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The Buzziest Café in New York City, and the Teens Who Make It Go

Kopitiam is a unicorn in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The Malaysian establishment is at once a critically acclaimed dining destination, a community hub, and a sort of surrogate family structure for high school kids looking to make some cash on the side.

Alycea Tinoyan

On a Saturday around noon, the full spectrum of brunch is on display at Kopitiam, a Malaysian café in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood. A group of friends sits gossiping and sharing half the dishes on the menu; a baby tries tiny bites of Milo-topped French toast; a couple bends over the menu, negotiating what to order. Servers buzz around the restaurant, dropping off dishes and recommending orders. The door to the kitchen has a small window, like a porthole, and through it you can catch a glimpse of harried cooks.

Behind the counter, an employee explains the difference between black and white coffee to a customer who’s on the fence. She knows her stuff when it comes to the nuances of Malaysian coffee processes. She’s friendly and eloquent, and seems to really care about recommending the right kind of coffee. This is the kind of thoughtful, adept service you might expect from waitstaff at a four-star restaurant. But at Kopitiam, it’s coming from a teenager who’s never had a job before.

Such is the charm of Kopitiam, one of Eater’s “16 Best New Restaurants in America” and the first entry in Bon Appétit’s hundred recommended restaurants in New York. The New Yorker’s Hannah Goldfield and The New York TimesPete Wells gave it positive reviews. Chef Kyo Pang was nominated for a James Beard Award this year for her cooking. On Instagram, the people’s bellwether of restaurant popularity, Kopitiam’s photogenic dark-blue tables and green-and-white dishes appear hundreds of times. It has the profile of a buzzy New York restaurant, but the backbone of a much humbler neighborhood mom-and-pop. The person taking your order will probably be a teen, as half of the people who work at Kopitiam are high school students, mostly from the neighborhood.

Kopitiam has always employed teenagers, if not so many of them; its first iteration, a three-seat, 210-square-foot storefront on Canal Street, had just three employees: chef-owner Pang, a cook, and a 16-year-old who took orders. That version of Kopitiam closed in December 2017, after rising rent and a failed crowdfunding campaign made it impossible for Pang to retain the original space. A few months later, Pang paired up with Moonlynn Tsai, a Los Angeles restaurateur, to reopen Kopitiam a few blocks away in a renovated optometrist’s office on East Broadway that boasted five times as much space as the original location. There are finally enough seats for patrons to sit and linger over their teh tarik, black tea sweetened and thickened with condensed milk and pulled between two containers to create a frothy top, and nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk, nestled on top of a banana leaf and topped with crunchy anchovies, cucumbers, and hard-boiled egg. Pang had always intended for guests to have the freedom to linger; she wanted to model Kopitiam after the eponymous Malaysian cafés that serve as community centers, places to read the paper and gossip with neighbors over coffee, tea, and snacks. “The major goal is to create a place where people feel like this is a little corner where they will usually hang out,” she tells me. “Kopitiam in Malaysia is about the same thing—your family goes to the same place over decades.” The new space allowed Pang to re-create the shops she’d loved back home.

“In Malaysia, a coffee shop is more like a hub of generations,” Tsai told New York’s CBS2 earlier this year. At Kopitiam, that dynamic is unavoidable, in ways that tradition doesn’t necessarily dictate. It’s not customary for Malaysian coffeehouses to be staffed by high school students (though Pang did grow up working in her parents’ restaurant). But Kopitiam’s staffing is notable because it represents a connection to its neighborhood that most of the restaurant’s counterparts lack. Pang and Tsai employ and serve people from Chinatown, both making jobs for their neighbors and keeping the restaurant’s food affordable enough that the people who live down the block can eat there.

In rapidly gentrifying places like Chinatown, new restaurants can end up pushing their neighbors out and changing their physical surroundings, sometimes beyond recognition. Not Kopitiam, though, if Pang and Tsai can help it. “We want to be part of this community,” Tsai says. “Being intentional about hiring from the community, it’s our way of really trying to hold onto that and keep it going.”

Take a five-minute walk through the streets around Kopitiam and you’ll run into plenty of critically acclaimed, higher-end restaurants: Kiki’s, Dimes, Mission Chinese. There are fancy coffee shops galore, and lots of places to get one scoop of ice cream that costs more than you’d pay for 10 dumplings down the block. These restaurants haven’t been in Chinatown forever; they’re the side effects of a decade’s worth of high-speed gentrification.

