Even though some business—such as pizza delivery restaurants—need more help to keep up with demand, many local restaurant owners are doing whatever they can day-to-day to survive. Most restaurants operate on narrow profit margins and will likely run out of money within a few weeks. Owners try to discern between bad and worse options: Some are reopening sporadically. Some are cooking solo. Some have closed indefinitely because takeout revenue barely pays for overhead costs. Many owners are taking no pay so they can pay their staff.
The National Restaurant Association estimates that half the restaurants across the country are already completely closed. Economists predict that the coronavirus shutdown will decimate millions of jobs and ravage the local dining landscape. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio foresees that up to 80 percent of restaurants won’t reopen even after the pandemic blows over. People are trying to support their favorite eateries by purchasing gift certificates and ordering takeout or delivery, but owners wonder how long that generosity can last before their customers worry about their own bills as the economy heads toward recession.
“This is the biggest hit we’ve ever faced,” said Benny Yun, owner of Yang Chow, an iconic Chinese-American restaurant that opened in 1977 in L.A.’s Chinatown: “Even the 2008 recession wasn’t this bad.” For decades, crowds lined up to try Yang Chow’s famed “Slippery Shrimp,” a deep-fried shrimp treat drenched in goopy, sticky-sweet sauce.
Yun has been working at his family-owned restaurants since he was 17. Longtime customers know him: They even watched him slim down and plump up and slim down again during his teenage years. But even those loyal customers are too scared to leave their homes or order takeout. Even before the mayor’s emergency order, the number of visitors to Chinatown had dropped precipitously, and some employees volunteered to take two-week vacations. Now Chow has had to lay off most of them. Some have been working at Yang Chow for decades. “If this goes on for months, I’ll have to take it out of my own savings,” Yun said. “That’s my last option.
That night on March 15 when the mayor ordered restaurants to shut down dine-in services, neither Manzke nor his wife slept much. By early morning, Margarita had made a decision. She went into her restaurant’s kitchen and baked her usual assortment of pastries—bombolinis, meaty hand pies, muffins, fruit-jeweled Danishes. She figured, “Everyone still has to eat somewhere.” After a weekend of panic-hoarding, most grocery stores were out of bread, so why not provide Angelenos with an alternative option? They spread the word on social media, lifted the takeout window, and passed pastries, bread, coffee, and orange juice through the window until everything was sold out that day. That comforted the Manzkes somewhat, but baked goods would not be enough to keep them afloat.
That day, the husband-and-wife team sat down to calculate all their expenses through May. It didn’t look good: If the shutdown lasted for several months, their restaurant could sink half-a-million dollars in debt. They had to do something. The next morning, the Manzkes called all their managers into the restaurant for a meeting and asked who felt comfortable working. Some chose to stay home. Some said they live paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford not to work. So the next day, the Manzkes set up a new schedule without knowing how they’d pay their staff, developed a different menu without knowing what customers wanted, and opened for takeout and deliveries without knowing whether the new business model would even pay for their overhead costs.
When I talked to Manzke over the phone, it had been less than two weeks since the big change. He was at home, still recovering from his injuries and watching his two young kids whose schools had closed, while his wife manned the restaurant.
Each day, they learn by trial and error: They decided to shut down the takeout window, since people were leaning in to grab their order—not good social distancing. They partnered with GrubHub and Postmates. They learned customers craved hearty comfort food like roast chicken and potatoes, not exotic cuisines. Customers loved their fresh-baked crusty breads. They realized their farmers were suffering too, so they opened a mini-market selling produce straight from the farms. They’re slowly adding more staff and have discussed temporarily cutting managers’ pay and reimbursing them when business recovers. They are still paying medical insurance for all 170 of their employees but aren’t sure how much longer they can. Most of their staff are currently seeking unemployment benefits.
The Manzkes shoulder many people’s livelihoods: “The goal is not to make a profit right now. It’s to take care of my people—that’s the priority.” Some days he wakes up wondering if he should close his restaurant to keep his family and staff safe. Other days he wakes up knowing he needs to keep it open so he can at least pay for his employees’ health insurance—and feed his own family: “The thing is, I don’t really know what will happen. It makes this extremely difficult. I’m anxious, scared, stressed—everything. I can’t wait for this to be over.”
For now, restaurant owners tell me they’re taking it day by day and hoping for the best, even as they nervously await the possibility of the mayor shutting down even takeout and delivery service options. Leni Kumala, owner of Simpang Asia, an Indonesian eatery and mini-market in West L.A., said she considers herself “blessed” that her business can still stay semi-open, even though she’s lost a lot of revenue. Almost all the businesses around her have closed by mandate—a nail salon, a dry cleaner, a fitness center, a tattoo shop, a game store.
Despite promises from local and national leaders to help out small businesses—and Congress passing the CARES Act last week—exactly what sort of help restaurants will get is unclear. Preparing for the worst, Kumala called her insurance agent but found out that her insurance doesn’t cover pandemics. Nevertheless, she tries to stay positive each day: “There’s nothing we can do, just worrying. This situation will stay here for the next six months or so, so let’s put that energy into finding something to survive this.”
And that’s all Yuko Kitchen owner Yuko Watanabe is doing right now: Surviving. After laying off most of her staff, she now scrambles between her three Asian-fusion restaurants, doing the work of five employees. Every morning, she’s at the kitchen at 4 a.m. by herself to bake all the cookies and bars for her restaurants. At 9:30 a.m., she’s dashing out to the wholesale market in downtown L.A. to stock up on fresh produce, meat, and dairy. Because many markets are now closed due to the virus, she has to visit several before she finds kale and broccoli that are not wilting. She drops off the supplies at each restaurant, then spends the rest of the day washing dishes, taking orders, chopping and dicing vegetables, stirring soup, and managing the few remaining employees she has. Late afternoon, she pops home for 30 minutes so she can walk her dog, then she’s back to work until she crashes into bed at 10 p.m.