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Restaurateurs Retool for Pandemic

A Los Angeles Times columnist on Sunday explained how a friend recently interpreted the “C” in Vitamin C to represent community, particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic.
Though heavily residential San Marino has by design a small commercial sector, many of the restaurants composing it have proudly burnished themselves as a key part of San Marino’s “Vitamin C” as the world continues to reshape itself according to COVID-19’s preponderance.
“The entire world is full of so much uncertainty,” said Linda Zadoian, proprietor of San Marino Café on Mission Street, “and we get to do our part on our little corner here. People are very, very appreciative and I wouldn’t want to be in any other community other than this one for a pandemic.”
Following a cascade of restrictions from the state, county and city, dine-in service at restaurants is, for now, a thing of the recent past. Although dining establishments are permitted to continue delivery or carry-out service, this is a perk best suited to big-name chains which already have menus programmed into delivery apps like Uber Eats or DoorDash and which probably already do a fair amount of takeout business. The mom-and-pops, however, tend to rely on a loyal sit-down audience. For many, it’s a more realistic option to shutter altogether and plan the next step.
As the societal shutdown took hold thanks to COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has spread to virtually all corners of the world — people have faced long queues outside of their grocery stores not as a result of low supplies, but as a consequence of mandated social distancing to curb the spread of the virus.
Some restaurateurs, such as Zadoian, started having customers ask if they simply had some milk or eggs they could buy.
“A customer was like, ‘I can’t find eggs,’ and that’s where it started,” she explained. “I know that I have a huge supply to all of these provisions, so I thought I’d just bring in a few. Next thing I know I have this little market. In a week’s time, I basically changed my business model. We completely did a shift. I contacted my suppliers and found out what they could supply me with. There’s absolutely no shortage of food. It’s just the timing and the accessibility.”
Zadoian isn’t alone. San Marino High School alumni Maggie Ho and Chris Yang, owners and operators of Yang’s Kitchen in Alhambra, also had to adopt a new business model barely six months after opening their doors.
“As soon as the governor gave his mandate for restaurants to do take-out only, we decided that that wasn’t going to work for us, because it cost us so much to produce the food that we do,” Yang explained. “We decided to close [on March 15] and to regroup. We saw that a lot of people were having a hard time getting basic groceries and supplies, so we saw a gap that we could fill there with minimal labor. We did some digging and we dig some surveys on Instagram. It turned out that people still needed chicken, produce, toilet paper. Flour was in high demand, too.”
At Julienne on Mission Street, just a few storefronts from Zadoian’s address, proprietor Julie Campoy was relatively equipped for the market change: she already maintains a marketplace of sorts in her restaurant.
“We are so fortunate that the Gourmet Market has been a major part of the business for 35 years, and that we know how to scale up production quickly and efficiently—this is what we do for every holiday,” Campoy said. “But this is, of course, a little more challenging.”
Campoy uses both her website and Instagram page to showcase menus and changes to customers each day, offering both takeout meals and groceries to her patrons. Each day, she monitors the door, chats up her lined up customers from a distance and lets them in a handful at a time. Customers can shop there or place a pickup order.
“We are fast becoming a local grocery store, and we really do want to be one-stop shopping for the safety of everyone,” she added.
Yang’s Kitchen, which markets itself on a variety of Chinese fusion dishes with locally sourced health-centric ingredients, got the green-light to begin selling its raw ingredients on top of prepared meals. Customers are invited to check the daily menu offerings — whole marinated chickens were offered this week — on the restaurant’s Instagram page.
“We’re using our connections with our premium suppliers, so stuff that you’re getting is actually better than in most groceries stores,” Yang said. “We’re trying to pick up most of our produce from farmers’ markets. We’re trying to stay within our ethos with our ingredients, and we’re doing what we can to stay fairly priced as much as possible.”
San Marino Café and Yang’s Kitchen have since the change added Marketplace and Market to their names. They both make use of no-contact shopping — orders have to be made remotely, with a card payment only, and when the customers arrive, employees bag the order and either place it outside for pickup or bring it straight to the vehicle. Customers don’t peruse the offerings in the store itself.
“There’s still a good amount [of loyal customers] and they’ve been very supportive,” Ho said. “Our friends and family have too and they’ve been spreading the word to their neighbors.”
Zadoian said that she takes inspiration from a grandfather who fled the Ottoman Empire during its genocide against Armenians. Before he moved to Hollywood in the 1960s, her grandfather had settled in Baghdad in the 1920s, where he set up a café along the Tigris River.
“From nothing, he rose,” she said. “Service is in me. Hospitality is in me. I instantly knew I had to adapt and survive. The best way I knew how to do that was to extend myself. Instead of just saying ‘no,’ I had to step up. ‘What am I going to do?’ I think that just propelled me and something happened inside of me.”
Sometimes, stepping up is as simple as paying it forward. Helen Nguyen, who recently purchased New Moon on Huntington Drive as an independent franchise, donated 100 fried rice and chow mein lunches to San Gabriel Valley Medical Center this week, in observance of National Doctors’ Day.
“We’ve been having a lot of customers coming in and supporting us as a local business,” explained Nguyen, whose children attend San Marino schools. “We feel like we need to do our part to thank the people on the front line fighting this crazy virus. I saw [Monday] it was National Doctors’ Day and thought what better way to thank them.”
Moving forward, Yang and Ho said they planned to test their prepared meals more and more, especially if they keep the pattern of having busier starts to the week than ends.
“Which is not bad, because we’re trying to spend some time working on prepared meals, too. We need those slower days to do our research and testing,” Yang said, later adding, “We don’t know if we can jump right back into what we were doing before. When this ends, we don’t know how peoples’ dining habits are going to change, so we may need to test the waters and see how everything goes once we start again.”
Zadoian added that customer enthusiasm has been a major driving force for her and her employees throughout all of this.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship: they want to be there for us, so how do we step up for them?” she posited. “We want to keep them away from the lines at the grocery store, and we can do that for a few weeks. There’s a huge appreciation for that.”
Campoy said she misses having crowds seated at her restaurant. Though her many loyal patrons continue to come by, it’s just not the same, she contended.
“Oh my god, every day I look at the empty patio and miss the smell of the espresso machine,” she said. “I miss all the people. It had such vitality and life. Now it’s holding produce boxes. Everything will come back in due time.”
Information on new hours, services and delivery options for San Marino restaurants can be found on the city’s website, CityOfSanMarino.org, under the tab “Dining Options.”


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