In 2008, Chinatown became part of a citywide rezoning push that began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and has continued under Mayor Bill de Blasio. For the first time since the 1960s, Chinatown was “upzoned,” while the East Village, just to the north, was “downzoned.” Upzoning allows for increased density and taller buildings; downzoning does the opposite. Some Chinatown residents expected this rezoning to push development—luxury housing towers; old factories turned into million-dollar lofts—out of the East Village and into Chinatown.

Bethany Li, then a staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, worked with Chinatown residents after the 2008 City Council resolution to develop an alternate zoning proposal to present to the city. She says that, at the time, residents feared the rezoning would drive out old residents of Chinatown. Development doesn’t just mean shiny new apartment towers; it also means that landlords whose buildings contain rent-stabilized apartments begin to feel they’re getting below market rate for their units. Some Chinatown residents feared that as new, more expensive housing cropped up in their neighborhood, landlords would be more likely to harass and even evict tenants from rent-stabilized apartments.

Li says that the rezoning hasn’t just changed Chinatown’s housing; rising rents affect the businesses in the neighborhood too. Though she now lives in Boston, back when she was working with residents and businesses in Manhattan’s Chinatown, she says, “the commercial tenants would tell you, ‘We can only survive so long as the residents of Chinatown continue to frequent our businesses.’ There’s really a symbiotic relationship.”

As the residents of a neighborhood change, what those residents buy and where they buy it changes too. Mom-and-pop stores shut down; Whole Foods crops up. According to CityLab, there are only four neighborhoods in all of New York City that saw a decline in Asian and Asian American residents from 2000 to 2015; Chinatown, which had NYC’s second-largest Asian population in 2000, is one of them—and the only neighborhood of the four that is gentrifying. Chinatown is now a place where hip young people live and eat and play. The restaurants that have popped up in the wake of that gentrification are largely expensive, run and staffed by people who take the subway into the neighborhood for work and leave when they’re done (or those who, like the aforementioned hip youth, moved into the neighborhood only after it got cool). There are more places to eat and work in Chinatown than there used to be—but not for members of the working-class, Asian community that gave the neighborhood its name.

Kopitiam’s staffing sets it apart from similar restaurants nearby; it’s got the food-world acclaim of a more established, traditional restaurant, but it’s staffed like a mom-and-pop place, with high-school-aged kids working part-time after school. This wasn’t the original plan; when Tsai started trying to hire a staff for the soon-to-open restaurant in the summer of 2018, she initially wanted to find the kind of staffers she was used to working with: experienced restaurant workers in their mid-to-late 20s.

But Kopitiam was new and relatively unknown when she was hiring—a “startup,” she calls it—and not many people with restaurant experience applied. At first, Tsai was skeptical of her younger applicants. But she could tell they really wanted the job. When one high-schooler came back to the restaurant five times to follow up after her application, Tsai started to think there might be some benefits to hiring kids, whose persistence surprised her.

Kopitiam’s waitstaff is roughly half high school students, many of whom had never worked in a restaurant before (or anywhere else, for that matter). The back-of-house staff, conversely, is made up mostly of elderly Malaysian women—Tsai calls them “the grandmas.” Unintentionally, she ended up hiring a staff that functions almost like a family. She and Pang, she says, are like cool aunts or big sisters.

While Kopitiam’s staffing may have been an accident, Tsai frames it as a happy one. She is a first-generation American, while Pang emigrated from Malaysia as an adult. The community’s immigrant identity is personally relevant to them, and the staffers they hired are mostly Asian, like Tsai and Pang, and many of them live in Chinatown. “This neighborhood is changing so much,” Tsai explains. “A lot of people looking for jobs are coming in from other parts of the city. … A lot of the kids here, or even the elders, don’t have anywhere to work.”

Tsai thinks that the quasi-familial structure of the restaurant, especially the multigenerational staffing, feels natural to her employees. “A lot of [the kids] actually live with their grandparents, so I think for them it’s just a very comfortable dynamic.” (Comfortable sometimes, certainly—but I also hear from staffers that the most familiar thing about the grandmas is that they yell a lot.) She adds that some of the cooks left their families in Malaysia, so getting to talk to kids every day makes them feel a little closer to home.

And Tsai is a part of the Kopitiam family too. “I really feel like a mom of 14 kids,” she says.

Tsai grew up working in her father’s restaurant, a teenaged employee like her staffers are now. But she isn’t modeling Kopitiam after her childhood job; Tsai hated working for her dad, a demanding boss who’d yell at her in front of the entire staff if she made a mistake. She disliked the environment so much that she vowed she’d never work in restaurants as an adult. Clearly, she broke that vow—but she’s trying to make Kopitiam different from the restaurant that made her swear off food service as a child. “My dream when I was growing up was to be an elementary school teacher or a therapist,” she says, and she seems to treat her current job almost as if it’s one of those alternatives. She talks about what she’s learning from her staff, how their energy wakes her up when she gets to work. And she seems to feel responsible for their well-being.

“I know a lot of the kids were working in mom-and-pops in the area, and they were literally working 14 hours a day,” Tsai says. She feels like working at Kopitiam can serve as a benchmark for teenagers who don’t otherwise know what they should expect from their first or second job. “I want you to know that you deserve to be treated at this standard, rather than going to somewhere like maybe my dad’s restaurant, where you’re just thrown to the gutter.”

Tsai’s management seems to have paid off. Rather than resemble the prototypical sullen teenage employee trying to do the minimum to earn a paycheck, the kids at Kopitiam act thrilled to be there. Part of the job’s appeal is certainly the pay; front- and back-of-house employees make a base wage of $15 an hour (the minimum in New York City since the start of the 2019), which Tsai says ends up being between $26 and $30 an hour with tips.

But you can make good money busing tables or pulling espressos at a lot of places in New York; the kids working at Kopitiam seem to be getting more out of the job than just the money. Tsai tells me that she’s heard kids say their parents want them to quit their job to focus on school, but that they love working at Kopitiam too much to give it up. Ethan Chen, a 16-year-old student from Bensonhurst at the elite public school Stuyvesant who works at the restaurant part time, has seen friends take on internships outside of school, but feels his time spent at Kopitiam has given him something more valuable: “Internships don’t really matter because they just do paperwork and everyone knows that you’re not actually getting experience. Here, I definitely feel like I’m getting the work experience that I should have in the future.”

William Li, an 18-year-old Chinatown resident and junior at Baruch College Campus High School, seems a little less put-together than Chen; he acts more like you’d expect a teenage boy to, talking a lot about his basketball team and fumbling a little with his words. “I just like having pockets in my money. I mean, money in my pockets,” he says when I ask why he applied for the job. “Working here builds my self-esteem and my confidence in talking to people. Like, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you. … I would be shy, red.” And that basketball team he wants to tell me so much about? Tsai and Pang funded his trip to Chicago to compete in a tournament there.

Paying extra money for your staff to leave and not work at your restaurant—it’s nonsensical, viewed through a strictly business lens. But when Tsai tells me she’s met almost all her younger staffers’ parents, it really does start to sound like she’s the counselor at some sort of summer camp that pays kids to attend rather than the other way around. Or an ad-hoc community center where teenage boys learn how to talk to strangers without getting flustered and lonely grandmas get assigned surrogate grandkids. (Tsai says the community is small enough that a neighborhood grandma will come in and say, “Oh, you’re so-and-so’s grandson, right?”)

Kopitiam’s role in the community might affect its reputation beyond the edges of Chinatown. Last year, the James Beard Awards Committee—bestower of one of the biggest honors in the food world—instituted new criteria for its winners, after criticism that the awards’ nominees were disproportionately white and male. Now, nominees must embody “respect, transparency, diversity, sustainability, and equality.” Pang was a James Beard semifinalist this year for her work at Kopitiam. Certainly, this nomination stems from her talent as a chef; people come to Kopitiam to eat, after all. But the restaurant is doing more than just feeding people—and maybe it’s getting recognized for its ambitions in the community in addition to the food it’s serving.

You could ask why Tsai would hire a bunch of teenagers with no job experience. But you could also ask why not. Tsai says that she’s had to be a little more involved than she’s used to with a more traditional staff, making checklists for who takes out the trash and prodding staffers to be extra-friendly to customers. But it’s not like she’s putting up with the staff she had to settle for rather than the one she wants; Tsai says that having teenagers working the counter is the right thing for Kopitiam. “The vibe we’re going for here is very casual. It’s more about the heart and being kind,” she explains. “I think the staff, being in that age range, may be a little less jaded from the real world. … They’re really excited to be with people and talk to people.”

What Kopitiam proves is that there’s a new kind of restaurant Chinatown can support. It’s a product and an opponent of gentrification at once; Instagram-friendly to draw in outsiders, but cheap and familiar enough for the people who live down the street and want a neighborhood place to come back to every week. No wonder the kids who grew up living in and visiting a Chinatown caught between what it used to be and what it’s becoming work at Kopitiam now. Tsai thinks its in-betweenness is what attracted them in the first place. “They’re like, whoa, we’ve lived in this neighborhood our whole life, and we’ve never seen [something like this]. It’s Asian, it feels familiar, but it’s not the normal mom-and-pop,” she says. “They were proud of it.”

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