Colorful, empty storefronts and a silent atmosphere make downtown Palo Alto more reminiscent of a ghost town than the bustling street it once was. At the center of the global coronavirus pandemic, while larger businesses face challenges such as a temporary reduction in consumer purchases or event opportunities, countless small local businesses experience these same hardships tenfold, and are in greater danger of closing permanently due to the shelter-in-place order.
The Bay Area’s local restaurants are using a variety of methods, such as offering takeout and delivery or setting up GoFundMe pages, to adapt to the statewide lockdown. Community support is especially crucial for these small shops at risk of closure.
Verde interviewed three local restaurants to gain a new perspective on how businesses are aiding such workers at this time and coping with the unique difficulties created by COVID-19.
Jing-Jing Szechwan & Hunan Gourmet, a Chinese restaurant located in downtown Palo Alto since 1986, is currently facing difficulties caused by an abrupt decline in business during California’s shelter-in-place order.
The family restaurant’s manager, Betty Tsai, opened a GoFundMe page on April 13 and has since garnered the attention of over 40 donors who have contributed a total of $5,000. These donations mainly go towards paying employees who wish to keep their jobs and maintain the business while in-person dining remains impossible in California.
“By ordering takeout from local businesses, not only can you enjoy … fresh food, but you [can] also support local businesses and help people keep their jobs.”
— Ethan Huang, Gunn High School student
In addition, Tsai organized a fundraiser called the Love and Support Package, which allows donors to provide meals from Jing-Jing for medical workers overwhelmed with the constant stream of patients with the novel coronavirus.
“My family has four generations of doctors, and I know the stress that [medical professionals] deal with daily,” Tsai’s son and Henry M. Gunn High School student Ethan Huang says. “Buying local not only aids restaurants but also helps our community in times of need, creating benefits for everyone involved.”
Currently, Jing-Jing is still open for takeout and deliveries; because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have provided restaurants with strict health guidelines, consumers can safely support local businesses by ordering their food.
“By ordering takeout from local businesses, not only can you enjoy … fresh food, but you [can] also support local businesses and help people keep their jobs,” Huang says.
Coupa Cafe’s take on solving challenges presented by the novel coronavirus ventures outside of restauranteering and into selling items rarely seen in eateries, such as groceries, gloves and toilet paper.
Co-founder Jean Paul Coupal owns and manages Coupa Cafe’s Palo Alto and Stanford locations with his mother and sister. Like many others, the restaurant’s revenue has fallen by 90% after Santa Clara County issued the shelter-in-place order; half of their locations are now closed and the café has transitioned to a reduced schedule with minimal staff.
“The saddest part is to send everybody home,” Coupal says. “We wanted to continue to provide employment to as many people as possible — it’s just very hard for staff to put food on their table if they’re not working, especially the hourly staff.”
Similarly to other local restaurants in Palo Alto, Coupa Cafe recently adapted to curbside pickup and partnered with Stanford Hospital to provide lunches for medical staff, allowing them to keep revenue up and support the restaurant’s employees.
“The saddest part is to send everybody home.”
— Jean Paul Coupal, Coupa Cafe co-founder
On April 7, Coupa Grocery launched with 90 essential items already in stock and made them available for curbside pickup. Orders began to pour in, and with the help of customer feedback, they expanded their selection to over 200 items.
“Normally you’d order tomato, you’d get it chopped in your salad or in your Panini, but now you can order that tomato and we’ll give it to you whole,” Coupal says.
The grocery and restaurant supply chains are completely different. With the shelter-in-place, there’s a huge disconnect between the two since everyone is flocking to grocery stores while food service suppliers are struggling for business.
“And so they’re sitting there with all these products and they’re ready to do anything for business, but they can’t sell it and meanwhile you have like a line outside the door at Whole Foods,” Coupal says.
So far, Coupa Grocery has been a huge success and is set to become a larger part of the restaurant’s operation during the pandemic.
“This is just what needs to be done to evolve and to survive in the coronavirus world,” Coupal says. “Sitting around and waiting is not going to get it, we need to actually get creative on how we operate, we use our spaces and just to keep everybody employed … That’s the real goal.”
Dohatsuten Ramen and Tapas, a Japanese restaurant located on San Antonio Road, Palo Alto has adapted to the new environment by upgrading their online presence, which was very limited before.
“We were so analog, old fashioned, no website, no online marketing, etc.,” owner Seiko Alba says. “I just created our website last month and have been trying to post on Facebook and Instagram.”
Expanding their digital presence has helped Dohatsuten stay afloat, allowing them to continue conducting business virtually through an online ordering and curbside pickup system, as well as using the DoorDash app to deliver food. The restaurant has also begun implementing strict safety measures, providing employees with the necessary means to protect themselves.
“[Zuckerberg] said he would like to see if there is a way we could work together to both support my business and help our community through this difficult time.”
— Seiko Alba, Dohatsuten owner
“I’m making sure that they have a safe workplace; checking body temperature before work, scheduling for sanitizing areas, providing face masks, etc,” Alba says. “Basic, but very important to follow.”
When COVID-19 began to make its way into Palo Alto before even the shelter-in-place order was instated, Dohatsuten faced many challenges, especially in regards to their sales.
“I was watching the numbers in my bank account keep dropping,” Alba says. “The sales decreased to 25%, even worse at the beginning [of shelter in place]. The labor costs exceeded the restaurant sales.”
Despite the significant decrease in sales, Alba did not lose hope. The immense support the restaurant received from both staff and customers touched her immensely and pushed her to find a way to get business back up and running as usual.
“My kitchen staff assured me, ‘Alba, you shouldn’t stay open for us.’ They made me cry,” Alba says. “Our regular customers who have never done ramen to-go came, asked us how we are doing, cheered us up and supported us. I determined, ‘I have to stay open no matter what for my employees and for our customers,’ but I didn’t know how.”
With sales going down each day, Alba had to come up with a solution quickly. This is when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, two regulars at Dohatsuten, decided to reach out to the restaurant.
“[Zuckerberg] said he would like to see if there is a way we could work together to both support my business and help our community through this difficult time,” Alba says.
Dohatsuten is among one of the seven restaurants that Zuckerberg and Chan gave $100,000 dollars to. They provided Dohatsuten with the necessary funding to start a lunch donation program that donates meals to healthcare workers and people in shelters all around the community. Thanks to their funding, Alba was able to bring back employees and get sales back up again, all while helping other essential workers in her community.
“Since then almost everyday we’ve been delivering meals to health care workers and shelters,” Alba says. “Because of the funds, I am able to bring most of my kitchen staff back to prepare donated meals.”