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For some businesses, Lunar New Year feasts mean months of planning

Restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores prepare for months to ensure that they're ready for the Lunar New Year.
Dancers perform a lion dance inside a local shop during celebrations of the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Monkey in Chinatown in Panama City
Dancers perform a lion dance inside a local shop during celebrations of the Chinese Lunar New Year of the Monkey in Chinatown in Panama City, Panama, Feb. 8, 2016.Carlos Jasso / Reuters file

Chef Simone Tong had tested seven versions of the same dumpling recipe over the last three days, but none of them were perfect.

Sitting in the the midtown New York location of her Little Tong Noodle Shop after a Monday lunch rush in January, the chef went over the reasons why the dumplings could be going wrong: Maybe she was using the wrong type of flour (she planned on visiting a grocery store in Chinatown to buy different flours from China), or it could have been the lack of humidity in her kitchen, or, possibly, the cold weather.

Either way, she was in the depths of developing a recipe for sheng jian bao — the pan-fried soup dumplings popular in Shanghai — which Tong planned to serve as one of two specials leading up to and slightly after the Lunar New Year, which this year falls on Feb. 5. It’s the second year she’s planning to offer a special.

Chef Simone Tong
Chef Simone TongCourtesy Little Tong Noodle Shop

“It is a rather challenging thing to do,” Tong said. “If you do it really well, you get famous restaurants.”

“It makes me feel really humbled to be a chef,” she added.

The holiday, versions of which are celebrated in China, Vietnam and Korea as well as countries with large populations of those ethnic groups, has a large focus on food. This year will celebrate the year of the pig, hence the pork dumplings.

Lunar New Year is celebrated in different ways across Asia and the West, but broadly, several days are reserved for dining with family as well as for giving gifts.

“When we are kids, we love Chinese New Year,” Tong, who was born in Chengdu and grew up in Singapore and Australia, said. “We don’t need to go to school, we have new shoes, new hair cut, new clothes ... we also get a lot of red pocket money, and that’s the best joy.”

“And then obviously, we get to eat a lot of food,” she added. “It’s a very exciting time.”

Those traditions aren’t just limited to Tong’s family. While information about U.S.-based spending for the holiday is scant, Nielsen Asia told NBC News that spending in China for the Lunar New Year is strong and growing.

Sweet glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame, which Little Tong Noodle Shop offered as a Lunar New Year special in 2018.
Sweet glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame, which Little Tong Noodle Shop offered as a Lunar New Year special in 2018.Courtesy Little Tong Noodle Shop

Online and offline sales of nuts, chocolates, biscuits, and potato chips — foods associated with the holiday — in the first quarter of 2018 accounted for 38.6, 39.2, 32.0 and 30.6 percent of annual spending respectively for those items, the data company said.

And in 2017, China spent about $140 billion in retail and catering services, CNBC reported, an increase of 11.4 percent from the year before.

Similar trends can be seen in the U.S.’s ethnic enclaves.

Phillipe Tran — a manager at Van’s Bakery, a local chain of Vietnamese-American bakeries in Southern California — told NBC News that the company begins preparing for the holiday one to two months beforehand, ensuring that they’ll have enough stock and staff.

Tran estimated that the bakeries see about a 50 percent spike in business the week of the Lunar New Year.

“We sell a lot of candy, a lot of banh tet, banh chung, kho muc,” he said, using the Vietnamese words for rice cakes and dried squid.

The preplanning and sales spikes extend to large companies as well.

Spam, the canned luncheon meat made by Minnesota-based Hormel Foods, is an extremely popular gift for the Lunar New Year in South Korea, which took a liking to the pork product in part due to its prevalence on U.S. Army bases during the Korean War. A 2015 Nielsen Korea report found that Spam was the most popular gift in the country that year, according to The Korea Times. Sales are also growing in China and the Philippines, Hormel Foods told NBC News.

Spam gift boxes are displayed at a supermarket in Seoul on Sept. 21, 2018. From the front lines of war to a staple of institutional catering, Spam is rarely seen as a gourmet ingredient - but the canned pink meat holds a unique position in South Korea as a top-selling holiday gift.Ed Jones / AFP - Getty Images file

In South Korea, Spam is available in high-end gift sets during the Lunar New Year as well as Chuseok, the autumn harvest festival. The sets have been a major portion of business in the country for at least the past 12 to 15 years, Jaynee Dykes, a senior brand manager at Hormel Foods, said. Gift set sales between the two holidays account for 55 percent of total annual Spam sales in the country, with the Lunar New Year accounting for about 20 percent, Dykes noted.

“Retailers are encouraged and almost required to pre-book their gift sets because that’s what a large portion of total business that is,” she said.

Spam was previously available as part of gift sets in the U.S., and grocery stores in Hawaii have offered their own packages, Brian Lillis, a senior brand manager at Hormel Foods, said. As Asian populations grow in the U.S. as well as Australia and Canada, the company has also offered promotions in those regions.

“The first year, we started just with our Asian retailers,” Dykes said. “As we saw success, the traditional retailers wanted to be part of it as well. ”

For Tong, the chef, celebrating the Lunar New Year has always meant a focus on food. Last year (the first year Little Tong Noodle Shop was open), she served 16 separate specials, one for each traditional day of the celebration and each only available for one night.

She acknowledges now that 16 specials may have been a little ambitious. By doing two this year, and by offering them for a longer time, she hopes more people will get a chance to celebrate at the restaurant.

“There’s a Chinese saying that ‘young tigers have no fear,’” Tong said. “Obviously we have no fear, but it was exhausting. So this year, we wanted to do things really well so that everyone can enjoy Chinese New Year.”

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