As the cultural and business hub of the largest Korean-American population in the country, Koreatown is also one of LA’s densest and most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. It’s often hailed by chefs like Ugly Delicious host David Chang for its eclectic array of restaurants, from mom-and-pop shops to South Korean chains looking to gain a foothold in the U.S., which specialize in everything from Korean-Chinese black bean noodles to pork belly bossam topped with radish kimchi and cabbage. Of course, the neighborhood’s barbecue is center stage: Icons like Park’s Barbecue and Chosun Galbee have attracted fans from around the world, with other spots focusing on all-you-can-eat grilled meats sating the appetites of LA’s cash-strapped college students and young adults.
But on a recent Saturday afternoon, the plaza outside of the typically bustling Metro station at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Western Avenue was empty, save for a few streetside vendors hawking homemade masks for $5. Parking, normally difficult or even impossible to find, was plentiful.
In February, Koreatown’s dining scene was forced to contend with pandemic-related economic fallout from false social media rumors that a Korean Air flight attendant infected with COVID-19 had visited area restaurants. Since California’s dining room shutdown began in mid-March, the neighborhood’s restaurants and bars have struggled alongside the rest of the restaurant industry hoping to come out on the other side of the pandemic. Unlike Manhattan’s Koreatown, which is dominated by corporate ownership, LA’s Koreatown is a mosaic of small businesses, so most have chosen to stay open to earn whatever revenue they can by offering pickup, delivery, or both. Others are focused on the surrounding community, coordinating with local groups to deliver food to families or senior citizens in need. And a few, like Beverly Soon Tofu, one of LA’s longest-running spicy tofu stew restaurants, have chosen to temporarily close.
“I don’t know of any restaurants that are [permanently] shutting down, but shit, that’s a great question,” says James An, a board member of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles, a community nonprofit based in Koreatown. Though at press time no restaurant has confirmed whether their business’s temporary closure will become permanent, An says that many of Koreatown’s Korean barbecue spots and bars, like Dan Sung Sa, have closed for the time being. “Koreans are pretty resilient. We’ll fight through anything,” An says, citing the 1992 LA uprising as a point of a comparison to the current moment.
Though the 1992 LA riots are known nationally for their wider-reaching ramifications on American race relations, the local Korean-American community remembers the events largely as the moment when the tensions between LA’s Korean and black communities boiled over, with devastating consequences for the neighborhood, including severe economic losses immediately following the riots, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage in Koreatown alone.
“I think this is worse than the Rodney King riots,” says Adam Cho, second-generation business owner of Ham Ji Park, which opened in 1989, who also brought up the uprising without prompting. “We don’t have millions of dollars saved up,” Cho says. “If we’re closed for dine-in for a month or two, we’re shutting down. $1,200 from [the] government is not gonna do anything for us.”
According to Young Kim, owner of Koreatown sushi spot Arado Japanese Cuisine and a member of Korean American Food Industry Association, which represents over 1,300 Korean-owned restaurants across Southern California, 30 percent of the restaurants that belong to the group have temporarily closed. If restrictions on dine-in service are lifted in mid-May, Kim says these restaurants will survive the city’s shutdown order. If the shutdown lasts longer than May 15, it’s unclear who will be able to reopen.
For those that have stayed open for takeout and delivery, like Quarters and Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong — which is currently offering takeout Korean barbecue kits — social media is playing a newly vital role. “Before the shutdown we didn’t do that much advertising or put much effort into being active on social media,” says Joseph Park of 6th Avenue Restaurant Group, which runs Quarters and Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, as well as bar and lounge Terra Cotta. Park says that many Korean restaurant owners only ran advertisements in Korean-language newspapers, but some are adapting to the reality of relying on third-party delivery services and the necessity of advertising on social media.
Still, among Koreatown restaurants offering delivery, many have chosen to forgo using platforms like Postmates and Grubhub altogether. Just 20 percent of the Korean American Food Industry Association’s members have begun offering third-party delivery, citing the hefty cut companies demand in exchange for marketing and use of services.
“I had no idea when Postmates would get the work done for operations to run smoothly,” says Jayson Choi, owner of Sun Nong Dan, which recently began using the service in addition to Grubhub and Doordash. Choi says the platform’s lack of operational support and transparency have been ongoing issues since he joined Postmates two weeks ago. (A Postmates spokesperson told Eater that Choi’s issues were resolved after an account manager reached out to him.)
Koreatown restaurants that don’t specialize in Korean cuisine are also suffering. “We’re a small family-owned business and the restaurant is our main source of income,” says Khanh Tan, owner of Ktown Pho, a small Vietnamese restaurant that opened in 2017. “If this continues past May, forget it. I’m going to call my landlord and say, ‘Look, I can’t do anything.’”
Though Koreatown may have gotten an early taste of the devastating economic impact of the novel coronavirus, it certainly hasn’t been spared from the recent failures of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, intended to help small businesses cover payroll expenses. “It’s just a big scam, I guess,” says Tan, echoing the sentiments of other Koreatown restaurant owners, who are outraged at large companies like Shake Shack getting $10 million in assistance while mom-and-pop shops have yet to receive aid. (The burger chain, along with several national brands, eventually returned the funds.) Though he submitted his application early and filed all the requisite paperwork, Tan says he’s received nothing from the bank.
Though many restaurant owners intend to put up a fight in the months to come, the federal government’s currently uneven approach to distributing small-business loans could severely impact Koreatown, whose dining scene is largely run by immigrant families. Tan says that the older, Korean-speaking crowd, which made up half of his pre-shutdown customer base, has all but disappeared, and without government aid, his business might not be viable as a recession looms. “How are you going to afford to go out and eat every day if you don’t have a job?”