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The end of an era?

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By Scott Mechura EBS FOOD COLUMNIST

It is an international phenomenon—an entire generation, all over the globe, who don’t want to carry on their elders’ family business.

There is an older generation that has worked to build something for their children, a generation that is driven by a work ethic that spans decades and exists worldwide. They collectively possessed a drive to build something out of mere pittance as a new arrival to a country foreign to them.

Although this generation faced many challenges, from financial to cultural setbacks, they may be facing their biggest one yet—the one they didn’t see coming. The issue lies in the passing on of a business in this industry to a generation more interested in pursuing opportunities that do not carry the burden of physical labor.

What business am I talking about? I’m talking about the pedestrian Chinese restaurant.

I call them “pedestrian” because they are always without frills or fashion and seem to be everywhere. On road trips after high school with my best friend Jim, we used to joke that even in the smallest towns in America, there always seemed to be three things: a post office, a NAPA Auto Parts store and a Chinese restaurant

Travel to virtually any metropolitan city in America and it seems that if you stand in one place on a sidewalk for more than 15 minutes, you’ll witness the opening of a new restaurant, bar or brewery. Yet with thousands of new restaurants opening in the last few years, the closing of Chinese restaurants has been on the rise—and nowhere is it more noticeable than ground zero.

San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest in America, has seen a steady decline in family-owned restaurants over the last five years

The restaurant business has always been one of the most challenging businesses to open and maintain. It is hard work with low margins. Two other issues seriously complicate the restaurant business model: rapidly rising rents and increased minimum wage, which, of course, affect everyone.

But something else is happening in sharp contrast to this Chinese decline: other ethnic restaurants, specifically Italian, Mexican, Korean and Indian, are either holding steady or increasing.

There is a theory that has been floated out there that this has been a specific plan all along—that the Chinese specifically opened restaurants and cooked so their children wouldn’t have to. As for me, I don’t see the logic in spending a lifetime doing a specific thing solely so your children wouldn’t have to do that same thing. Why not avoid it altogether?

Also, we are talking about a people and culture who hold the value of tradition and family among their highest. To me, it doesn’t align. But I have a somewhat more sophisticated theory to explain the decline in Chinese children carrying on their parents’ restaurants.

I speak regularly with my teacher friend who lives in Singapore and travels to mainland China frequently for school trips and vacation. He says many in their culture still believe cooking is “the woman’s work.” Couple that with the decades-long single child restriction in China, and males being more desirable, and you’re left with a disproportionate society of males who do not believe cooking in and owning a restaurant is their destiny. That leaves you with a decline in Chinese restaurants abroad.

Whether you’re traveling through rural America, or you burned the turkey dinner on Christmas like in the movie “A Christmas Story,” it isn’t difficult to find an open Chinese restaurant when you want or need it—at least for now.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the executive chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.

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