Bird Flu Causes Duck Shortage, Forces Beloved Chinatown Barbecue Shop to Shut Down

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A father and two brothers—all Chinese American—hold up a selection of barbecued meats inside their restaurant.
Eric (left), Wing and Simon Cheung show off a selection of roasted meats from their Cantonese barbecue shop, Hing Lung Meat Company. The restaurant was forced to close temporarily due to a duck shortage. (Pete Lee)

It has been a hell of a couple years for Hing Lung Meat Company. A San Francisco Chinatown institution for more than 40 years, the family-run Cantonese barbecue shop sells some of the Bay Area’s most succulent roast duck, and its crispiest skinned roast pig. Like so many other businesses in Chinatown, the restaurant was hit especially hard during the pandemic. 

But the shop had weathered those challenges. It had pivoted toward an online-only, delivery-focused spin-off called Go Duck Yourself, which was so successful that a sit-down restaurant version of it was set to open in Bernal Heights. Things were looking up. 

Then, last week, co-owner Eric Cheung got a text from his duck supplier in Pennsylvania. Because of a deadly avian flu outbreak that’s hit a wide swath of the United States, the supplier explained, “they pretty much had to kill all their ducks,” Cheung says. At least in the immediate future, they won’t be able to provide Cheung with his regular shipment—and there’s a real possibility that he might have to go for months without any ducks at all. 

For a Chinese barbecue shop like Hing Lung, where the roast ducks account for about 50% of sales, the news was devastating. Cheung immediately made the decision to temporarily shut down the shop.  

“We got blindsided,” Cheung says. 

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Both Hing Lung and Go Duck Yourself have been closed since last Friday, May 13, and likely won’t reopen again until next week, by which time Cheung hopes to secure enough ducks to last a month. Normally, though, the restaurant goes through as many as 400 to 500 ducks in a given week. None of the other duck farms that Cheung contacted had nearly that much extra inventory that they could sell him. So, with the supply chain still uncertain, the restaurant’s ability to operate through the rest of the summer remains an open question.

A plate of roast duck held in front of a family association building on Clay Street in San Francisco Chinatown.
The roast duck is by far the best-selling item at Hing Lung. (Pete Lee)

Hing Lung’s temporary closure is one of the first prominent ways that the worst avian flu outbreak the U.S. has seen in years has impacted the Bay Area. Health officials have said that the flu poses a very low risk of transmission to humans, but its effect on both wild bird populations and the domestic poultry industry has been devastating. 

For now, the shortage is most likely to impact the handful of Bay Area Chinese barbecue shops who, like Hing Lung, buy their ducks from Pennsylvania-based Tasty Duck, favoring the extra-fatty Long Island Pekin Duck breed that the company raises. “For that traditional [Chinese] roast duck,” Tasty Duck’s Michael Jurgielewicz explains, “they want that extra fat layer to prevent the meat from drying out as the skin gets crisp.” 

Apart from Hing Lung, trendy Chinatown hotspot Empress by Boon also buys duck from Tasty, though a spokesperson for the restaurant told KQED that it has managed to secure an alternative supplier for the time being. “​​While we do not serve duck on our current prix-fixe menu, we do receive requests for duck items occasionally,” the restaurant stated in an email.

For Tasty Duck, the outbreak has been disastrous. Joey Jurgielewicz—Michael’s brother—explains that the avian flu is a seasonal virus that’s tied to wild bird migration patterns. There are cases every year, but he doesn’t recall an outbreak this bad since the 1980s. And this year’s strain appears to be particularly deadly, with a near-100% mortality rate in domestic poultry such as chickens or ducks.

Because the virus is airborne and the danger of farm-to-farm transmission is so severe, the USDA has instructed farms like Tasty Duck to euthanize every duck in the facility if even one bird tests positive. That’s what happened after the Jurgielewiczes detected their first case of the virus at the family’s main farm in Pennsylvania two weeks ago: They had to kill and dispose of every single duck—thousands of them in all—before shutting down the facility. “It was devastating,” Michael Jurgielewicz says.

When the farm is cleared to reopen, the Jurgielewiczes will have to start from scratch with unhatched duck eggs, which take 28 days to hatch, and then another 40 to 50 days before the ducks are large enough to be sold. They’re hoping that their supply chain will resume some kind of normalcy by August or September. 

Because the bird flu has not yet reached the West Coast, restaurants that serve ducks raised in California haven’t been affected by the shortage. In an email, Jennifer Reichardt of Petaluma-based Liberty Ducks—the best-known duck purveyor in the Bay Area—confirmed that there has been “no impact here” for now. 

There is still the danger, of course, that the avian flu will eventually affect farms in California as well. A recent San Francisco Chronicle report noted that it has already reached as far west as Colorado this spring—and while the virus has not yet been detected in California, the state Department of Food and Agriculture is encouraging farms to implement “increased biosecurity procedures,” such as taking extra care to make sure their poultry doesn’t come in contact with wild birds.

A worker hangs roast pork to display in the window of a Cantonese barbecue shop.
The little takeout shop sells all of the classic Cantonese barbecue items, including charsiu and roast pig in addition to the duck. (Pete Lee)

Meanwhile, the bird flu outbreak is a tough blow for Hing Lung, whose sales had only recently started to approach pre-pandemic levels. But Cheung says he has no choice but to ride out this current duck shortage. The brick-and-mortar version of Go Duck Yourself that was originally slated to debut this summer was likely going to get pushed back a few months anyway. “Maybe in a way, I’m dodging a bullet,” he says.

Fortunately, Tasty Duck does operate another farm in Indiana that hasn’t been hit by the virus, and by sometime next week, Cheung is hoping to secure enough ducks from there to reopen Hing Lung for at least a month. After that, he says, if he isn’t able to find a reliable supply of ducks, the restaurant may have to shut down again for an extended period—or perhaps pivot to selling something else. 

Roasting chickens would be the most obvious alternative. Of course the shop wouldn’t be the same without all those beautifully lacquered roast ducks hanging in the windows. “But hopefully customers will understand,” Cheung says.

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Hing Lung Meat Company is located at 1261 Stockton St. in San Francisco Chinatown. The new Go Duck Yourself restaurant will open later this year at 439 Cortland Ave.