By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle’s $15 minimum wage is expected to impact many small businesses. However, challenges for the International District (ID) businesses go beyond the wage issue.
The ID restaurants once known for great food with low prices are no longer enough to appeal to new customers. On many fronts, the businesses are facing unexpected obstacles, including changing their image, getting a fair share of the market, and making the ID a tourist destination.
The assumption is if the owners are willing to pay higher wages, they would be able to select and retain quality workers. It didn’t turn out that way. The city’s changing laws and requirements to do business are hard for immigrant businesses. Their language and cultural barriers make it difficult to negotiate good rents, rates and programs when they couldn’t communicate in English. The lack of police presence is a constant battle for ID businesses to tackle public safety on their own. The access to capital is another hurdle for immigrants.
Taylor Hoang, owner of Pho Cyclo Café and founder of Ethnic Business Coalition, said at a panel, “We are experiencing gentrification and decline for small businesses. Less people are coming down to eat due to public safety.”
Ethnic restaurants have been crying out loud that they couldn’t get workers. Richard Chang, owner of Kau Kau Restaurant, said he has a tough time finding employees. He has been placing classified ads in the Seattle Chinese Post for months, but still Kau Kau couldn’t find enough workers after his staff retired or quit. He is reaching out to other ethnic groups who are willing to work for less than $15 dollars an hour.
Chang said he is competing with other, high-paid industries recruiting workers in construction, growing marijuana, and massage. For the past year, the Chinatown ID has opened five more massage parlors between the intersection of Maynard Avenue S. and S. Jackson Street, not to mention the existing massage spots all the way up to 12th Avenue S. Chang also said, “If your income is higher than $17,000, you won’t be qualified for Obamacare. Why bother to work if you lose health care benefits?”
The labor shortage issue is a global issue, Chang said. I-Muin Liu, owner of Eastern Café, said many Asian businesses suffer just because they are immigrants. “They suffer from stereotypes. I don’t get people calling back because of my name (it sounds foreign).” Ethnic businesses can get rejected instantly on the phone just because of their names and accent.
The lack of English skills is another challenge. Take recycling for instance—many restaurant owners don’t know that compost recycling saves the owners a lot of money, Liu said.
“The laws keep changing in the city [in regard to] City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, the water and fire department,” Liu said. “It’s hard for immigrant businesses to keep up. They don’t realize that one city department makes one change, another department also makes other changes.”
Liu’s challenge also goes deeper. He is fighting public perceptions that the Chinatown/ID is only a place to eat. It is a meeting place for people who want to meet friends without spending a lot of money, he said.
“Some people don’t want to have dinners, they just want a place for conversations and meeting friends,” said Liu, “they want something quick and casual, but not [to] rush into.” He created Eastern Café and Oasia Tea Zone as living rooms for the community just to talk and greet, he added.
For sure, ID businesses haven’t done enough marketing. Charlie Martin, one of the few non-ethnic ID business owners who runs the Seattle Pinball Museum, has a different concept about marketing.
He said businesses shouldn’t target those who are here. “We need new customers in the ID. We need to get tourists to shop, eat and play in the ID.” There are 20 million visitors going to Pike Place Market and tons of tourists from the cruises. Why can’t the ID get some of those visitors? he asked.
There are also more than 60,000 fans going to games at the Safeco and CenturyLink fields. How come ID businesses received less than .01 percent of visitors from those games?
Wayne Lau, executive director of Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, said many ethnic businesses don’t have access to capital. “Although the banking industry has worked hard to ensure ethnic minority businesses have access to finance, this message has not effectively been communicated.”
Lau has worked with many immigrant entrepreneurs. His experience is that “most struggle to amass enough capital to bring into the start-up phase of the business.”
Many of the businesses the Northwest Asian Weekly interviewed have creative solutions to counter their adversities. Martin, who opened the Seattle Pinball Museum in 2010, has experimented with the lure of events. “If people don’t come to your business, you have to take your business to where the people are.”
He moves his heavy pinball machines to Hing Hay Park to tie in with Chinatown events. He and his wife, Cindy, move the machines themselves and load them on a van to where events are held, including the Seattle Center and Museums. He also has invited celebrities and their friends to come to his business to have “game night” private parties.
Martin recommended that ID businesses should advertise in tourist magazines so they can get a discount advertising rate.
To combat the $15-minimum-wage burden on businesses, Hoang founded Ethnic Business Coalition, with a grant from the City of Seattle, to produce their own online videos for YouTube, websites, and hiring food bloggers to help market ethnic businesses in Seattle. Hoang is reaching out to the Seahawks to promote ID businesses during its games.
Some ethnic businesses solve their labor shortage problems by working in the kitchen themselves and hiring staff to wait on customers. “It’s easier to retain waited staff than kitchen staff because waiters make more money and their work is not as hard as the kitchen. So my husband and I work in the kitchen instead,” said one owner. (end)