COVID Economy Prompts Malden Restaurateur To Open New Fast Food Spot

Patch News

MALDEN, MA β€” Malden’s Stacey Zhang has made a name for herself in fine dining and broader restaurant circles.

Come October, though, she is set to launch a new fast-food venture that will mark a major change in style from some of the sit-down, more high end restaurants she’s operated to date.

For Zhang, hiring challenges, a changing restaurant economy and a personal desire for new adventures are all factors driving this leap.

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β€œI just think that our generation shouldn’t be feeling comfortable with what is current,” Zhang told Patch. β€œYou should always move forward fighting for new challenges.”

Zhang got her start in server and bartender jobs in the restaurant industry. She worked her way up to eventually own and operate multiple restaurants in the area.

Find out what’s happening in Maldenwith free, real-time updates from Patch.

Most recently, Zhang has served as the owner of District Kitchen in Malden, focusing on authentic Chinese cuisine.

Four years into her run with District Kitchen, Zhang is now in the process of opening Bam Bam Chicken in a former Dunkin’ storefront steps from her District Kitchen location. Bam Bam is tentatively set to serve its first fried chicken meals on Oct. 6, aiming to offer a casual destination for diners looking for cheap, quality food in downtown Malden.

Zhang has launched restaurants before. The decision to move toward fast-food, however, comes in part due to shifts that Zhang has seen particularly over the past two years.

Takeout business, even at higher end restaurants, has boomed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Zhang said.

Hiring has become more difficult.

And labor costs have jumped, suddenly making more staff-intensive businesses with chefs, servers and bartenders less viable as a startup model in Zhang’s view.

β€œAll those factors made me think ‘What can I do to still run a restaurant?’” Zhang said.

Fast-food has been the answer, Zhang said, letting her limit labor costs while shortening the hiring process. It is easier to hire cashiers and other fast-food staff, she said, than it is to find quality chefs.

Bam Bam Chicken will operate just one door down from Stacey Zhang’s already-open District Kitchen. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

Staffing shortages and related hiring challenges are far from a unique issue for Zhang and the restaurant industry. Businesses and organizations across economic sectors are facing a variety of such issues.

Some businesses have hiked wages and benefits to compete. Others have cut services to adjust to shortages.

The restaurant industry has been hit particularly hard, though, with the rate of job openings across the accommodations and food services industry sitting at 8.9% in July, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Down from a rate of 9.9% a year ago, the number of openings in the accommodations and food services industry remained the largest out of more than two dozen industries surveyed.

Federal data does not differentiate between fast-food restaurants and other establishments under the “accommodations and food industry banner.” Zhang reiterated that current conditions were a major factor in her decision to pursue her Bam Bam Chicken concept, however.

β€œBack 10 years ago it was never an issue to hire people,” Zhang said. β€œThere was always people coming to you looking for jobs. So, therefore, regular fine dining restaurants were no problem to maintain or to operate. Now this is a serious issue.”

β€œI don’t want to do restaurants anymore because I don’t want to look for the chefs,” Zhang continued.

“Coming Soon” signs mark exterior windows at Stacey Zhang’s planned Bam Bam Chicken storefront in downtown Malden. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

Malden Business Development Officer Kevin Duffy works with businesses in Malden, helping them navigate various permitting processes and other interactions with their municipal government.

As such, he is in touch with many of the city’s business owners and managers.

“It seems everyone is in need of staffing,” he said.

The city is trying to do its part to lend a hand, Duffy said, promoting a culinary training program run by Bunker Hill Community College and Triangle Inc., which is a nonprofit focused on supporting and empowering both people with disabilities and their families.

The program trains students for entry level kitchen jobs. It then works to place graduates in jobs with partnering businesses, when possible.

“This is a career-path program so these are new, but legitimate, professionals to the restaurant scene,” Duffy wrote in a recent email to local restaurants that he shared with Patch.

Despite challenges, Zhang said she feels good about her District Kitchen staff. A strong team there, she said, will enable her to put more time into Bam Bam.

She has big plans for the new venture, looking to take a hands-on role in perfecting high quality recipes for her chicken, sauces and more.

Long term, she said she’s hoping to set up a franchise system to allow her to add a new Bam Bam location with help from a business partner.

In the meantime, her Malden location will be located at 245 Pleasant Street, steps from the Malden Center MBTA stop and close to Malden’s bustling downtown area.

She credited city officials with helping navigate individual hurdles to open Bam Bam, adding that she is excited to work with a new team at the restaurant.

β€œIt’s not going to be a regular fast-food restaurant,” she said.

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