By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
On July 23, 2020, a GoFundMe page seeking support for the historic Japanese restaurant Maneki went live. The simple message read, “Our beloved Maneki Restaurant in the heart of Japan Town has been an anchor of the community for generations. During this unprecedented Seattle chapter, we are extending an invitation to those that are able to support us through these challenging times. We are so accustomed to having our reservations and Tatami rooms filled to capacity! It is so unusual for us to not be part of your celebrations and conversations. We miss you all.”
Over the next few days, loyal Maneki patrons wholeheartedly supported the restaurant with their generous donations, including $1,000 from Shiro Kashiba, the chef of Sushi Kashiba. The page has raised over $44,000, more than double the amount it had set out to collect.
However, comments posted on the page struck a chord with Nakayama, who spoke before starting to prepare orders coming in on Sunday evening.
“You can’t plan for a situation like this in which things keep changing. We’re hanging in and just waiting — for a vaccine or a cure,” Nakayama said.
The idea to use the internet and GoFundMe came from “one of the young kids” at her restaurant in the wake of limited online orders and changing regulations. Nakayama offers a gracious thank you to all her supporters. She even sent out emails thanking each of them for their donations. She’ll be sticking to the takeout and delivery methods.
Even before the virus made its way to Seattle and its surrounding cities, businesses in the International District (ID) were adversely affected due to misinformation. Regulations limiting indoor dining and abiding by health guidelines has meant lost jobs, lost incomes, and uncertainty. While it has been difficult, several businesses have cooked up a creative storm to keep their doors open and customers coming back for more.
Take Phở Bắc for instance. When Gov. Jay Inslee ordered restaurants to stop dine-in services in March, Phở Bắc was in the same boat as other restaurants in the ID. Yenvy Pham and her siblings, Khoa and Quynh-Vy, whose parents opened the store in Little Saigon in 1982, have turned into a creative collective to find novel ways to help their family business thrive.
“First, we thought of it as something new and were able to adjust with online orders and takeout. Now, it has become the new normal,” Pham said.
The first offering from the restaurant was the ‘Phokit Family Meals’ in two variations with 25% discounts for takeout only. They still offer the bucket with online ordering, but in addition they have Pho Now and Pho Later which offers customers a PhoCup that can be had on-the-go and the latter that packages broth, fresh noodles, and toppings separately with heating and eating instructions.
The siblings also found a novel way to deliver food to customers—the Pho Mobile.
“My brother and I bought the vehicle three years ago at an auction with the idea to use it for festivals and Little Saigon events. We realized we had to really up our game for out-of-restaurant dining, so he revamped the Pho Mobile,” Pham said.
When outdoor seating was allowed by the county, Phở Bắc converted their parking lot into an outdoor seating area.
“We usually participate in Little Saigon events and had used the parking lot before. We thought why not do it again. My siblings and I brainstormed about the theme and what we should do over dinner,” Pham said.
The next day, she applied for a permit to serve alcohol outside, a month later they were approved, and that’s the story behind New Wave Summers that ran every weekend from the end of August to the end of September.
“City officials were really efficient and fast,” Pham said. “To do it right with the barriers would have cost me $4,000. I didn’t have that kind of money,” she said.
Pham then connected with the community, local businesses, and the city.
“Ching Chan, who works with the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, saw barriers that were donated by the Boy Scouts in their storeroom and loaned them to us,” she said. With help from friends at Mangosteen Boba Bar Seattle and Crawfish King, they collectively had enough tables and chairs.
Phở Bắc has also returned the favor. Their Phokits came with Filipino-inspired cheesecakes from Hood Famous Bakeshop. Mangosteen, which doesn’t have its own brick-and-mortar, leased the closed ‘boat’ space at the restaurant and chef Thai Ha’s smoker was fired up to create the smoked brisket Pho that’s still on their menu.
As Seattle’s rain dampens their outdoor setting, Pham said, “We opened up the second part of our restaurant and are currently building dividers. We are maxed out at 50% in-door seating, but nobody likes to eat outdoors in the rain.”
For Carol Xie of Purple Dot, things haven’t changed much since May.
“We are still depending on takeout and delivery. We’re evaluating if opening up for dine-in is a good option now as takeout and delivery is slowing down,” Xie said.
Xie, who operates as a one-woman marketing team to help her family business, began offering gift certificates through an organization called Intentionalist, but stopped when it got too much for her to manage.
“We do have our ongoing social media special. If a customer mentions they follow us on social media, they get an extra 10% off their order,” she said.
Crawfish King, on the other hand, had set itself up with online delivery and takeout a few years ago.
“We didn’t have to go through the two or three week transition to get on the platform. A lot of our regular customers just learned to order online,” Torrey Le said.
While Le hasn’t had to lay off his kitchen staff, he had to furlough some of his serving staff.
“My main concern was how they would be able to keep up with mortgages and rent while we didn’t have enough work for them during the takeout phase,” Le said.
His wife and he worked the front for more than a month, not knowing where the situation would lead them. The restaurant that serves Viet-Cajun food improvised by introducing their patrons to home boil kits.
“We offer a home boil kit, complete with the ingredients, sauces, pot, tablecloth, and cooking instructions,” Le said.
He admits that they didn’t know what to expect and definitely didn’t think they would sell out. “We organized only 100 home boil kits and sold out within 24 hours,” Le said, adding that he was left scrambling to find more pots. Now, the home boil is a permanent fixture on their menu.
“When we realized our numbers balanced out, I decided to change protocol in the restaurant with temperature taking and installing barriers. I asked my serving staff to come back once a week provided they wanted to, so we can transition seamlessly through the pandemic,” Le said.
While Crawfish King played around with outdoor dining, Le said it’s not feasible.
“A lot of our street parking has been given to International Community Health Services for drive-through testing and I didn’t want to take away from that,” he said. The restaurant still does indoor dining, contact tracing by automatically making people join the waitlist, and has started informing patrons of a 20% gratuity that goes directly to support their staff.
“Indoor dining has been busy for us and customers seem comfortable. We have a lot of barriers, we put our dining tables on the perimeter of the restaurant so a customer can get up to use the restroom without passing another table,” Le said.
With 11 years of business behind them, Le is grateful to customers that came in to support them. “Some come monthly, others weekly, and some came in daily even if it was to order just one item to make sure that we are still here,” he said.
All he asks of people is to go out and support as many small businesses as they can. “It’s more for the workers of small businesses who don’t make as much or have the perks that those who work in larger corporations do,” he said.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.