Mom-and-pop diners and family-run takeout spots are especially vulnerable
to the challenges ahead set by COVID-19
Restaurant owner Eric Sansangasakun saw the novel coronavirus coming from thousands of miles away, and even then, he still wasn’t prepared for how much damage it would bring.
Like many other Asian immigrants in the United States, Sansangasakun — who co-owns Thai and sushi restaurant Gindi Thai in Burbank, California, with his brother, his sister-in-law, and a friend from Bangkok — still has loved ones back in Asia. Since January, he had been monitoring the spread of the virus across China, Taiwan, Japan, and his home country of Thailand. He was confident that the United States would know how to address the COVID-19 crisis when it came to our shores. “By the time it gets to the U.S., it should be handled in a more structural way. We would be ready to tackle that,” he remembers thinking. “That was not the case.”
Instead, like hundreds of thousands of restaurant operators across the country, Sansangasakun and his business partners suddenly had their livelihoods upended when, one by one, cities and states shut down bars and restricted restaurants to takeout and delivery only. Virtually overnight, the industry’s already notoriously thin margins shrank to a razor’s edge, leaving independent restaurants — the mom-and-pop diners, the immigrant-owned takeout spots, the family-run neighborhood mainstays — especially vulnerable, without deep pockets and access to outside funding at the ready.
Caught between the bodily risk of coronavirus exposure on one end, and on the other, the threat of losing the culmination of a lifetime of labor and sacrifice, independent restaurant owners face an impossible choice: to close or to stay open?
I. The dilemma
Several restaurant owners describe the choice between staying open or closing as a balancing act, a constantly shifting calculus that they have to assess on a weekly or even daily basis. There are multiple considerations to juggle, including, first and foremost, health risks.
“If I could choose, I would just stay at home. That’s the safest place that reduces the risk of getting the virus,” says Sansangasakun. “But I have to strike a balance between safety and the practicality of having to run the business. You can stay home for two months, and then after that, there’s no business to go back to.”
Liz Yee, who, with her family, owns and operates the mainstay Kam Hing Coffee Shop and the newer Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle in Manhattan’s Chinatown, says she’s primarily concerned with the health of her parents and sister, all of whom have underlying conditions that could put them at higher risk of becoming critically ill if they contract COVID-19. Yee is aware that if any of them get the virus, “they’re not coming back from it,” so they’ve had to take extra precautions, like letting her father do all the prep work in the basement so that he doesn’t have to interact with people, and sanitizing carefully before having contact with each other.
The family has closed Kam Hing, as well as another store in Brooklyn, so that they can focus on Tonii’s without worrying about increasing the risk of exposure. But they stopped short of being able to reduce the risk entirely by closing all of their businesses. “If we gave up all three stores … we wouldn’t be able to afford to open back up anymore,” says Yee. “This one store is trying to help sustain the other ones.”
Restaurant owners also have to weigh the risks for their employees against those workers’ need to earn a living. Shahista Jiwani, whose family temporarily shuttered one of four locations of Chinese Dhaba, their Indian-Chinese fusion restaurant in the Atlanta area, says that her parents, Nadir and Mubarak — both nearing 60 themselves — worry about their staff’s health, in addition to their own. (Per Jiwani, Chinese Dhaba will continue to offer only takeout and delivery in order “to maintain the safety of our employees, as well as the general public,” even as Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp reopened dine-in service statewide on April 27.)
“At the same time, there are a lot of people that do live paycheck to paycheck. It’s very difficult to come to a sweet spot of [generating] revenue and [keeping] the businesses afloat, while at the same time caring for our workers’ health, but also their financial well-being,” says Jiwani. “It’s really hard to have a black-and-white answer to this.”