Garden Grove’s Koreatown is one of the longest-standing Korean immigrant communities in the United States. The suburban enclave became an ideal settling place for Koreans who came over to the States following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As such, it’s home to some of the oldest Korean-owned businesses in the country. And though the Korean population of Garden Grove itself is not large, it’s still considered a significant cultural hub for the state’s largest community of Korean Americans outside of Los Angeles County.
“Although much of Orange County’s Korean community does not live in Garden Grove, Little Seoul is still their base,” said former Garden Grove economic development director Chet Yoshizaki in a story in the LA Times.
COVID-19 and the government’s subsequent shutdown order are profoundly affecting some of the city’s most established immigrant businesses and their Korean-American owners. The impacts are as various as the restaurants themselves, with the only unifying theme being the will to survive.
Peking Gourmet has been open since 1985 on Garden Grove Boulevard. The Korean-Chinese restaurant is a local institution, an important gathering place because of its affordable menu and ability to host large parties in its three dining rooms.
Celebrations are central to the Korean-American cultural experience, and Peking Gourmet has played host to countless baekils and doljanchis (an infant’s first 100 days and first birthday celebrations, respectively), to birthdays and anniversaries further down the line, including this writer’s grandmother’s 101st birthday.
After California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide restaurant-closure order on March 17, Peking Gourmet’s usually bustling dining rooms are now dimly lit, its tables removed and the main dining room barricaded to customers by a folding table and plastic film.
If Peking Gourmet has one saving grace during the statewide shutdown, it’s that its locally famous jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles), tangsuyuk (sweet and sour pork) and big, thick-skinned pork and ginger dumplings are classic takeout fare in Korean culture. Even so, part-owner and manager Diane Cheng says the restaurant is struggling.
“[Since the beginning of the statewide closures] revenue is down 70 percent,” Cheng said in Korean. “Even during the 2008 financial crisis, our revenues were only down 30 percent over the previous year.”
Cheng says she reached out to her bank in the initial wave of Paycheck Protection Program loan applications, but she never heard back. As Cheng concludes her interview, she takes a takeout ticket in her hand, walking across the restaurant’s vast dining room and disappearing into the kitchen. It’s hard not to notice that a few of the circular banquet tables are missing. The remaining tables are spread out, the maximum occupancy of the dining room cut in half.
Korean barbecues are facing an even more difficult task — the once-bustling Mo Ran Gak in Garden Grove has essentially lost all of its revenue, which came chiefly from diners cooking meat at its tabletop grills. On a recent Saturday evening, the restaurant’s only light comes from the overcast weather leaking through the windows, and a worker stands on a booth and cleans one of the hoods above a table. Takeout orders trickle in for its chewy mulnaengmyeon (cold beef soup noodles) and some of the restaurant’s soups and stews. Owner Dal Lee says business has ground to a halt.
“Doing to-go doesn’t even cover our rent or utilities. It’s barely enough to keep our limited crew of workers paid,” Lee says. “We’re doing to-go to keep our staff working.”
The taciturn Lee calmly reads a newspaper and sits in front of the restaurant’s only television, tuned to a South Korean news station. When asked how this period compares to how business was during the 2008 financial crisis, he becomes emotional. “The 2008 crisis does not even compare to what we’re going through right now,” Lee says forcefully. “The financial crisis didn’t affect our operations much since I didn’t borrow any money. But even in that time, when there basically was no economy, folks could still come in, and they’d come in less often. This is essentially a full shutdown.”
Lee speaks of the government assistance programs as a nice-to-have option — he’s successfully applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and expects to receive roughly $10,000. Once the money hits his bank account, Lee says he anticipates that he will be able to pay rent and utilities.
Even amid the current takeout-pocalypse and PPP snafus, there is the prospect of reopening restaurants with occupancy restrictions, a possibility Newsom alluded to in mid-April. When asked about opening at limiting occupancy, Lee was concerned about safety more than the damage such an order might pose to the restaurant’s bottom line.
“If we’re going to be asked to open at half capacity, then doesn’t that mean that things aren’t completely safe for our customers or our workers?” Lee said.
When asked what else the government can do to help, Lee was straightforward.
“If the government really wants to help, make it safe enough, then tell us we can open.”
One restaurant concerned about the prospect of reopening — particularly in regard to safety — is Gamjatang House, also on Garden Grove Boulevard. The restaurant, formerly known as Gaesung Gamjagol, has served a famous pot of gamjatang (spicy pork and potato stew) to hungry locals for decades.
The restaurant’s main dining area is minuscule, with 24 seats crammed into a small storefront more reminiscent of a hole-in-the-wall in one of Seoul’s back alleys than a restaurant in an Orange County suburb. A separate dining area on the east wall seats 16.
“Even if they tell me to reopen, it’s really scary for me because I’ve got to work,” says Kevin Hong, owner of Gamjatang House. His gaze turns to the restaurant’s tightly spaced tables. “People don’t wear masks when they’re eating.”
Even with full capacity, Gamjatang House only needs two servers, including owner Hong, because of its simple menu of spicy pork stew, plus a few extra meat and fish dishes. That means Hong actually prefers sticking to takeout versus opening at half capacity.
Despite the difficulty of the situation, the one thing every restaurant owner interviewed had in common was this: No one is seriously considering closing their business. This is perhaps unsurprising for a group of immigrant owners of restaurants that have endured the test of time. They are, after all, experts at survival.