AAPI Heritage Month

SF Chinatown Cafe Owner Struggles to Survive Pandemic and Tragedy

NBC Universal, Inc.

Just about any time of day, the smell of fresh baked pork buns and lemon custard tarts will summon a following to ICafe in San Francisco's Chinatown, where patrons will find owner Hanna Zhang bustling behind the counter or toiling in the kitchen baking traditional goods of her native China. 

Anyone watching Zhang for just a few minutes as she scurries back and forth sliding trays of Chinese comfort foods into the display case, and greeting customers over the counter would would walk away impressed she's a very hard worker. But they'd only have half the story of her tenacity. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Zhang has weathered the shutdown of her business for four months, suffered the repeated denial of government pandemic funding -- and most significantly, lost her business partner to cancer. 

ICafe is a popular destination in San Francisco's Chinatown for owner Hanna Zhang's traditional baked goods. 

"Since the pandemic a lot of people in the community know that I am running the business as a single woman," Cheung said through an interpreter. "It’s definitely not easy." 

Zhang came to the U.S. in 2013 from a town near Macau, China, with dreams of opening a cafe. She and her business partner Nobo Chiu took over the 45-year-old ICafe, an already established Chinatown stalwart on Waverly Place, and begin offering Zhang's homestyle pastries like traditional rice and pork wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Often times, the line stretched out the door and the few inside tables were filled with regulars hashing out the day's news over Hong Kong style milk tea and pineapple buns. 

When the pandemic cinched its noose around the economy in March of 2020, San Francisco's Chinatown bore the brunt of it -- as would-be visitors seemed to imprint COVID-19 onto the area's residents and the streets emptied. Zhang and Chiu shut the doors to the shop that March without any sense of when -- or if -- they would reopen. 

Chiu was Zhang's lifeline to business. He had the experience. He was a steady hand and bridged the language barrier for Zhang, who spoke very little English. 

A month after Zhang watched her business shutter in the pandemic, she watched Chiu lose his battle with cancer. With the present times murky and the future just as unclear, she wondered whether she was done with the cafe. Whether it was time to turn over the reins and walk away. In the end, she decided to make one more go of it. 

Though she was a young, single woman now going it alone, she wasn't really alone. Local businesses and organizations saw her plight and pitched in to help -- if nothing else through emotional support. She reopened ICafe's doors in July of 2020. 

"Many people surrounded me, gave me encouragement, gave me support - tell me I can do it," Zhang said. "And then that helped me to believe I really can overcome this difficulty." 

Though Chinatown was still a ghost town, Zhang kicked her baking into overdrive, especially while crafting traditional pastries for the Autumn Moon Festival that September. The lines at her shop stretched longer and the frenetic pace of baking quickened. The sails began to fill and the ship began to lumber forward. 

"A lot of people say 'hey Hannah your food is actually good -- we’re coming back for it,'" said friend Jennifer Cheung. "I think that is what give her the most encouragement to work harder and try harder." 

Hanna Zhang holds a tray of freshly baked buns in her ICafe on Waverly in San Francisco's Chinatown. 

When restrictions on inside dining began to ease, regulars once again began to claim their old seats -- filling the diminutive cafe with the familiar clamor of booming voices and laughter. Zhang absorbed the sounds as she formed mango mochi a few paces away. 

"I can feel she’s a strong lady," said Sam Yu, Chinatown's legendary founder of Yuet Lee restaurant who counts himself as one of Zhang's regulars. "She wants to build up her own business for herself. That's not easy." 

Zhang doesn't deny the challenges: Her repeated applications for Federal pandemic assistance were turned down. She regularly works fourteen hour days -- arriving at the shop before dawn and leaving after dark, an additional concern amid the spate of recent attacks on the Asian community. 

"I worry about her you know," said Yu, gripping a cup of coffee at the regulars' table, expressing concern over Zhang's walking home after dark. "How can you go home? She say 'I not go home.'" 

It could be Zhang is fueled by more than just a business owner's desire to fill the cash register. The long days, the heartfelt baking seems inspired by something more. 

"I think I’m using this way to return to the people who care about me and love me," Zhang said before heading back behind the counter where she will step-up on a wooden box to elevate her to the sightline of her customers. 

There is also the service of Chiu's memory, who helped make her American dream possible.

"Because he gave me so much support," she said, "I feel like I want to give it a try by myself with the spirit of him." 

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