Story by Alan Lu
Heng Fa Food Market, the largest grocery store in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, has remained financially successful despite increasing worries around the COVID-19 delta variant.
The Chinatown Development Corporation estimated that the average revenue of among Chinatown businesses had dropped by around 60% at the height of the pandemic, but that delta itself has not led to any major economic changes for businesses.
“It seems like Chinatown’s businesses are getting back to normal,” Yue Wu, a neighborhood planning and project manager for Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, said.
At Heng Fa, located near the corner of 10th and Vine streets, business has stayed robust, even after the early days of the pandemic. According to May Zhu, the store owner, overall daily revenue now is not drastically different compared to before COVID.
“We have lost some customers, but in general the supermarket is running okay,” Zhu said, adding that the main business pressures now come from online grocery shopping and the fact that it’s harder to hire people.
Staffer Damon Yeh shared Zhu’s opinion, noting that the business has had to get creative to keep up with changing market demands.
“Heng Fa has been working with Chowbus, an online Asian food delivery company, to keep serving our customers who are worried about in-person shopping during the pandemic,” Yeh said.
He added that Asianfresh Food Market, Heng Fa’s main competitor, is more of a business challenge than COVID-19.
To Grace Chiang, a frequent shopper at Heng Fa, the number of other customers she encounters while shopping appears to remain almost the same, even though prices are going up.
“The two main grocery stores, Heng Fa Food Market and Asian Fresh Market, are still all packed during the weekends,” Chiang said. “They’re always crowded, and that’s also why I choose to pick one to visit and do it as quickly as possible.”
Since delta has led to a surge of coronavirus cases nationally, many states, including Pennsylvania, have reimplemented mask mandates and other restrictions, such as limited indoor dining and shopping capacity. Since the end of August, all Pennsylvanians are required to wear face coverings indoors.
“Our employees and every customer that has ever come shop at Heng Fa are usually cooperative in terms of following the mask policy and doing their own parts to protect each other,” Zhu said.
Thermometers and hand sanitizer are also available throughout the chain’s various stores. All workers also wear disposable gloves to make sure there is zero contact between customers and them.
Besides wearing masks, Zhu also said that all the full-time employees are fully vaccinated.
“Everyone was given the right to make appointments for vaccination and take days off without consequences,” she said. “They also get tested on a regular basis.”
Zhu said that businesses like Heng Fa are more aware and careful during the pandemic because they are working with food and must ensure hygienic practices already. Heng Fa staff sanitize each section of the store everyday.
Yeh also praised the supermarket and customers for their dedication to combatting the coronavirus.
“Both customers and workers are self-disciplined, which means they’re all conscious about the pandemic and willing to do their best,” he said.
Still, not everyone cooperates all the time, though when they don’t, it’s not that big of a problem, Yeh said.
“Normally, three out of 10 people who come to Heng Fa do not wear a mask,” he said. “But overall it’s not a huge problem.”
Yeh said that Heng Fa’s main customer base is Philly’s Asian community. This group, especially international college students, always follows government guidelines and seldom challenges COVID-19 policies, Yeh said.
“Delta hasn’t really changed anything for me,” Chiang said.
However, she said COVID-19 made a huge impact on her grocery habits earlier in the year.
“I used to do window shopping at supermarkets,” she said. “But now I always have a plan in advance and only shop at one store at a time.”
Chiang has not noticed other shoppers reacting to delta with fear or increased vigilance.
“Though delta seems more contagious and concerning, and even causes a new mask mandate, I don’t see Chinatown reacting as seriously as it did when COVID-19 just broke out,” she said.
Chiang emphasized that now there’s no additional measures like compulsory temperature checking or hand sanitizing.
“Overall, I think I’m adapting well to my post-COVID life,” Chiang said. “Even though I do shop more online because of the pandemic, this is not the case for grocery shopping, since I care more about food quality than COVID-19. And, I’m vaccinated.”
Keeping people safe remains a priority for the development corporation as well as the grocery employees.
“The development corporation has been giving out PPE and assisting our businesses with applying for financial relief offered by the government,” Wu said.
Wu also pointed out that Philly’s does not have any specific rules for handling COVID-19 in Chinatown. But, supporting neighborhood businesses is a great way to support the community, she said.
“Come visit Chinatown, support our businesses, follow us on social media, and talk about Chinatown,” Wu said. “This is the best way to help us make it through this very difficult time.”
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