Allow me to challenge the misconception of Chinese food being so inexpensive:
- In Japan, authentic Chinese food is expensive and considered haute cuisine.
- In Germany, Chinese food is just as expensive as other restaurants. And does not taste very Chinese.
- In China (and Taiwan and HK), there are Chinese restaurants everywhere, obviously. So there are cheap places, and there are ridiculously expensive places.
- If you ever went to a wedding banquet or some dinner with a VIP, you can see that Chinese food can be quite expensive. Especially those that involve harvesting exotic animals.
For most of North America, I believe there are a couple factors:
- Food is fast to make
- Cooks are easy to train
- Ingredients are easily procured
- Decor is non existent
- Service is non existent
- Service is fast
- Cash only
- Economies of scale
- Historical market perception
Flip this question around: why are other restaurants so expensive? Think about it.
- Food is more time consuming to make/ preparation time, cooking time, placement on dishes.
- Cooks need to go through culinary school; most common Chinese dishes is not rocket science.
- Smaller range of ingredients, more susceptible to market forces and more waste (e.g. Chinese can use almost the entire chicken! Or the entire fish, more parts of the cow, etc)
- Decor and the whole user experience is important, expenses go up, and are passed to the customer. Chinese people just want to eat — no one cares if the place is a hole in the wall. In fact, it’s a turn off if a restaurant looks too well-decorated.
- Waiters and waitress are always on standby to see if you like your food, if you like anything else, etc. Chinese people do not like to be bothered when eating. If you need something, the onus is on the patron to summon the waiter. This is perceived as a lack of good service by non-Chinese or the uninitiated! :)
- Because of the labour intensive service culture, expenses go up, and are passed to the customer.
- Accepts credit cards. Instantly at least 3% more expensive.
- Patron base is smaller (besides South Asians). Why is Indian (Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi) food so expensive? Eating at home is healthier than at a restaurant so their patron base is a bit smaller. And because of point #1.
- Society expects cheap Chinese food as it has been around forever. Immigrants to North America were severely hindered by racism and forced to keep to their communities, so to serve a market of not-well-off people, pricing cannot be inflated. Then a gwai-lo notices that Chinese food is cheap and the market rate for Chinese has been consistent ever since. By this regard, Indian restaurants are lucky to be perceived as exotic high-end establishments.
Finally, some restaurants are rumoured to be money-laundering operations. In other words, being profitable from the restaurant is not their top concern.