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The Pandemic Hit Little Tokyo Hard. We Lost These Businesses. Others Are Still Struggling

Suehiro Cafe owner Kenji Suzuki as a boy next to his mom Junko Suzuki who started the Little Tokyo restaurant 49 years ago.
Suehiro Cafe owner Kenji Suzuki as a boy next to his mom Junko Suzuki who started the Little Tokyo restaurant 49 years ago.
(Courtesy Kenji Suzuki)
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A year ago, Little Tokyo restaurateur Kenji Suzuki was nervous about a pandemic with too many unknowns. Adding to his anxiety: he's in partial remission from leukemia, meaning the cancer is still there, just less of it. So he had to run his landmark Suehiro Cafe from the relative safety of home, all the while watching boisterous 4-year-old twin daughters.

Little Tokyo Business Survives Pandemic, But at Great Personal Cost

But ever the optimist, the owner of the 1st Street mainstay embraced the heady task of keeping the business afloat.

He pared down the nearly 200-item menu. Applied for a PPP loan. Got help freshening up social media accounts to tout online ordering, available for the first time ever. Offered free delivery on orders over $25. Heck, those customers even got a free roll of toilet paper β€” to the horror of his wife.

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

Suehiro Cafe, opened 49 years ago by Junko Suzuki, is at a crossroads.
Suehiro Cafe, opened 49 years ago by Junko Suzuki, is at a crossroads.
(Courtesy of Suehiro Cafe )

Suzuki, 58, had promised to keep the restaurant open for as long as his mother was alive. Junko Suzuki started Suehiro Cafe in 1972 with her younger sister Yuriko, serving comfort food such as ramen and curries and her own favorite dish that became the 'House Special': beef, pepper and eggplant stir-fried in a miso sauce.

A year later, how are Suzuki and Suehiro Cafe faring?

When Suzuki answered the phone, it was clear the pandemic had taken a heavy toll. The energy in his voice from a year ago was gone. He sounded ragged as he described graying hairs and stress rashes. In the worst months of the pandemic, business had dropped by 90%.

"I told you that I wanted to keep the restaurant open as long as my mom was alive," he said.

"Well," he continued, "COVID took my mom in January."

COVID took my mom in January
— Kenji Suzuki

Junko Suzuki died at age 84 at her Boyle Heights nursing facility, a week after she had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Mother and son hadn't been able to see each other in-person since the pandemic struck, a particularly difficult situation because she had Alzheimer's.

Suzuki noted that he did fulfill his promise to keep Suehiro open until she died. That pressure was gone. But this was not how it was supposed to happen. And after shouldering great financial and personal loss, Suzuki questions what to do about the restaurant now.

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'Everyday someone would cry"

The customers have returned to Little Tokyo, standing in long lines for restaurants in Japanese Village Plaza and swelling to crowds on the weekends. Parking is a familiar nightmare.

It feels and looks pre-pandemic, but in kitchens and the backs of shops, battle stories abound.

Around 20 shops, restaurants and clubs have closed over the past year, according to Mariko Lochridge, a business consultant with the Little Tokyo Service Center who has assisted many owners in developing pandemic plans, including Suehiro Cafe.

"Man, it's been rough," Lochridge said. "Every day, someone would cry. I think I'm down to two, three times a week."

Among the businesses reportedly shuttered:

Other businesses remain open but hobbled. The Kouraku ramen bar, said to be Little Tokyo's first, lost its owner Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic and died in mid-September.

Yamauchi had struggled mightily to adapt to running a restaurant in COVID times. Lochridge coached Yamauchi through making his first Facebook post, announcing takeout.

Calling himself an "analog uncle," he wrote:

Long ago, I remember my father, a very grumpy old man often complaining, 'These young people, they're doing nothing!' And I have also often found myself saying the very same thing. But now, in these dark times in Little Tokyo, young people are coming to me and saying, 'We are here for you in this time, let's fight through this together.'

At the urging of volunteer business counselors, Yamauchi got set up on UberEats and arranged for new promotional photos to post online. And he finally relented and began accepting credit cards after more than three decades of only taking cash. It took a pandemic, but Yamauchi had shifted his business into the 21st century, positioning his wife and staff the best they could to weather the rest of the calamity without him there.

