By TAYLOR WEIK
Those who are local to Little Tokyo can expect to run into someone they know at one of the many neighborhood restaurants on any given day. As a community that has a colorful history of rallying together — the grassroots fight to gain reparations for Japanese American families post-incarceration in the 1980s is a notable example — Little Tokyo has patronized their favorite restaurants long before the COVID-19 shutdown.
For most, local restaurants have provided important physical spaces for individuals to gather: there’s T.O.T. Restaurant, where you can find nonprofit workers holding conversations with donors over the soba special. On a Friday night, it’s common to find young professionals taking advantage of the happy hour specials at Far Bar, ties loosened, jackets removed, ready to vent about their week at work — and even more common to see these same people a few hours later eating late-night chahan at Kouraku. And you can always find hungry taiko drummers gathering at Honda-Ya post-practice to relax and decompress.
Restaurants and small businesses are always in the background of fond memories. The food and drinks are unforgettable, of course, but funny stories typically begin with “Remember that time we had lunch at Suehiro?” They set the stage on which friendships are forged and community is built.
Now, these same restaurants are at the forefront of Little Tokyo’s conversation as they struggle to stay open while most people are at home per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order issued to all Californians. Confined to their homes and unable to get together with friends and co-workers, restaurant regulars are trying to get creative with adapting to their new schedules and supporting the businesses they used to frequent.
One of these frequent diners is Kimi Maru, who has participated in weekly Zumba classes at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple on Third Street for the past ten years. The core group, which is mainly composed of individuals aged 60 and over, has a tradition of grabbing dinner together after class — a tradition they haven’t broken until now.
“Every Friday night after class, our group would go to one of our favorite restaurants in Little Tokyo and enjoy each other’s company,” Kimi said. “Over the past decade, we’ve become a little family.”
The Zumba group has eaten at most of the restaurants on First and Second Street, but some of their favorites include T.O.T. Restaurant, Ebisu, and Mitsuru Grill. The members have celebrated birthdays at these restaurants, thrown gender reveal parties, and shared omiyage — gifts they’ve brought back after vacations or family trips.
After having their routines interrupted for the first time, the Zumba group is now struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy.
“We’re all missing each other, and exercising on my own isn’t as fun; I don’t feel as motivated,” Kimi said. “Thankfully, we’re all trying our first virtual Zumba class together over Zoom.”
Because most of the group members are over 60 years old, they fall into the high-risk group for contracting COVID-19. Rather than leave their homes to pick up orders, they’ve resorted to purchasing gift certificates directly from restaurants who are offering them as a way to source monetary support. Some older community members are unfamiliar with using delivery apps like Postmates or DoorDash.
Other restaurant regulars who are younger and more mobile have been supporting their favorite businesses by picking up meals not only for themselves, but for family members and friends, like Dina Furumoto. A 26-year-old Temple City native who has worked at various Little Tokyo institutions, Dina has been placing mass orders at Azay, Chef Akira Hirose’s restaurant, and delivering them around Los Angeles County to family and friends.
“I’m trying to do what I can to ensure that after the quarantine, I can return to dining at these special spaces with my friends,” Dina said. “It’s also nice to be able to catch glimpses of my loved ones during a time like this.”
She also orders take-out so she can pay directly for her meals, rather than order through a third-party delivery service. Though popular for their convenience, third-party delivery services all take a percentage fee that would otherwise go to the business.
“I have peace of mind knowing that my money isn’t going to fund the third parties but the businesses,” Dina said. “If they allow me, I try to pay in cash. Credit-card transactions add up in transaction fees and right now, I’m trying to ensure a majority of the money is going back into the businesses.”
For young people who have grown up in Little Tokyo or spent ample time working at its organizations, like Dina, giving back to the restaurants is a way of showing gratitude for all that the community has given to them. A formidable baker, Dina partnered with the Azay team back in November when she held a Thanksgiving pop-up pie sale.
Other restaurant regulars who live too far to make the drive have utilized social media to boost awareness of restaurant take-out and delivery options. For some sitting at their kitchen tables at home, this may be the first time they’ve realized just how special a quick 30-minute lunch with a friend can be, and that ordering takeout could be their chance to save the businesses they’ve taken for granted.
“Amidst all this uncertainty, I catch myself asking, ‘Is this worth it?’ when I drive into town,” Dina said. “But then I find myself usually saying ‘yes,’ so long as I am following rules and protocols.”