“In January, Chinatown had seen a ton of racism,” Sabrina W. Chok ’20 says. “People were avoiding Chinatown, believing that if you went to an Asian-owned establishment that you would contract COVID. And so because of that, these restaurants were really suffering.”
Before there was a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York, the small businesses of Manhattan's Chinatown saw sales drop by 40-80 percent, according to the Associated Press. By mid-February Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown’s oldest restaurant, was nearly half empty during lunch hours.
Wanting to fundraise for the businesses affected by the pandemic, Chok, Caitlin Lam ’22, and Karen Chen ’22 decided to sell stickers. Stickers are, as Lam describes, a “super low-barrier way for people to have incentive to donate.”
“When you see [stickers] on someone’s laptop, you might ask about them. And so that was what we were really hoping for during these times,” Chok explains. “That you can have something that can spark an offline conversation and keep people reminded that these small businesses do exist.”
The group decided to partner with Asian American and Pacific Islander-owned restaurants to sell stickers of their iconic dishes or drinks, with 75 percent of proceeds going to the business and a charity of its choice — the goal being to both bring restaurants publicity and support community work.
And so Sticky Locals was born.
Lam drafted a couple of sketches for the brand and the group made a Squarespace account. Each founder contributed $50 to make the project happen. They sent out a large batch of emails overnight to AAPI businesses that they thought would be interested in a partnership and experienced an overwhelmingly positive response.
“More people wanted to work with us than not,” Chok says. “I think it was because we were college students, and we were interested in helping the community.”
The first charity Sticky Locals donated to was Heart of Dinner, a nonprofit established in January 2020 to deliver warm, home-cooked meals to elderly Asian American people in Chinatown who could not leave their homes due to the pandemic.
“Part of what made the first drop so special was that the work felt very personal,” Chok says. “I grew up in Chinatown and it’s a tight-knit community. It felt right to be doing this.”
After the first sticker drop, artists started to reach out hoping to partner with Sticky Locals in the future. Most were AAPI artists with whom the mission resonated. As Sticky Locals grew, the team also found itself partnering with more NYC-based grassroots initiatives, such as Cranes for Change, Chinatown Youth Initiatives, Welcome to Chinatown, and Send Chinatown Love. With Miscalcul[Asian] Magazine, Sticky Locals also designed a Black Lives Matter sticker that raised $3,928 with corporate matching.
Before artists began reaching out to Sticky Locals, Lam was the designated designer. The first sticker drop featured five designs for five establishments — Super Taste Restaurant, Lucky King Bakery, Ming Qi Natural Healthcare, Wing Hing Seafood Restaurant, and Kopitiam Restaurant — all designed by Lam herself.
“In the beginning, I would send over a few questions or hop on a call, and I would ask about their most popular dishes, how they would describe their business, who is their primary audience, and what they want people to know about them through the sticker,” Lam says. “From there I would come up with three to five sketches that I think encapsulated the information that I gathered.”
The creation process takes about two to three weeks. Lam sends designs to the business, who in turn sends feedback to Lam, until they’ve narrowed it down to three stickers. Of the three, one ends up being chosen to represent that business.
Once the stickers are posted on the Sticky Locals website, customers can place their orders. Priced on a sliding scale, stickers start at $5, but a patron can choose to donate up to $50.
Each sticker is hand-packed and shipped from Chok’s room. So far, Chok and Lam have shipped over 1,800 stickers to supporters in more than 35 states. “Caitlin and I have this dedicated spot in my room where we have all the envelopes, all of the stickers, and all of the business cards,” Chok explains. “We didn’t have business cards in the beginning, so we would be hand-writing every single one of those notes — like 200 cards in one sitting.”
“And we still do!” Lam adds, laughing. For Chok and Lam, the personal touch is important. “We want to make sure that people who are supporting us know that there is a human who’s sending these out.”
To date, Sticky Locals has donated over $10,000, distributed across nine charities.
Looking to the future, geographic expansion is a priority. “We’re kind of reevaluating what kind of direction we want to go in, in terms of singular goals and how we can best make the largest impact,” Lam says. “In the future, if the opportunity comes up, we would love to expand to L.A. or other places.”
Sticky Locals also wants to make sure that they help mom-and-pop businesses beyond the exposure raised from the stickers. Because online ordering has become such an important part of restaurant takeout service, Sticky Locals has helped to ensure the businesses they partnered with have the tools to run an online platform.
Sticky Locals has gotten involved with the children of the business owners, too. Chok explains, “I think we were able to create this intergenerational network and gather the right people to make sure these businesses continue to thrive beyond the creation of this sticker in this project.”
Moving forward, Chok and Lam hope to support not just AAPI businesses, but also AAPI creatives who have had trouble finding work. “We’re looking at fashion designers, authors, entertainers,” Chok says. “Any way that we can amplify AAPI voices and funnel support toward causes that contribute to the community.”