While COVID closes many Little Tokyo businesses, some are surviving

Mamoru Hanamure with his wife Dora at Mitsuru Sushi & Grill. photo by Mike Murase

LOS ANGELES — Little Tokyo businesses faced many challenges the past year as COVID-19 forced a number of small establishments to close, but some shops like Mitsuru Sushi & Grill managed to survive, and a few like Bunkado even thrived.

Mamoru Hanamure, owner of Mitsuru, revealed that he was stressed during the pandemic because of his heart problem, the business slowdown, and “a lot of stuff happened after the start of the pandemic about the time we closed for the New Year — the store was broken into and they stole the cash register. It’s very difficult right now.”

Hanamure underwent successful heart surgery in late February and has been under doctor’s orders to rest and recuperate for three months at his Chino Hills, Calif. home, while his wife Dora runs the business. “Now I’m pretty much OK, I’m taking a lot of medication and the doctor told me I cannot lift stuff,” he stated over the phone. “I hope to go back to work later this month.”

Mitsuru’s business during the pandemic “has been bad, with no in-person food service … serving food only outside, we had just 25 percent of the business we had before,” Hanamure shared. “Now, it’s a little bit better with indoor dining, right now at 50 percent. But people are not coming out that much. People are still scared.”

The cafe benefitted from Little Tokyo Community Council’s “Community Feeding Community” program that used donations to purchase food from struggling local restaurants. Those box lunches were distributed free to unemployed people, those with reduced work hours, and to senior citizens in need. “We survived because Keiro people every so often ordered bento, and Little Tokyo Service Center ordered the bento,” Hanamure said. “We’ve been making bento since then.”

He credited the Little Tokyo Service Center, as well as a friend, with helping Mitsuru use online marketing tools to attract customers. “We close early, the telephone doesn’t ring that much, the customers don’t come out, and the computer is the only one that can reach people.”

The Kagoshima-born entrepreneur, who started his Little Tokyo business in the mid-1970s, doesn’t know what the future holds for Mitsuru. “I’ll have to go back and see. I don’t think business can be as good as it used to be. I don’t know if the pandemic is going to be over this year. I think it’s going to continue.”

His wife of 30 years, Dora, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, has been running the business in his absence, with masks required of all staff and customers. “Dora is doing fine running things. She’s the only healthy one now. Dora got the vaccine, so she’ll be protected.”

“Thanks to the community and LTSC support, business is still opening and keeping things alive and going,” Dora Hanamure announced online. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Helping Small Businesses
The LTSC, in collaboration with the U.S. Small Business Administration, Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program and L.A.’s Metro, helps provide assistance to small businesses and new entrepreneurs in Little Tokyo and throughout Los Angeles County.

LTSC counselors hold free one-on-one consulting sessions, networking opportunities and hands-on workshops for small business owners and others starting business ventures. While assisting Little Tokyo and Nikkei businesses is a priority, counselors also welcome clients from other communities in the county.

Megan Teramoto, a LTSC small business counselor whose work is primarily focused on the Little Tokyo area, stated via e-mail that the mood of the individual business owners “has varied from anxiety to frustration, especially with the constant changes in health guidelines and protocols. However, the Little Tokyo business owners have powered through and figured out ways to keep their businesses alive, whether it was through having more of an online presence, collaborating with other businesses to release specialized products, purchasing equipment for outdoor dining, shifting business models to sell products online, and even learning the ins and outs of all the various grant and loan programs so they can be prepared for the next opportunity.”

However, she noted that it’s also been difficult for some to navigate the government assistance programs due to the lack of translated materials and also not being tech proficient.

“Most information was distributed in very few languages and required businesses to navigate an online system. So, at times it was a challenge for those owners that do not speak English as a first language, but … they have figured out how to keep things going. I think … we’ll have to be prepared to keep the owners updated and to also advocate for changes that will address the inequities that we saw in the distribution of various programs, like the Payment Protection Program.”

Teramoto said that there are approximately 400 businesses now operating in Little Tokyo, including offices, services and institutions. Twenty-one businesses closed in 2020; four of the 21 closed and reopened under new names but kept the same ownership; three were in operation for at least 10 years, while the rest operated for five years or less. Four more businesses closed in 2021.

On the brighter side, about 14 new businesses have opened in both 2020 and 2021 combined.

Of the 25 businesses that closed in 2020 and 2021, all were either retail or restaurants, except one that offered a service, Teramoto continued. “Nineteen were restaurants, cafes, or bars; five were retail stores. The nonprofits and institutions are still in operation so I don’t really have any numbers on those.”

Most of the businesses were happy to receive information, stated Teramoto, who has spent much of her life in and around Little Tokyo. “But when it came down to it, they really took the reins and did most of the hard work on their own. I communicated with some of the legacy businesses like Mitsuru Sushi & Grill and Rafu Bussan.”

Doing Well Now
Another beneficiary of the LTSC and LTCC assistance is Irene Tsukada Simonian, proprietor of the Bunkado gift store, who e-mailed that her business was “previously hanging on by our fingertips in 2020. It was pretty scary because I was trying to pay my employees during our COVID shutdown at the beginning, thinking that it would be a short period. Later, I found that my employees were filing for unemployment, so it took that pressure off. The PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) loan/grants were extremely helpful, and I would not know where we’d be without it.”

Bunkado closed from March to June 2020, and reopened part-time until returning to seven days a week for the holidays, she reported. “We closed again for the month of January 2021. We reopened on Feb. 1 with trepidation, but we are doing very well now.”

Things may be better because Bunkado is “vigorously promoting via social media … our 75th anniversary,” the merchant observed. “We have better business than before the pandemic, but this may (be) because of the special promotions, people are anxious to be out and about, and the stimulus checks are burning a hole in people’s pockets.”

The LTSC and LTCC not only helped struggling restaurants, but “they raised money for another program to give $2,000 grants to local non-restaurant businesses like ours,” Tsukada Simonian added. “It really felt like we were all in this as a community, and we’ll get through it as a community.”

The Bunkado president noted that the surviving establishments are “enjoying a return to business, and the slow lifting of restrictions. However, there is a sense of playing catch-up for the lost income in 2020. I am sure there are certain entities that were more impacted than retail … I think they must be having a harder time.”

Safety Seminars for Seniors
Addressing reports of anti-Asian hate crimes, LTCC member Tsukada Simonian said the community is “on alert. It is upsetting and disturbing to say the least. We have had reports of vandalism, but many of them are blamed on mentally imbalanced or drug-induced behavior rather than racism. So far, Little Tokyo has been fortunate that we have not had attacks that can clearly be blamed on anti-Asian sentiment.”

She added that LTSC and the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association conducted safety seminars aimed at keeping the community seniors and others safe from any anti-Asian attacks.

JANM Has Reopened
One institution reopening is the Japanese American National Museum, which kicked off Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with its May 1 virtual gala and auction. For more information, e-mail publicprograms@janm.org.

 

Shut down
Little Tokyo businesses that have closed include: Acai Hero, Bad Son Tacos, The Blue Whale, dot dot dot Wheel Cake, Ebisu Japanese Tavern, Fickle Wish, Golden State, JapanLA (relocated to La Brea & 3rd), Johnny Rockets, Kasih, Little Tokyo Cosmetics, Oreno Yakiniku Japanese Bar-B-Cue, Quiznos, SKD Tofu House, Tokyo Beat and California Bank & Trust

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