SF Chinatown restaurants losing elderly customers 

click to enlarge Chinatown’s population is 35 percent elderly (60 and over). - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Chinatown’s population is 35 percent elderly (60 and over).
During the lunch hour last week at the Imperial Palace Restaurant, a storied place to dine in Chinatown, all but five tables on the first floor sat empty. The two upstairs dining rooms were closed.

Where were the traditional clientele?

Many of them, now elderly, were at one of three sites in the neighborhood run by the nonprofit Self-Help for the Elderly, where they can eat free hot meals with measured portions of protein, vegetables and carbohydrates by presenting a city-issued Senior Gold Card.

“We actually recognize them — it’s pretty much the same crowd of people,” said Kelly Chew, the nonprofit’s director of nutrition and senior centers. “They come every day.”

Imperial Palace owner Silvia Lee, 55, knows that her restaurant’s lunch special price of $6.95 — not raised in years — isn’t affordable on a daily basis to seniors on fixed incomes, but there is little she can do to draw her customers back.

“We would love to lower the prices, do anything that would help the community, but food costs and the new minimum wage are too high,” Lee said in Cantonese last week. “It’s very hard to hold on.”

The Imperial Palace isn’t only the three-story restaurant on Washington Street, but mom-and-pop spots across the neighborhood are struggling as residents get older and rely increasingly on subsidized meals.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, of the 14,905 people living in Chinatown, 35 percent are age 60 and over, which is considered the San Francisco Office of Aging’s definition for senior eligibility for federally funded services. Seniors make up 20 percent of San Francisco’s population.

On top of having a higher percentage of seniors than the citywide figure, the average Chinatown resident is older — seemingly “every other person you bump into,” said Anni Chung, Self-Help for the Elderly executive director. The group runs the only meals program with funds from the Department of Aging and Adult Services.

The nonprofit’s nutrition program, prepared by dieticians, is almost as old as the organization, founded in 1966. The first meal site in Chinatown — no longer in operation today — was in the Salvation Army’s basement.

Self-Help for the Elderly has since expanded to provide roughly 1,300 meals per day across its 10 sites citywide, with Asian-style lunches in Chinatown for about 60 seniors at Lady Shaw Senior Center, 70 seniors at the International Hotel Manilatown Center and 100 seniors at the Geen Mun Senior Center. The Geen Mun Senior Center also offers Saturday lunches and dinner for about 60. “The reason we’re so gung-ho about having enough meals for every senior is we found out that at the [single-room-occupancy hotels], seniors ended up eating a cup of noodles or sometimes bread,” Chung said. “Our portions are very generous, so a lot of seniors would bring some of it home to supplement for their dinner.” Besides the food itself, the communal setting at senior centers tends to encourage socializing, replacing another reason seniors go to restaurants.

At the Imperial Palace, where the elderly make up 75 to 80 percent of business, Lee and five family members working there to cut employee costs treat seniors like family members, but still have trouble retaining them.

Now the restaurant relies on another clientele to keep afloat. “We’re depending on major banquets and big parties, mostly on the weekends,” Wei Ming He, 56, the restaurant’s general manager, said in Cantonese.

As tough as times are for the Imperial Palace, employees are proud they’ve kept the restaurant — formerly the Golden Dragon Restaurant and site of a high-profile gang-related 1977 shooting — alive. In recent years, about half a dozen legacy restaurants in the neighborhood including Four Seas Restaurant, Gold Mountain Restaurant and most recently The Empress of China, have shuttered.

“I think more than 80 percent can’t survive,” said Ding Lee, secretary of the Ning Yung Association, one of the Chinese Six Companies. “The restaurants have to reform and do something different.”

Ding Lee, whose association holds many banquets, pointed out that the handful of thriving restaurants in Chinatown, namely R&G Lounge, Far East Cafe, New Asia Restaurant and Cafe House, have upgraded their menus and ambiance to attract younger customers.

Those enhancements have kept them competitive with dining places in the Richmond and the Sunset, Daly City, South San Francisco and Millbrae that have parking as a key advantage over Chinatown.

Michelle Zhu, 42, owner of Chef Hung’s Restaurant, a small restaurant on Clay Street, said the number of seniors buying lunch specials, ranging from $6.50 to $7.25, is down 25 percent in the past three years. Middle-aged customers, who make up the other half of her clientele, generally call for to-go.

“They don’t park and come up to eat,” she said.

While fewer seniors are spending money at restaurants, Chung said they don’t all eat for free. More than 70 percent of meal participants at Self-Help for the Elderly centers contribute $2 per meal, the suggested donation, an amount some can afford.

“Our Chinese seniors are pretty good,” she said. “If we had no donations, then we would have to cut the number of meals we serve, so they understand that and are very happy to continue the suggested donation.”


About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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