LOS ANGELES — Suehiro Café, one of the oldest restaurants in Little Tokyo, with a half-century of service to the Japanese American community, was notified in April that it was being evicted.
The landlord reportedly wants to open a marijuana shop at the location.
Known for its extensive menu and late hours, Suehiro Cafe opened in 1972 as an American-style restaurant that incorporated Japanese comfort food — teriyaki, tempura, curry rice, udon and ramen. At a time when female entrepreneurship was rare, Suehiro was run by two women — Kenji Suzuki’s mother, Junko Suzuki, and her younger sister, Yuriko Morita Regaer, Kenji Suzuki told Nichi Bei News by telephone.
“We celebrated our 50th anniversary last year, so in total we’ve been in Little Tokyo for 51 years now; at the current location at 337 E. First St. about 35 years,” Suzuki stated. “Previously, we were a block away on Second Street. We’ve been in Little Tokyo for a very long time.”
When landlord Anthony Sperl filed the eviction notice, his attorney Dennis Block said Suehiro was being evicted for nonpayment of rent. However, Suehiro’s attorney, Clifford Jung, argued that Suehiro had consistently tried to pay rent over the past year, but the checks the cafe sent by mail hadn’t been cashed. “We’ve been paying rent, always by automatic payment through the bank for the last few years,” Suehiro’s owner Kenji Suzuki declared. Sperl’s attorney withdrew the eviction notice, but recently filed a new notice to dissolve the lease, Suzuki related.
Suehiro Café was having a difficult time during the COVID-19 pandemic, losing about 90 percent of sales, when they only had take-out meals. “We were in pretty bad shape until the government allowed us to have dine-in, and the customers started coming back. Even though we were limited to 25 percent capacity, that was still better than nothing. I felt like we were getting over this big hump … Then our landlord said that he wanted us out, in 2021,” Suzuki recalled.
During the pandemic, Japan-born Suzuki said he considered quitting everything and possibly moving back to Japan. “But we have nearly 40 employees, and they’ve been with me for a long time. It’s hard for me to tell them ‘It’s over.’ That’s why we decided to look for other locations,” the restaurateur, who will turn 61 this year, confided.
“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 was looking forward to retiring … But since I have no more savings, that’s out of the question.”
“Many stores that made up Little Tokyo’s character — the Japanese restaurants and gift stores — are moving away,” Suzuki lamented. “Now we get Subways and Starbucks coming in. Little Tokyo’s Japanese cultural influences are disappearing. Now that the oldest operating Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo is going to be leaving because the landlord wants to open up a marijuana store, a lot of community people are upset. They want to help us, but there’s no law saying the landowner can’t change things … It’s not looking good.”
Doing business in the Japanese community has been good for Sperl and his property value, Suzuki pointed out. “If it wasn’t for the Japanese people moving into that area and calling it Little Tokyo, who knows. He could have been landlord of a Skid Row property. For him to evict us makes people angry … I don’t wish anybody bad luck, but I hope he gets what he deserves — bachi (bad karma).”
Back in 2021, when tenant-landlord relations were more amicable, Suehiro Café was awarded a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help small businesses. Suzuki said he had considered giving that $40,000 grant to Sperl. “His response was, basically, he wanted me to get out … So, the only part of the money that I used was a couple of thousand dollars. The rest, we’re using at our new location. I’m glad we didn’t have to give him anything else.”
Sperl also wanted him to pay $300,000, because Suehiro was paying below-market rates, Suzuki said. “It’s obvious he can’t ask for back rent when we were paying him rent, just because he felt we were underpaying him.” He also said several people saw Sperl at a Little Tokyo Community Council meeting in 2019, trying to get an endorsement to open a marijuana shop at his property.
The landlord probably knows “property values will go up once the Metro station opens up, and he was trying to take advantage by having a marijuana store across the street from the Metro station,” Suzuki added.
After trying unsuccessfully to find a new site in Little Tokyo, Suzuki reported signing a lease for a place about five blocks away at Fourth and Main Street. “Moving in the next couple of months away from Little Tokyo, we’ll have to start trying to find new customers. That area does not have the foot traffic that Little Tokyo has.”
All Bummed Out
Irene Tsukada Simonian, who operates Bunka-Do gift shop across the street, said via telephone that Suehiro’s eviction was “very unfortunate, very sad. It’s very complicated. I know Kenji is dealing with his landlord … Every time a business leaves, it’s sad. We’ve had a lot of businesses close for different reasons. Each time it happens, we’re all bummed out.”
First Street is a culturally and historically important block of Japanese businesses, she declared. “I don’t believe that’s the right place for marijuana shops, which tend to attract crime, because they’re a cash-based business. That’s not what we want on this block … There are other places nearby that are full of pot shops. The south side of Third Street between San Pedro and Los Angeles streets is pot shop row, one storefront after another for a whole block. That’s where (Sperl and his pot shop) belong.”
The Little Tokyo merchant believes Los Angeles should limit the number of marijuana shops in certain neighborhoods, the same way the city limited bail bonds shops in the 1990s when they proliferated, and “it looked terrible. People in Little Tokyo asked the city council to not allow more bail bonds stores. Right now, there’s maybe only one or two. I would say it’s a similar situation with marijuana dispensaries.”
It’s hard to predict what Little Tokyo will look like in the future, she added. “Right now, it looks vibrant and healthy, attracting a lot of people. I don’t know if it will still be like that every day.”
Little Tokyo had approximately 20 businesses closing during the pandemic, Kristin Fukushima, managing director of the Little Tokyo Community Council, reported in an e-mail. “Although we are now in the ‘reopening’ or recovery phase of the pandemic, we have seen a handful of business closures in 2023. The last few years have been exceedingly difficult for small businesses, and the pandemic impacts come on top of years of construction and gentrification that already contributed to a challenging economic climate for J-Town mom and pop businesses.”
“It’s of course heartbreaking to lose such a treasured legacy business,” she stressed. “Suehiro is important to generations of families, community members and visitors. It has acted as a community gathering space … for decades, and the outpouring of love, support, and sadness is something we’ve seen from not just the community, but also the LA area at large and beyond. The family of Tony Sperl was historically a strong supporter of the community … It’s beyond disappointing to see the landlord turn his back on a longtime legacy business tenant and the community as a whole. We hope that Kenji and Suehiro can return.”
Little Tokyo has been undergoing gentrification since the early 2000s, Fukushima explained. “Now that the Metro Regional Connector is finally open, undoubtedly many … developers and speculators are eyeing Little Tokyo as an opportunity to capitalize on the impact of the Regional Connector on real estate and the market. While having more access to public transportation is a good thing … as a way to bring more people to the neighborhood, what is harmful is the way some property owners see this as a moment to capitalize without regard or concern for the legacy small businesses. If we see property flipping and the displacement of small businesses as part of the changes … that would of course be harmful and change the fabric of the historic neighborhood.”
There are a number of community efforts underway to continue to support, protect, promote, and preserve Little Tokyo, and “it becomes a question of to what degree can community efforts mitigate the gentrification and displacement,” LTCC’s director commented. “The community can find ways to support the neighborhood, whether they visit Little Tokyo in person or not. Small businesses can also be supported through gift cards, catering, promoting on social media, and more. LTCC and Sustainable Little Tokyo have been campaigning to implement the Sustainable Little Tokyo vision for First Street North, the Regional Connector station site, and Mangrove. Those projects will help anchor the community for future generations, and provide a more stable space for legacy businesses. Community members can join these efforts, as volunteers or donors.”