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This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with the owner of a small Chinese restaurant in Oakland, California’s Chinatown. The conversation has been transcribed, condensed, and edited for clarity by Aaron Mak.
I’ve owned this restaurant since 2002, so it’s been about 18 years. The food is mostly to-go. There’s a place to sit and eat, but it’s not really a big restaurant. The coronavirus has certainly affected business. I think there’s been an almost 50 percent loss, because we are in the Chinatown area that’s really been hit. People don’t really want to come in because they think Chinese people are carrying it, since the virus is from China. In this kind of situation, human behavior is to find someone to blame, so they blame the Chinese. It’s not just a Chinese problem; it’s a world problem. Some people might want to target Chinese people no matter what.
Probably a month and a half ago things were going OK, but since it’s spread more to America people don’t want to come. During Lunar New Year I had 25 percent less business compared with last year. In February it rapidly got worse. It should be safe for people to come to my restaurant. It’s mostly to-go, so people should be OK since there are not too many people sitting together. They might be OK bringing it home and eating it. For some other restaurants that have dim sum and stuff, and where people are gathering together, that’s a higher risk of spreading the coronavirus.
I’m pretty worried. I still have some cash reserved to handle things, but after six months I might have to let an employee go and work longer hours myself. I don’t know how to improve business. I’ve been trying to increase deliveries. I’ve been giving 80 percent discounts to try to sell out all of the food at the end of the day. It worked OK at the beginning, but nowadays there just aren’t enough people coming in. With a situation like this, no matter how big the discount, they’re not coming in because it’s not about the money. They don’t want coupons; they’re scared. They’re just getting their food from Costco and staying in. I cut all the expenses I could. I’ve been cutting hours and closing early and trying to find better deals when I shop for ingredients. I buy less. The wholesalers are oversupplied right now—they keep calling me to see if I want anything. I might have my employees take turns having shorter hours too. We’ll all sacrifice a little bit.
Since you can’t talk to the people who don’t come in, you don’t know what their reason is. But when I talk to the customers who come back, they are more worried. Some of them even wear masks to the restaurant. It’s mostly local people who live a few blocks away who come now, but people aren’t coming from other areas. We’re sanitizing every four hours now. Since there’s been a slowdown, I’m asking my employees to clean more often and we wash our hands a lot more. It won’t help convince people to come in, but we just want to do our best.
If it gets worse, unless there’s a short-term government loan or something, I’m considering closing down and then maybe reopening when it gets better. If it gets to the point where I can’t pay my rent and my reserve is out, I’ll close. Hopefully it won’t happen, but I’m lucky I’m not just dependent on my own income. I have a wife who works, so even if I can’t bring any cash home to my family, my wife can temporarily handle it.
I’ve heard some big restaurants in Chinatown have been affected. There are just fewer people walking around in the street, so fewer people go in. A friend of mine, his business is losing 60 percent. He employs probably like 70 people, but at night they only have two or three tables. The expense for rent and labor is probably $300,000 per month, so there’s no way they can survive another three months. They were going to host a lot of parties, for like 600 people, but then they all delayed or canceled. They depend on those parties to make money. He actually had to lay off more than 12 people just this week. The new restaurants are also having a hard time since they don’t have a lot of cash reserved.
Based on what I know, Chinatown has been hit the most. There’s been a slowdown for grocery stores too. Even the barbershop—I just talked to them. And in the past couple of weeks even places in suburban areas are pretty affected. A lot of people aren’t going into restaurants, especially Chinese restaurants. Some other kinds of restaurants are doing OK, but I think since the news is always reporting about it, more people are staying home. I still go out to Chinese restaurants since I have more time on my hands now. A lot of restaurants are really empty. You can’t just stay at home and do nothing.
I’m hopeful. You have to be positive and try your best.
For more on the new coronavirus and its impact, listen to a clip from this week’s Political Gabfest.