Businesses from Little Tokyo to Los Angeles typically relied on foot traffic before statewide shelter-in-place orders, which crippled the state’s economy. Amid the closed retail spaces, several restaurants continue to operate in the ethnic enclave, but all of the owners have said the situation is difficult.
The community of Little Tokyo, however, has been trying to find ways to revitalize their businesses.
As long-time businesses struggled with their limited online presence and pre-pandemic technological know-how, the Little Tokyo community found an ally in Go Little Tokyo, a marketing project run by the Little Tokyo Community Council with funding from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
According to Kristin Fukushima, executive director of LTCC, the metro has agreed to pay the community of Little Tokyo an allowance to help mitigate the impacts of the regional transit project, a major light rail extension slated to open in 2021 to fight against the impacts of construction and gentrification of the neighborhood after its completion. Using funds provided by the transport authority, the LTCC established Go Little Tokyo when the project began in 2015.
âI think when we started it we didn’t have a very clear idea of ââwhat Go Little Tokyo would look like or do,â Fukushima told Nichi Bei Weekly.
âWe knew that the main goal we wanted to see happen was for it to be a place to support, promote and showcase small businesses, the neighborhood as a whole andâ¦ as our entire community marketing campaign. “
Kisa Ito became Creative Director of Go Little Tokyo in mid-January.
âI think part of what we can do with Go Little Tokyo is because Kisa is that person in this situation,â Fukushima said.
Fukushima said that Ito’s growing up in the ethnic enclave and speaking bilingual English and Japanese is instrumental in her new role in helping coordinate marketing for besieged merchants.
Ito said the pandemic interrupted what would have been a busy time for her as she would have started preparations for the annual Go Little Tokyo events. Instead, she had to “slow down and look at the marketing efforts that each business has put in place for themselves and really identify (needs).” While these efforts have been helpful, many businesses still face difficult challenges.
âBusiness owners themselves are trying to fill in the gaps in their own kitchens, doing chores they usually don’t do while coming home at night and trying to figure out grant and loan applications. So it’s hard to try to find that balance for them, âIto said.
James Choi, owner of CafÃ© Dulce and a member of the LTCC board of directors, said his cafe is equipped for take-out, so his business has held up, but he is worried about who will be able to survive the financial crisis as rents fall due and unemployment soars.
âWhat I’m scared of are all the restaurants that were like getting out, getting out, but not really saving for a crazy rainy day,â Choi said. “They might not last until the reopening.”
Choi said small businesses make Little Tokyo unique, and he’s worried that large businesses that can withstand the financial fallout may be in a prime position to locate in the neighborhood if the small businesses shut down for good.
“My outlook is rather bleak, but I hope we can get over this,” Choi said, noting that he had just received a notice from his bank that he had been denied the loan he had. requested under the Paycheck Protection Program and that federal funds for it were depleted.
Choi suggested Mariko Lochridge, a small business advisor at the Little Tokyo Service Center, to check out Kouraku, a long-standing restaurant in Japanese Village Plaza.
âIt was very clear the second I walked inâ¦ they really need help,â Lochridge said.
Lochridge helped Kouraku connect and subscribe to online delivery apps. The stress on the restaurant owner was clear, however, as owner Hiroshi Yamauchi told Nichi Bei Weekly by phone that he could not be interviewed because he was hospitalized due to overwork.
Yoshinobu Maruyama, owner of Shabu Shabu House, also told Nichi Bei Weekly by phone that his business was struggling to adjust to the home shelter order because it did not have an online presence. He said he had developed a complete shabu shabu meal set to go and that part of his large number of dedicated regular customers started ordering from him about once a week.
âAt the end of the day, there is no way to make any money as the expenses keep piling up,â Maruyama said in Japanese. “(But) what can we do now? If we can make a special deal to get people to eat shabu shabu at home, we will also be able to make money and we will not suffer a total loss.
Kenji Suzuki, second-generation owner of Suehiro Cafe, said he quickly tried to catch up on social media at his Little Tokyo location, applying the knowledge he gained in his new Chinatown location to ‘it had opened last year and while training in Lochridge. As food delivery apps asked him to list his original location, he felt uncomfortable signing up ahead of the pandemic due to the lack of parking at the Little Tokyo site. Its new location, however, had parking and Suzuki tried out the delivery apps there.
âTwo-thirds is considered expenses, you know, rent and things like that. And a third would be profit. Well, when you consider a third party,â¦ going to the delivery service, you have virtually nothing left. So it’s a very difficult situation, âsaid Suzuki. âIdeally if we could have customers just making a phone call or coming to pick up their own order that would be great, but since we haven’t done any preparatory work for this type of network we now have to rely on companies. Delivery.
Still, its 10-month lead with online delivery apps helped. While its original Little Tokyo location lags with orders coming mostly from repeat customers, its new location, which had established an online presence earlier, is doing better in terms of sales.
In addition to food delivery apps, Suzuki said it is also supplementing its sales with discounted meals for the elderly. According to Lochridge, the program presented by LTCC is funded by Keiro, a senior service organization, and coordinated by Little Tokyo Service Center.
âOur first order was for 78 individual meals. And yesterday it was an order of 112, “Suzuki said.” I’m not sure exactly how many restaurants (Lochridge) has so far, but we all take turns filling their orders. And so it was. very helpful.
In addition to meals for seniors, the LTCC runs Community Feeding Community, which purchases meals from restaurants in Little Tokyo for distribution to unemployed hotel workers. Choi said a community member hoping to contribute $ 1,000 helped start the effort, which now has a total of $ 40,000 set aside for meals.
âEvery business is different. You just have to see what they have, âLochridge said of helping different businesses.
As shelter-in-place orders continue, Lochridge is now focusing on old retail businesses, which have since closed and have no way of making sales.
âI think we’re still figuring out what a retail support system looks like,â she said. “I promise we’re trying to reach everyone, it’s just like triage right now.”