The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown has left many restaurants uncertain about their future. As smaller, less-heralded restaurants across the city grapple with new realities, we asked them to share their stories.
On a normal day, the tables at Gardena Bowl Coffee Shop on Vermont Avenue would be filled with South Bay locals sharing plates of banana pecan pancakes and kimchi bacon fried rice.
But as of last week those tables, now vacant, became an improvised barrier, arranged to separate takeout customers from the skeleton crew keeping the restaurant running.
“Business has gone down by at least 50%,” co-owner Frank Nakano said. “We have a pretty loyal following in the community, so we’re luckier than some, but it’s been hard to watch.”
Nakano, who has owned the popular Japanese and Hawaiian diner for the last two decades with his brother-in-law Hideiki Obayashi, said the closure of the 78-year-old bowling alley that it shares a building with had an immediate drain on his business. “There used to be bowling leagues that would come here to eat,” he said. “That’s all gone now.”
Through the restaurant’s Facebook page, Nakano and longtime employee Stefanie Yamasaki have kept patrons updated on the kitchen’s daily specials: egg foo young, oxtail soup, chili wieners, fish and chips, sashimi dinners, boiled peanuts.
For now, the coffee shop is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. for takeout only, though Nakano said he is planning on delivery through Postmates soon. “We never used the delivery apps before because they take a significant cut of the money, but these days we’re a little more desperate, you might say.”
Many of the coffee shop’s regular customers are older, Yamasaki said. “They want to support us, but we realize it’s very dangerous for them to leave the house.”
Nakano hasn’t had to lay off any employees yet, though hours have been cut significantly. “I’m trying to balance it as fairly as I can,” he said. “Some of our cooks have two jobs, so we’re trying to work around their schedule.”
As the restaurant shutdown stretches into the foreseeable future, Nakano worries that more tough decisions are ahead. Small vendors he buys from are already hurting, and he’s concerned some won’t be able to supply him with ingredients soon, which could cause him to reduce hours further. He hasn’t reached out to the city of Gardena or L.A. County yet, but he’s already looking into small-business loans to keep the place afloat.
“Bills keep coming in,” he said. “Our landlord is willing to work with us on rent, but it still hurts. We want to keep offering food, but most of all we’re thinking about the safety of our workers.”
In the meantime, business remains sporadic. Customers phone in their orders and park in the empty lot outside. A teenager picks up his order of beef teriyaki and tempura and helps himself to a pump of hand sanitizer before heading out.
“I want to get through this thing like everyone else,” Nakano said. “But I’m also thinking, how did they let it get this bad in the first place?”
15707 S. Vermont Ave., Gardena, (310) 532-0820, gardenabowlcoffeeshop.com