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Food

If you own a restaurant right now, what do you do?

Hip Hot in Monterey Park is open but, like many restaurants now, is at a crossroads.
Hip Hot in Monterey Park is open but, like many restaurants now, is at a crossroads.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Tiantian Qiu, who owns three restaurants in Los Angeles, is in a bind. She pays more than $30,000 in monthly rent to commercial real estate landlords. And the coronavirus pandemic has caused her business to plummet.

At Hip Hot in Monterey Park, she estimates that revenue was down 75% in February compared with the same month last year. At Joy Kitchen on Friday, her Arcadia restaurant served just three diners the entire day; one was an employee of the mall.

“We made $100,” she said.

If you own a restaurant right now, what do you do?

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For chefs and restaurateurs, there are no clear answers. Try to weather the storm? Close temporarily? Pivot to takeout and delivery only? For Qiu and many other restaurant owners, the coronavirus pandemic is causing extreme financial hardship as well as unexpected ethical dilemmas.

Restaurant owners are suddenly forced to juggle several issues: a responsibility to preserve public health, an obligation to care for employees and a very real need to simply stay afloat over the coming weeks.

“We’re keeping our dining room open through the weekend, and then will reassess,” said Heather Sperling of Botanica Restaurant in Silver Lake. “On one hand, we want to be hyper-responsible about containment and prevention, and fully recognize that any gathering place is an at-risk setting. But on the other, we feel a strong sense of responsibility to our local economy — our nearly 50 employees, our dozens of farmers and purveyors, and our community.”

Qiu is pondering whether to temporarily close her restaurants and switch to delivery-only, which would allow her to keep her kitchen staff. But two of her restaurants are in shopping centers, which creates an additional quandary: Built into her leases is a penalty if she chooses to close her doors. “You have to open in order to make the mall look good.”

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She says that if she closed Hip Hot, part of a large multi-restaurant complex, she might be on the hook for an additional $100 a day on top of her rent.

At least one Chinese member of her staff has decided to return to China indefinitely.

Some of L.A.'s most popular restaurants have elected to close, including Majordomo and Rossoblu, and more will probably follow in the coming days.

“We pride ourselves on being responsible corporate citizens and community leaders, and we know this is the right thing to do,” Rossoblu owners Steve and Dina Samson said of their decision. Others, like HomeState and Josef Centeno’s restaurants, have pivoted to delivery or takeout only.

Many chefs around the country have done the same. In Seattle, chef Tom Douglas closed 12 of his restaurants, leaving 800 employees jobless, and restaurateur Ethan Stowell laid off more than 100 members of his staff — about 40% of his workforce — while calling recent days “the toughest of my career.” In New York, Le Bernardin, Dave Chang’s Momofuku restaurant group and all 19 of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants are closing indefinitely.

On Saturday night, Chang tweeted whether or not a restaurant owner “chooses to open or close they are guaranteed a very bad outcome.” On Instagram he said he would reduce pay for salaried positions while his restaurants are closed; hourly workers will stop getting paid in the coming days and will lose access to health insurance at the end of April.

Eventually, restaurants may be forced to close by city officials. The mayor of Hoboken, N.J., notified residents that as of March 15, restaurants will be allowed to serve food only via delivery and takeout.

At Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., DTLA Cheese owners Reed Herrick and Lydia Clarke chose to temporarily close their shop despite market management issuing a statement Friday that it was remaining open. “The welfare of our staff and community is of the utmost importance,” Herrick said. “A nonchalant attitude in regards to public gathering seems a bit off base.”

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Cafe Gratitude, with locations in Larchmont, Venice and downtown, is going decidedly the other direction.

“We believe it is our responsibility to be here for our guests and community. Therefore, we have every intention of keeping our restaurants open,” the vegan restaurant chain said in an Instagram caption. The caption accompanied a post that stated, “Viruses are contagious. So is panic. Fear. Hysteria. Calm. Love. Enthusiam [sic]. Kindness. Joy. Choose wisely.”


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