Little Tokyo community strategizes ways to stay in business


Businesses in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo typically relied on foot traffic prior to the statewide shelter-in-place orders, which brought the state’s economy to a halt. Amid the shuttered retail spaces, several restaurants continue to operate in the ethnic enclave, but all proprietors have said the situation is difficult.

SUPPORTING COMMUNITY AND BUSINESS ­— Employees at Suehiro Restaurant prepare meals for seniors purchased through Little Tokyo Eats. photo by Mariko Lochridge

Little Tokyo’s community, however, has tried to find ways to reinvigorate its businesses.

As longtime businesses struggled due to their limited online presence and tech savvy prior to the pandemic, the Little Tokyo community found an ally in Go Little Tokyo, a marketing project managed by the Little Tokyo Community Council with funding from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

According to Kristin Fukushima, managing director of the LTCC, the Metro agreed to pay the Little Tokyo community a stipend to help mitigate impacts from the Regional Connector Transit Project, a major light rail extension planned to open in 2021 to combat construction impacts and the presumed gentrification of the neighborhood after its completion. From the fund paid out by the transit authority, the LTCC created Go Little Tokyo as the project broke ground in 2015.

“I think when we started it, we didn’t have a really clear idea of what Go Little Tokyo would look like or do,” Fukushima told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

“We knew the main goal that we wanted to see happen is that it would be a place to support and promote and highlight small businesses, the neighborhood as a whole and … as our comprehensive community marketing campaign.”

Kisa Ito became creative director for Go Little Tokyo in mid-January.

“I think that what we’re able to do with Go Little Tokyo is in part only because Kisa is that person in that situation,” Fukushima said.
Fukushima said Ito’s background of growing up in the ethnic enclave and her being a bilingual speaker of both English and Japanese are instrumental in her new role helping to coordinate marketing for the beleaguered merchants.

Ito said the pandemic paused what would have been a busy time for her, as she would have been starting preparations for Go Little Tokyo’s annual events. Instead, she has had to “slow down and look at the marketing efforts that each business has in place for themselves and really identifying (needs).” Although these efforts have been helpful, many businesses still face tough challenges.

“The business owners themselves are trying to fill in gaps in their own kitchen, doing work they don’t typically do while going home at night and trying to figure out grant and loan applications. So it’s tough trying to find that balance for them,” Ito said.

James Choi, owner of Cafe Dulce and a LTCC board member, said his cafe is equipped for takeout, so his business has held up, but he is concerned about who will be able to survive the financial turmoil as rents come due and unemployment soars.

“What I’m afraid of is all the restaurants that were like doing OK, making it by, but not really saving up for a crazy rainy day,” Choi said. “They might not last through reopening.”

Choi said small businesses make Little Tokyo unique, and he fears larger corporations who can withstand the financial fallout may be in a prime position to move in on the neighborhood if smaller businesses shutter permanently.

“My outlook is kind of bleak, but hopefully we can get through this,” Choi said, noting he had just received a notice from his bank that he was denied the loan he applied for through the Paycheck Protection Program and that the federal funds for it had run out.

Choi suggested that Mariko Lochridge, small business counselor at the Little Tokyo Service Center, check on Kouraku, a longtime restaurant located in the Japanese Village Plaza.

“It was very clear the second I walked in … they really need help,” Lochridge said.

Lochridge helped Kouraku get online and subscribed to online delivery apps. The stress the restaurant’s owner felt, however, was clear, as owner Hiroshi Yamauchi told the Nichi Bei Weekly by phone he was unable to be interviewed because he had been hospitalized due to overwork.

Yoshinobu Maruyama, owner of Shabu Shabu House, also told the Nichi Bei Weekly over the phone that his business faced challenges adjusting to the shelter-at-home order because he lacked an online presence. He said he developed a full shabu shabu meal set for takeout and a portion of his large pool of dedicated regular customers have started to order from him once a week or so.

“At the end of the day, there’s no way to make money while expenses continue to rack up,” Maruyama said in Japanese. “(But) what can we do right now? If we can do a special deal to get people to eat shabu shabu at home, then we can also make some money and then we won’t 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 knowledge he gained from his new Chinatown location he opened last year and coaching from Lochridge. While food delivery apps asked him to list his original location, he felt uneasy signing on prior to the pandemic due to a lack of parking at the Little Tokyo location. His new location, however, had parking and Suzuki tried the delivery apps there.

“Two-thirds is considered cost expenses, you know, rent and things like that. And one-third would be profit. Well, when you consider one-third, … is going to the delivery service, you’re basically left with nothing. So it’s a real tough situation,” Suzuki said. “Ideally, if we could have customers just making a phone call or coming in to pick up their own order, that would be great, but since we didn’t do any groundwork for that sort of networking, right now we have to rely on the delivery companies.”

Still, his 10-month headstart with online delivery apps has helped. While his original location in Little Tokyo lags behind with orders mostly coming from regular customers, his new location, which had established an online presence earlier, is doing better, sales wise.

In addition to food delivery apps, Suzuki said he was also supplementing his sales with discounted meals to seniors. According to Lochridge, the program pitched by LTCC is funded by Keiro, a senior service organization, and coordinated by Little Tokyo Service Center.

“Our first order was for 78 individual meals. And yesterday was an order for 112,” Suzuki said. “I’m not exactly sure how many restaurants (Lochridge) has so far, but we’re all kind of taking turns fulfilling their orders. And so that’s been a very big help.”

In addition to the senior meals, the LTCC runs Community Feeding Community, which buys meals from Little Tokyo restaurants to distribute to unemployed hospitality workers. Choi said a community member hoping to contribute $1,000 helped kickstart the effort, which now has a total of $40,000 reserved for meals.

“Every business is different. You just kind of have to see what they have,” Lochridge said of helping the various businesses.

As the shelter-in-place orders continue, Lochridge now sets her sights on retail legacy businesses, which have since shuttered and have no way to make any sales.

“I think we’re still figuring out like what a support system looks like for the retail businesses,” she said. “I promise we’re trying to get to everyone, just it’s like triage right now.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *