By Yeeun Grace Shin, AsAmNews Intern
Is it really the end of the world? It sure seems like it for Asian American restaurant owners.
Since March, many states have issued stay at home orders forcing many restaurants out of business. Asian American-run restaurants, already dealing with coronavirus birth xenophobia, have especially struggled.
Asian American restaurant owners experienced the first wave of xenophobia driven sales in February. Even though there was less than 15 cases diagnosed in the entire country back then, Asian American businesses saw a remarkable decline in customers with the fear of the viral outbreak from China.
Jing Wetzel, a Chinese American owner of Zheng Cafe in Seattle, told The Seattle Times that she considered closing down her restaurant because of the lack of customers. Today reported that Jimmy Chan, the owner of Bite of Asia in Bethesda, Maryland said he has lost nearly 1,000 customers a day since January 15th.
Chan thought it was because a lot of people linked anything related to China with the virus. “Because a lot of people think if they eat Chinese food, they would catch the virus. But everyone knows that you don’t catch the coronavirus from eating something,” he said.
As incidents of xenophobia continuously increased, especially in major cities, New York council member Margaret S. Chin told Today that many Asian New Yorkers and small businesses were “punished for the anxieties caused by the coronavirus.”
A month has passed since the first wave of the coronavirus outbreak. The number of infected in the US has skyrocketed to over 200,000 since then, outnumbering China. States started to implement stay at home orders last month, further jeopardizing Asian American restaurants with social-distancing orders.
Jenny Dorsey, Chinese American Founder & Chief of Studio ATAO, told AsAmNews this was the first time in her 8-year career to experience anything like COVID-19. When asked how she was handling the current shutdown, Dorsey answered, “I’ve unfortunately had to furlough some of my team and reduce hours for others. All our scheduled events have been cancelled.”
To fill in lost revenue, Dorsey said her team tried to readjust by doing some “virtual events”. Studio ATAO, based in Los Angeles and New York, has around 25 to 50 guests per event. However, Dorsey shared that those events did not generate the same revenue that her team “desperately needed to keep going.”
Dorsey also said that she had seen plenty of xenophobia against Asians from the initial stages of COVID-19 outbreak, online. She shared how her staff also experienced a lot of “mild” xenophobia “in the forms of people watching them extra closely, distancing themselves etc.”
Mei Lin, a Chinese American chef and owner of Nighshade in Los Angeles said she had to “close doors until it felt safe to open back up for take out.” Lin prioritized “keeping our employees safe.”
Lin’s restaurant had been filled with an average 150 customers per day before the pandemic. Now Nighshade’s sales have gone down by 75% and Lin had to furlough employees. In the meanwhile, Lin is applying for grants and has started a gofundme page for employees. The Chinese American chef of 15 years said, “It is heartbreaking to see our industry go through this [coronavirus outbreak],” Lin said to AsAmNews.
Debbie Park, a Korean American owner of Grade Seoul BBQ in New York had to close her restaurant for a week in the beginning of March. In an interview with Grub Street, Park said she reopened on March 21st and has been operating business via delivery. Park said, “We’re doing maybe ten to 15 orders a day, and we open at 12 and we close at 8.” Although Park said she was receiving “okay orders” her restaurant was not even breaking even. “Right now, we’re just trying to get by day to day” said Park.
Some Asian American restaurants have disconnected their phone lines and most owners could not be reached for comment.
In order to help these struggling restaurants, hospitality coalitions have been formed nationwide. Los Angeles Hospitality Coalition is one of them.
Kristel Arabian, owner of Kitchen Culture, a full service hospitality recruiting firm, co-founded the Los Angeles Hospitality Coalition on March 16th with Akira Akuto, chef and owner of Konbi in Los Angeles. The two are also currently running @CAHospitalityCoaltion on Instagram.
“There was a need to have one centralized place for information sharing. Someone obviously had to run it,” said Arabian to AsAmNews.
Initially starting off as a social network platform that shared knowledge to restaurants, Arabian and Akuto started to promote rescue policies and recruit relief fund applicants. “My primary goal was to communicate with everyone (restaurants) and figure out where they have been successful. It’s sort of like cheating off each others’ homework,” said Arabian.
When asked whether the coalition has been effective to restaurants in need, Arabian answered, “I think we’ve given people a lot of resources. We’ve also given people a way of having a little positive influx every once in a while. We remind people to take an hour for mental health, eat and breathe!”
Arabian still recognized the horrible xenophobia targeted against Asian American restaurant owners and said she was “disgusted”. “I think the racism that has been coming up to Asian American restaurants and to Asian Americans in general is terrible and disgusting. And fear-based. We in the restaurant industry are not of that brand of person. Because we are so used to working with people elbow to elbow. And we know that we are all the same.”
But she further went on to say that California has been quickly bouncing off from that xenophobia, and that the Coalition is working with restaurants to put those incidents behind. In the meanwhile she asked restaurant owners to “stay active, aware, and positive.”
Jenny Dorsey, also said on behalf of other Asian American restaurant owners that they all need help. “We need more help from the government. Make sure to sign petitions, call your state representative, get politically active because we will need all the lobbying power we can get to make sure SMB’s receive the help they need and deserve.”
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