, it is a very special thing, indeed.

Situated on windy little Doyers Street, which is known as “the Bloody Angle” due to the gang violence that used to take place there in the early 20th century, Nom Wah Tea Parlor is also the oldest continuously running restaurant in Chinatown. The hot spot has a diner vibe and serves up dim sum and dumplings for brunch, lunch and dinner; Grubstreet once declared it “the future of dumplings.”

“The Nom Wah Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from 100 Years at New York City’s Iconic Dim Sum Restaurant” (Ecco), out Tuesday, which Nom Wah owner Wilson Tang co-wrote with Joshua David Stein, celebrates the restaurant and the neighborhood.

After a start in finance, Tang, now a 41-year-old married father, took over the restaurant in 2011. He picked up the reins from his uncle, who had started at the restaurant as a dishwasher in 1950 and bought it from original owners the Choy family in 1974 — the same year Tang’s parents immigrated to the US. The Post talked with Tang about dumplings, lessons from the pandemic, and more.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York City’s Chinatown has been open since 1920.Annie Wermiel/NY Post

Your uncle asked you to carry on the family business. Were you initially resistant to the idea?

I had followed the totally traditional Chinese-American son-of-immigrants story. Mom and Dad worked really hard, and they wanted me to go to school and not do this laborious work. I listened, went to school, got good grades and was working at Morgan Stanley. And there was just something off about it for me. I did all the things they wanted me to do, but I wasn’t feeling great about it. So I got into hospitality. It was rare to not listen to your parents. This was in 2007. When I ventured into my first little restaurant, it didn’t work out. I got a second chance with Nom Wah.

How did your parents react?

My parents were furious. My dad said, “What are you doing? You did this before and it didn’t work out!” I said, “I have to do this. This is my last bullet in the chamber.” I think this happens more frequently now — hospitality has become a more popular career choice, and I think I paved the way for younger kids to do what their heart is telling them to do.

What’s your favorite recipe in this book?

My favorite is the chicken and napa cabbage dumplings. We’ve used that as the bar for gauging skill level: It’s great for a really good cook, but it’s also very good for a novice, someone who doesn’t cook at all.

You launched a frozen dumpling delivery business during the pandemic. How did that go?

That was a great tidbit on our end. We were able to do deliveries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Now we’re available nationwide on Goldbelly, and we’ve opened up our delivery circle. We’re even in a farmers market in Sag Harbor! I needed to expand our range and make money outside of the restaurant. It kept us close to break-even throughout the pandemic and our losses weren’t as bad as others.

Were there other business possibilities that opened up during the pandemic?

I live in downtown Manhattan and figured I could pick a few buildings and do mass takeout orders for one at a time. I offer free lunch to the doormen if they sent out a building-wide email that chose a delivery date and time; people would fill out their orders online, and I’d drive it over myself. At one point, I called myself Uber Tang. I even organized a delivery for Rye, in Westchester. They were excited to be getting delivery from downtown Manhattan in the suburbs! One rental building wanted to offer a cooking class for its residents, so we did a virtual dumpling folding class for the residents on Zoom. They would purchase the kit, so we made money selling the kits to the rental building. More online classes came from that. That shored up our bottom line, and we were able to weather the storm.

You’ve said that the experience of working in the World Trade Center and escaping from the south tower on 9/11 has made you reevaluate your life. Is that also true with the pandemic?

Prior to the pandemic, I had to make an effort to see my kids. But this time really showed me that making money isn’t all that. The bond that I build with my kids and my family — it was a good break and a pause. Whatever religion you believe in, maybe the gods were telling all of us: We’re all going too fast, we’re destroying the earth, and everyone needs to slow down. We don’t need to do all of this. Less is more.

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