Little Tokyo Fights To Preserve Its Soul In Face of Coronavirus

Brian Kito's family confectionary Fugetsu-Do is facing its biggest test yet with the coronavirus crisis. (Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Assistance)

Famed mochi shop Fugetsu-Do has weathered every crisis to hit Little Tokyo over the last 100 years — from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, the 1992 riots to the waves of redevelopment.

World War II was the toughest. The owners were incarcerated along with other Japanese Americans and had to close the shop the years they were in camp.

Fugetsu Do, the First Street confectionary owned by the Kito family, has been making sweets since 1903. (Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Assistance)

Now COVID-19 is here. And it feels like the biggest test yet to Brian Kito, the shop's third-generation owner.

"Because of the physical threat, it's got to be the worst," Kito said.

Small businesses are in trouble now that the whole state is under a stay-at-home order to slow the pandemic. But there's special worry in an ethnic enclave like Little Tokyo where boutiques, bars and eateries are critical to its identity, and the reason why its five city blocks have long hummed late into the night even as much of L.A. sleeps.

The thought of iconic shops like Fugetsu-Do faltering has Little Tokyo boosters like Mariko Lochridge racing to help them drum up new customers. A business adviser for the Little Tokyo Service Center, Lochridge said mom 'n pops make the neighborhood feel homey, even to those who don't live there.

Fugetsu-Do is trying to stay open and sell specialty mochi and other sweets. (Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Assistance)

"My concern right now in this triage moment is making sure there's a Little Tokyo for people to go back home to," Lochridge said. "Even if everything else in their life is not going very well."

A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER WITH YOUR CURRY

Working with leaders of Go Little Tokyo and the Little Tokyo Community Council, Lochridge has created a running list of still-open restaurants that she's sharing widely through social media.

Having active Facebook and Instagram pages are great avenues to luring new customers, according to Lochridge. But it's not the only way to pivot in the coronavirus era.

She cites the example of the popular Shabu Shabu House in the Japanese Village Plaza, across the street from Fugetsu-Do.

Before stay-at-home orders went into place, Shabu Shabu was usually packed, with lines out the door. (Little Tokyo Business Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Assistance)

Japanese hot pot is a dine-in experience, so things seemed ominous when Mayor Eric Garcetti last week restricted restaurants to take-out and delivery. But Shabu Shabu House adapted to the new rules by assembling home cooking kits containing paper-thin meats and bottles of house-made ponzu and sesame sauces.

"I believe the other night they sold out," Lochridge said.

Shabu Shabu House has embraced take-out options since dining out was barred starting last week. (Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Assistance)

Across the way on First Street at Suehiro Cafe, Kenji Suzuki is on a self-admittedly steep learning curve.

Suzuki said when he took over about 20 years ago, the business was on cruise control.

His mother opened the cafe with her sister nearly fifty years ago. The pair built a menu of 200 items — sushi, curries, ramens — and a huge customer base.

Kenji Suzuki's mother Junko (middle) passed the Suehiro Cafe and its 200-item menu to him. (Courtesy of Kenji Suzuki)

"Everything was already done for me," Suzuki said. "I just had to make sure I didn't burn the place down."

But Suzuki can't rely anymore on regulars or the steady stream of walk-ins. So last week, with Lochridge's help, he got his restaurant on ChowNow and Facebook. He made two of his servers into delivery people. He cut down menu offerings by 75 percent, and even came up with a special deal.

"For any order over $25, ask for the toilet paper deal," Suzuki said, with a laugh. "We've been giving (a roll) to everybody even if they didn't know about it."

Suzuki said he can't consult his mother about the restaurant these days. She's 83 and has dementia. But he's vowed to keep the business afloat, even through the coronavirus crisis.

"There's an old Japanese saying that businesses are usually run into the ground by the second generation," Suzuki said. "I want to make sure that doesn't happen on my watch."

A new takeout menu outside Shabu Shabu House. (Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Assistance)

Over at Fugetsu-Do, Brian Kito is also wading into the unknown waters of social media.

He's enlisted his 19-year-old son, now at home taking college classes remotely because of the pandemic, to revive the shop's dormant pages on Facebook and Instagram. A volunteer is in the middle of updating the shop's website.

Meanwhile, Kito has scaled down his production of sweets by 60%. He's kept his 10 employees by shifting all of them to part-time shifts but he wonders how much longer before he has to close temporarily.

Maybe, he said, the best thing he can do now is to patronize other Little Tokyo businesses.

Cafe Dulce now prominently displays its menus on an outdoor table.(Little Tokyo Service Center Small Business Assistance)

Every night his family orders take-out from a neighborhood restaurant. It creates a special feeling that he said is best described by the Japanese word kimochi.

"It's not charity but it's support," Kito said. "You know, that's the old Little Tokyo way."