Order A Hot Pot — Get The Stove, Pot And Ladles For Free
This is the first dispatch in a series focusing on how restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are coping with the coronavirus.
Alan Pun spent this past Saturday delivering food orders to 11 families in the city of Eastvale in Riverside County — a more than 30-mile drive from Uniboil, the Monterey Park hot pot restaurant he co-owns.
"The customer called me last week asking if I would deliver to his home," Pun tells me over the phone in Cantonese. "I told him I would do it if he rounds up more orders in the area."
The guy came through. He even provided Pun with detailed driving instructions so he could make all the deliveries with maximum efficiency.
Along with a business partner, Pun (pronounced "poon") co-founded Uniboil in 2015. As with many restaurateurs, he has done everything his business demanded of him, from marketing to stepping in as cashier on busy weekends. But until the COVID-19 pandemic — and the subsequent orders shutting down all non-essential businesses — he had never served as his own delivery driver.
While some restaurants have been able to adapt to the brave new world of takeout and delivery, that's not possible for many establishments, like hot pot joints. They involve groups of people sitting together at tables with embedded stoves, cooking meals in bubbling pots and sharing the same ladle to dispense soup into their bowls. If anything, hot pot restaurants are uniquely unsuited to social distancing and takeout dining. Pun knows this better than anybody.
"We knew that hot pot is a dine-in food. People don't typically order it as takeout," he says.
On Sunday, March 15, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced restaurants in the city had to close their dining rooms. Pun shuttered Uniboil. But he couldn't stop worrying about the long-term options for his business — and the people working there — if he were to shut down completely.
"If we close down even temporarily, all of our workers would be gone. You wouldn't even be able to open up again when the pandemic is over," Pun says.
Almost as quickly as he'd closed, Pun changed his mind and reopened. Like many restaurateurs, he had to transform his business, top to bottom, in a matter of days. A week after after the city's takeout-only order went into effect, Uniboil reopened with a skeleton crew.
Before coronavirus, Uniboil had 15 full-time and part-time employees. It now scrapes by with four, including Pun.
The restaurant continues to serve a variety of personalized (aka single portion) hot pots featuring Asian soup bases such as Thai tom yum, Sichuan spicy and Hong Kong tomato soup but instead of presenting them to customers tableside, the restaurant offers four menu options that people can cook at home.
To spur sales, Pun has come up with few perks. Each takeout order is packed in a free, bright red, thermal insulated bag. ("It's a cheerful color," he says). The restaurant also throws in the stove, the pot, the ladles and the fuel — for free. For orders over $50, you also receive two free masks.
"I figured people are not leaving the house much these days, maybe you go out and run errands twice a week, and the two free masks could help those who need them. My intention is for everyone to be safe and healthy," Pun says.
The response has been positive, so positive that Pun ran out of stoves and bags this past weekend. Until he receives more of both, probably later this week, Uniboil is on hiatus until then. But the question remains: With everything he's giving away, is he making any money?
"No, I am losing money," Pun says with a laugh. "I can't even make rent this month. I reached out to the landlord, who isn't giving us a break on our rent."
He put in an application for the federal Disaster Loan Assistance program designed to help small businesses but hasn't yet heard back.
Pun has no idea how long he can keep Uniboil running.
"If I have to fold then I have to fold. What can I do? I won't be ok with it. I won't. But I am already luckier than so many other people, like the frontline health workers who have to battle the virus daily," Pun says.
Right now, he is, like many of us, taking things one day at a time and trying to keep the faith.
"I am just hoping that what I am doing is enough to sustain the four of us working together," Pun says. "You have to be optimistic, even during the worst of times."