Community profile: Rifle Chinese restaurant owner looks to overcome COVID-19
Not everyone gives Jack Chen a warm welcome when he walks into his favorite bar.
“When I walk into the bar, they say, ‘Hey, this is a Chinese guy — Chinese virus is coming,’” Chen said.
Moments like these are not uncommon for Chen, a small business owner who operates Shanghai Garden in Rifle. After the COVID-19 pandemic began in Wuhan, China, the Asian-American community has faced discrimination throughout the nation.
Colorado is no exception. In February 2020, Colorado Asian Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Fran Campbell told a Denverite journalist that several Asian businesses in the metro area saw 30-40% drops in attendance.
In an interview with the Post Independent, she said that rural, Asian-run establishments are also dealing with the same downfall.
“I would assume xenophobia, because it’s going on nationwide would affect them as well,” she told the Post Independent. “Especially going to more and more conservative communities.”
Campbell said anti-Asian-American sentiment started even before the shutdown.
“It started in December 2019, when rumors of the virus were coming to America,” she said. “By the middle of March 2020, (Asian establishments) were already behind 30 to 40%, so for them trying to catch up now, it’s difficult. but I also give credit to the Asian culture for trying to survive.”
Even by January 2020 — two months before Garfield County restaurants and bars had to officially shutter — Chen was seeing a 25% decrease in revenue compared to the same month in 2019.
“For us, we were noticing a difference in January,” Lynn Ames, Chen’s girlfriend, said.
With the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 fast approaching, economic turmoil isn’t a thing of the past for most businesses. Lots of revenue was essentially forgone in the name of trying to curtail the hospitalization and death rate stemming from COVID-19, and there are still many more challenges ahead.
But Chen also has to endure an additional challenge: his identity.
DISPELLING RUMOR WITH FACT
Some people think it’s in the food.
“Somebody came to us and said, ‘Oh, we heard that you’re getting your food from China, so we don’t want to go there,” Ames said. “Jack’s like, ‘How expensive do you think that’d be for me to get food from China? It comes from Denver!’”
Misconceptions became so widespread, Ames said they posted an announcement on social media, essentially explaining to everyone that, yes, they have Chinese employees, but they haven’t left the country for the past four years.
But the plan backfired.
“We were bashed and called racist because I said we had Chinese employees,” Ames said. “It’s been really, really tough.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chen said he went from about 10 employees down to four. Weekly foot traffic shrunk from 500-600 patrons to about half that today. Shanghai’s buffet would drop down from an average 80 to 100 people to about 10, Chen said.
To alleviate the combination of stringent COVID-19 regulations and racial prejudice, Chen sought out and managed to acquire a $30,000 grant in CARES Act funding in May 2020. He said, however, the boost — expected to last for at least six months — lasted about 2 ½ months.
Two of his employees left for employers facing fewer financial hardships.
“They don’t get the good pay,” Chen said. “They have to go, because they (found) a better job.”
Nowadays, Chen typically mans the grill seven days a week.
Granted, Garfield County’s COVID-19 dial metric is now at level blue, allowing restaurants that serve alcohol to operate at 50% capacity and not have to announce last call until 11 p.m. But Chen, who’s still waiting to see he can acquire more relief funds, is still a bit skeptical.
“It’s just getting worse and getting worse,” he said. “I don’t know how long we’re going to keep up.”
Chen, however, is no stranger to perseverance.
Jack Chen used to be called something different. Prior to assimilation, his first name was Gang.
Gang’s journey first began on the crowded streets of Shanghai, China, a city more than three times the size of New York City.
Chen, who grew up an Olympic-trained body powerlifter who’s competed in Japan, Russia and North Korea, would eventually pursue an even greater goal: Immigrating to the U.S.
“I think the Communist country is not good — no freedom, no religion,” Chen said. “Everything is a monopoly.”
Chen said he landed in Los Angeles at the age of 17, $40 in his pocket and not knowing a word of English.
With the help of a Chinese temp agency, Chen would eventually find himself washing dishes in Rapid City, South Dakota. He’d spend his mornings attending English classes in the morning before going to work washing dishes the rest of the day, he said. It was also then his teacher let him choose the name “Jack.”
Finally, after six years of working with immigration officials, Chen said he got his green card. From there he’d move to Denver and become a certified sushi chef.
By about 2005, Chen said he’d open up his own first restaurant, The Galaxy, in Craig, Colorado.
“He was up there for eight years, then he would do construction for a while after selling the restaurant,” Ames said. “He worked in Grand Junction for a while while his family was still up in Crag.”
Now, for the past 6 ½ years, Chen has owned and operated Shanghai Garden.
Jack Chen said he went from being a city boy to a “Chinese redneck.”
He enjoys hunting, fishing and hiking. His Chinese restaurant is even adorned with elk and deer mounts.
“He’s a very outgoing, a very fun personality,” Chen’s hunting buddy Shelton Scarrow said. “He’s a joy to be around. I laugh more going out hunting with Jack than I do with buddies I’ve gone hunting with for years.”
Chen can sometimes catch him shooting pool at the Texan Bar in downtown Rifle — if he’s not cooking hot meals for Lynn and their two sons three times a day on weekends.
“Jack is a really special guy,” Ames said. “Jack is an old soul. He is very hardworking. He is very thoughtful, kind, smart, old-fashioned, and it’s very, very important to him that we eat together every day.”
“He is very, very family-oriented,” Ames added. “This is, like, our time to hang out and talk and ‘what happened in your day,’ and he’s very much 1950s, Beaver-Cleaver kind of stuff.”
Scarrow appreciates the way Chen talks to his chefs and servers.
“He cares about his people,” Scarrow said. “But he cares about the community, he cares about people in general.”
In addition to their love for the outdoors, Scarrow and Chen share love for good conversation.
“He said to me, ‘You don’t know how good you guys got it, because in China, you couldn’t even own a bow, you’d go to prison for a bow,” Scarrow said. “So, I guess what really makes it fun for me with Jack is, he’s a guy who didn’t have this handed to him like I did.”
Scarrow was asked about some of the challenges Chen has had to face over the past year.
“What I got to say to that is, they should get to know Jack,” he said. “You’ve got to understand who Jack is and where he comes from. When Jack makes a decision, he’s making decisions not for himself but for his employees, for the future.”
Especially when it comes to COVID-19 rules and regulations.
“I’m pretty happy about running the restaurant until they came out with all kinds of rules,” he said. “I can’t… I can’t do that. Nobody can come into (the) restaurant. It’s just really hard.”
Right now, however, Chen and Ames are trying to reopen the buffet. If they can get that back, they hope the rush of customers they used to welcome every day comes with it.
“I’m trying the hardest I can, until the last person is me,” Chen said. “If I can’t afford it myself, then it’s time to close.”
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