Navigating Covid-19; the personal struggles of running small family-owned restaurant business

Finally.” I sighed in relief and gratitude.

2020 marked the 10th year anniversary since we first opened our doors in March 2010. It was going to be a great year and an even better decade.

The beginning months of January and February 2020 was awesome.

My family’s business (gastropub | restaurant | sports bar) was hitting new record highs of almost a 15%+ year over year sales increase in the beginning months of January and February 2020. Having constantly battled slim margins, we were thrilled to see that our small business was finally making a mark in the industry despite its competition.

The year 2020 had things playing out in our favor. It was going to be a big year in sports for Los Angeles and fans had a lot to look forward to: back to back series of sports with NBA, LAFC, MLB, and 2020 Summer Olympics. We were looking forward to and anticipating a generous, profitable and good problems type of year ahead of us.

And thanks to Food Network and Guy Fieri’s visit and feature on ‘Diners Drive-Ins and Dives,’ in 2015, it was becoming rare to find someone who had not heard about our establishment at least once.

Things felt like they were finally stabilizing after a decade of grueling blood, sweat and tears. Luck had to be on my side to have managed a full decade with little to no experience. My dad stood alongside me on the front lines day-by-day helping my brother and I fulfill our visions with the place. Though I had little to no experience, my family believed in me, gave me the opportunity to implement ideas, and respected my decisions. Most importantly though, they taught me the invaluable lessons of grit.

Although my father had run multiple successful restaurants in the past, he had lost his life savings with his restaurant he had run for over a decade along with the 2007 financial crisis. Despite all his years of experience, this concept was something neither one of us have ever attempted, and it was the first one of its kind in the area.

We were looking forward to celebrating our 10 year opening anniversary in March, with our patrons – who also became friends. Along with the rest of the world, we were hopeful and believed 2020 was the year and the beginning of a long and overdue positive decade..

On a personal note, I so greatly hoped that this would be my year of “freedom.” Freedom from being a slave to my work, financial freedom for myself and the ability to support my parents, and freedom from the daily grind, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Perhaps I was being naive, expecting ‘success’ to come somewhat overnight.

Mostly, I was so excited and hopeful that I was, at last, going to get some time to explore different life paths, passions, and goals. My first real career post-college was due to my obligation and duty to my family rather than my passion and interest.

I had sacrificed my 20s to the grind of: running my family’s small business that not only I did not feel passionate about; but also trying to accept my fate that this was presented to me as an opportunity to give back to my immigrant parents for raising and educating me.

I tried to persuade myself on countless events. I told myself, “On a positive note, I am my own boss. Not many people get this opportunity to run their own business at such a young age.”

On the other hand, never had I thought of running a restaurant / sports bar at the age of 21 with little to no experience; nor had I been prepared for the excruciating growing pains that this path presented at work, home and my personal life. It was a whirlwind decade full of ups & downs and much needed hurts, sorrows, pain and the discovery of myself.

It wasn’t until 2019 and the beginning of 2020, when I finally felt like things were slowly starting to settle down and my life was transitioning in the way it needed to. Though I’ve heard the saying countlessly before, things only started to make more sense as I exited my 20s and entered into my new decade, the 30s.

Then came Covid-19: the peak of uncertainty.

As unpredictable as life is, we had celebrated our 10 year opening anniversary of our restaurant to the LA city wide lockdown in May 15, 2020. The official shut down date of the lockdown was March 16, 2020.

Up until then, I had periodically heard about the coronavirus on the news, and the outbreak of the deadly virus in Wuhan, China; but I was completely oblivious to the effects that it would’ve had on the US, and to our very own personal safety, the business, and our livelihood.

Unaware of the true characteristics of the coronavirus, we couldn’t believe that a city-wide lockdown was set in place. No one could believe this. This was something that no one in our lifetime, not even our own parents had experienced. The first few days felt surreal, and it wasn’t until the following week that we started to realize that the business needed to adapt to the situation while staying vigilant of the spread as the end of the virus was uncertain.

Although unprecedented, we soon began to understand the importance and ‘whys’ of the lockdown. Every day was brutal. On one end, never had I felt so happy to have so much personal time on my hands; but knowing that it came at a cost to the livelihood of the business made it difficult to completely enjoy. Our sales plummeted over 90% and we were lucky to have 5 uber/postmate or even phone orders.

We had no choice but to furlough all 9 staff members who were like family. We couldn’t help but feel like we had to curl up into a ball and conserve every single penny we could.

Friends, family, and regulars came to support as much as they could as they purchased food, alcohol and even groceries here. We were closely monitoring Los Angeles city grants and EIDL / Payroll Protection Plan loans to see what we could to do help us get by. We were pursuing individual grants in hopes to lock in any sorts of savings we could.

We implemented new menu items to try and capture new customers on the delivery apps. Our sales on these delivery apps were barely 10% to even begin with. And the very delivery apps that were helping us sustain and stay alive were also charging a 30-40% commission of sales before taxes.

This made us question the future of the restaurant industry as a whole. And I have never felt so hopeless.

To any restaurant small business owner out there, stay strong and we are in this together.

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