Suehiro Café receives grant from Preservation Program

Tomoko and Kenji Suzuki at Suehiro Café. photo courtesy Little Tokyo Eats

LOS ANGELES — Suehiro Café, founded in 1972 in Little Tokyo, is one of 25 small restaurants nationwide that was awarded a special grant earlier this month as part of a collaborative effort of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express through their Backing Historic Small Restaurants program to help those businesses improve, upgrade, and preserve their exterior physical spaces and online businesses.

“We are honored to be one of only 25 restaurants nationwide to be chosen by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express to receive a grant supporting historic and culturally significant small restaurants owned by underrepresented groups,” Suehiro stated in a Facebook post.

“We continue to carry on the legacy of our founders, sisters Junko and Yuriko, the first female owners of a restaurant in Little Tokyo. Suehiro has been in business for 49 years and is now run by the second generation, Junko’s son, Kenji. We hope to see the third generation, Kenji’s daughters, running Suehiro someday. They are already helping out around the café.”

“Thank you to everyone who ha(s) supported us through the years, we especially appreciate your support this past year which has been exceptionally difficult for all of us,” Suehiro’s statement concluded.

Suehiro’s owner Kenji Suzuki, who received a grant of $40,000, stated in a telephone interview that his family plans to give the grant money to Anthony Sperl, owner of the building where Suehiro has been located since the mid-1980s. “We don’t own the building, so it’s going to be a big plus for my landlord, whose family has owned the building for 140 years, since it was a horse stable back in the 1880s.”

The restaurant serves Japanese comfort foods, like teriyaki, tenpura, curry rice, and udon and ramen. When the pandemic hit, Suzuki’s Japan-born wife, Tomoko, took over operating the cafe. “She didn’t want me going out and catching COVID,” Suzuki, whose leukemia is in remission, explained. “So, she’s been running the restaurant. She knows what to do. She’s been working there a while.”

Speaking from his home on the north side of Los Angeles, Suzuki disclosed that business is “not good, in fact it’s terrible. I think most of the restaurants have suffered greatly. I know that a lot of my friends’ restaurants have closed down or have been sold or have gone out of business. One of my friends, the owner of Kouraku (Hiroshi Yamauchi), died. It’s been a very sad year.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Suehiro “probably lost about 90 percent of its business, and even now, it’s still about 50 percent compared to the previous years,” Suzuki shared. “It’s not great, but at 50 percent and reduced staff, I think we’ll be able to get by as long as we don’t go into another full lockdown. We probably have about 15 people on staff. Before the pandemic, we had about 45 at our location in Little Tokyo that received the grant (Suehiro has a second location in Chinatown).”

Japan-born Suzuki, who came to the L.A. when he was seven and has 6-year-old twin daughters, announced, “My health is fine. I’ve got my COVID shots so I feel much more confident about surviving this.”

He doesn’t have much planned for moving forward after the pandemic, “other than making sure that we have enough money to get by each month,” Suzuki revealed. “It’s a little unnerving because … I had to cash in my retirement funds, I had to get loans and refinance my house just to keep the business going … It’s kind of hard to think about what’s going to happen in the future. We’re just concentrating on trying to build up our reserves.”

Suehiro is now allowed to have indoor dining, “but we’re only allowed to have a certain number of people,” Suzuki said. “They started us off with 25 percent of capacity and eight-foot table distancing. Now they’re allowing us 50 percent of capacity, but… because we still have to maintain the eight-foot distance between tables … we can probably let in a maximum of about 20 customers.”

The restaurateur, who will turn 59 this year, confided, “To tell you the truth, when the pandemic first started, I felt a little more hopeful about the future. But after going through a whole year of this craziness, I’m looking forward to retiring … But since I have no more savings, that’s out of the question now. My next goal is to do something that’s going to help me to spend more time with my kids and my family.”

Other Grant Awardees
Two other Japanese restaurants, Maneki Restaurant (founded in 1904) in Seattle and Nakato Restaurant (started in 1972) in Atlanta, were also among 25 historic and culturally significant American restaurants to receive the grant, which gives preference to underrepresented groups disproportionately impacted by the pandemic — including people of color and women.

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