How San Francisco’s Iconic, 62-Year-Old Yank Sing Took Dim Sum Digital

Yank Sing, Stevenson Street | Photo courtesy of Yank Sing

For some restaurants continuing to operate during the coronavirus pandemic, pivoting to delivery, takeout, and outdoor dining isn’t as simple as packing bestsellers in to-go boxes. Instead, the long-established service models that diners have come to know and love have to be fundamentally reconceived — all while retaining what made them special to begin with.

Take Yang Sing, the iconic, 62-year-old dim sum restaurant with two locations in San Francisco. What began as a small, traditional dining room evolved over decades to offer a mix of classic and contemporary dishes, including vegetarian offerings, such as chili-soy snap peas, and fresh plays on Chinese ingredients, like Peking duck by the slice. Today, Yank Sing’s hallmark is the flock of metal carts that roll through its dining rooms, showcasing the dumplings, buns, and tarts that diners peruse and claim for their tables.

Of course, exposed dishes escorted through a bustling dining room don’t exactly translate to the COVID-19 era. Before Yank Sing closed for the mandated shutdowns, the restaurants were serving as many as 1,000 diners per day. Now, Yank Sing’s locations in San Francisco’s Financial District (Rincon Center and Stevenson Street) are largely deserted, thanks to empty office buildings downtown. In early May, both restaurants reopened for takeout and delivery, and the Stevenson Street location is now open for patio dining. 

“What used to be a dense area during the week has now become eerily quiet,” says Vera Waller-Chan, who represents the third generation of her family to run Yank Sing. “On the flip side, we feel so fortunate for all the support we have received from our loyal customers, who visit us on weekends and thank us for being open.” 

To keep Yank Sing’s doors open to diners, Waller-Chan has adapted the restaurant’s famous service style and menu to the current moment, introducing a new, modern, and safe way to dim sum.

From cart to QR code

Dim sum carts may be out of the question for reopening, but Waller-Chan still wanted to give diners a taste of what they had come to expect from Yank Sing.

“Reopening during the pandemic felt like opening a new restaurant,” she says. “Given [the carts] are an important element of Yank Sing and the traditional dim sum experience, we discussed how we could implement them when we decided to reopen our Stevenson Street location for patio seating.”

Now, when a customer first checks in, they scan a QR code that links to photos of Yank Sing dishes on carts, so they can see the items before ordering. “Like before, they are able to view the items on the virtual carts,” Waller-Chan explains. “It was important to offer some sort of familiarity for our guests.”

Patio diners receive their food in individual takeout boxes with lids, so Waller-Chan’s team can reduce the risk of contamination between kitchen and table. Finally, Yank Sing installed heaters on the patio to make guests more comfortable in San Francisco’s infamously chilly summers. (Cue the noodle soups.)

Dim sum for dine-out

In addition to adapting Yank Sing’s service model, the team also took a hard look at the menu to select dishes that would work best for abbreviated takeout and delivery options. Chefs introduced new items to serve diners with a range of dietary preferences (think crispy tofu) and tweaked certain dishes, including the customer favorite xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. 

“Though it is one of our signature items, it does not travel well, so we developed a takeout friendly version — Kurobuta pork dumpling in soup — with a similar flavor profile for our loyal customers,” Waller-Chan tells SF Gate

To make sure the food still shines at home, Yank Sing also posted instructions for reheating potstickers, by steaming or pan frying, across their social media channels. Waller-Chan says the feedback so far has been positive – diners frequently ask about getting the food frozen, and she has loved seeing both familiar and new faces come in to pick up or dine on the patio. “Some go to lengths to thank us simply for being open,” she says.

While the limited operations have seriously cut Yank Sing’s revenue, Waller-Chan is inspired to see her team reimagine and transform the restaurant — a theme that’s carried through the generations now. 

“My father’s goal throughout his life was to elevate the perception of Chinese cuisine,” she says. “It has formed our desire to constantly improve and never be complacent.”

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