"The Mochi Effect"

Not all Little Tokyo businesses struggled during the pandemic, and some newcomers even decided to open their doors in the past year, including Keepers, Kiosk Boys, Madre Tierra Express, MG Tofu House and Sushi Kaneyoshi.

Brian Kito, the third-generation owner of Fugetsu-Do,  leans on the counter in his mochi shop.
Brian Kito, the third-generation owner of Fugetsu-Do, said the mochi shop had a banner year in 2020 despite the pandemic.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

Lochridge said area marijuana vendors thrived, as did another specialty store: Fugetsu-Do.

The third-generation owner of the mochi shop, Brian Kito, whose family has owned Fugestu-Do for more than a century, had tried to adapt to the pandemic by improving his website for online sales and moving his staff to part-time.

But his fears turned out to be unfounded. Fugetsu-Do enjoyed a banner year in 2020, despite the pandemic.

Kito chalks it up to a couple of videos of his mochi-making that went viral before the pandemic hit. They helped draw the attention of TikTokers who he says have become devotees of the shop, eager to showcase the mochi they purchase on the app.

"We've gone crazy on TikTok," Kito said. "And so on Saturday and Sundays, if you come to my store, you have to wait in line. And sometimes the line gets pretty long."

On those busy occasions, Kito sets up a kiosk outside the shop for customers willing to buy pre-packaged mochi.

Lochridge called Fugetsu-Do's ability to triumph through the pandemic the "mochi effect."

"People panic about their small businesses and they can only think of one business off the top of their heads," Lochridge said. "For Little Tokyo, it's Fugetsu-Do."

"Maybe We Should Just Go Back"

As Kito tries to keep up with orders and crowds, Suehiro owner Suzuki is contemplating whether to stay in the restaurant business.

While a second smaller Suehiro site in Chinatown has sustained itself with serving predominantly take-out, business at the flagship restaurant is half of what it is normally, even with dine-in available.

Suzuki still feels for Kouraku's owner Yamauchi β€” his dearest friend in Little Tokyo β€” who spent the last months before his death pained over plummeting sales and having to let go many of his employees.

"He ended up having to be the server and he was doing things that he normally didn't do before," Suzuki said.

With all the Asian-bashing going on right now, it's just like, well, if we're not going to be welcomed in this country, maybe we should just go back.
— Kenji Suzuki

Suzuki's wife is a Japanese national and thinks it's time to move the family back to her home country, especially given the surge in anti-Asian violence. Suzuki, who emigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was a young boy, sees her point.

"With all the Asian-bashing going on right now, it's just like, well, if we're not going to be welcomed in this country, maybe we should just go back," Suzuki said.

But Suzuki is torn. He said while he met his goal of keeping the restaurant open while his mom was alive, lately he's been telling himself that it's her legacy that he needs to keep going because of the years she invested.

Suzuki likes to joke that the restaurant was his mom's favorite child. But it was also her most challenging. Junko incurred debt to pay her Japanese food suppliers when she was starting out. And after the 1992 civil unrest, the restaurant struggled, as diners stayed away.

Kenji and Junko Suzuki share a meal before the pandemic.
Kenji and Junko Suzuki share a meal before the pandemic.
(Courtesy of Suehiro Cafe)

Junko did all this while raising Suzuki and his sister on her own after she and their dad divorced.

"My mother worked all day. She worked all night. So my sister and I would eat ... Swanson [frozen] dinners," said Suzuki, fondly recalling that turkey was his favorite.

Suzuki was in 6th grade when he began helping out at the restaurant by washing dishes. He knew his mom wanted him to take over the business one day. But he stayed away, remembering how hot the kitchen got. His 20s were spent in car sales. Then he hit his 30s.

"I began to see the way society was treating herβ€” a woman, a minority, trying to run a business," Suzuki said.

Because of the work she put into Suehiro, and its value to the community, any potential buyer would "have to show a little love towards it, you know? Really understand the restaurant," Suzuki said.

Or, he says, maybe he should keep managing the restaurant β€” even from Japan.

As he describes his mother, he could be talking about himself.

"She didn't know that she could quit," Suzuki said. "So that's why she just kept going."