The Road Back: Will API Small Businesses Survive in Post-COVID Era? — Creativity, Collaboration and Craft: LTSC Small Business Assistance

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Ellie Murai of KagoCraft (center) presents a donation of mini craftband kits to Nikki Kealalio of Little Tokyo Service Center to distribute to seniors living in Little Tokyo. At left is Toshie Haga, a craftband creator. (TOMOKO NAGAI/Rafu Shimpo)

Drawing upon the skill and experience of Japanese American journalists from California (The Rafu Shimpo), Hawaii (Hawaii Herald), and Washington (The North American Post), this is the second in a five-part series highlighting stories about how small businesses are meeting today’s challenges. This series is presented under the auspices of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network.

By TOMOKO NAGAI and GWEN MURANAKA

TORRANCE — Ellie Murai opened her specialty store with high hopes in February. Mother of three and a native of Japan, she started Kagocraft in Torrance with the goal of introducing Japan’s newly popular handicraft methods to America.

The handicraft, called “craftband” or “paperband,” has recently become popular in Japan. Baskets, bags, purses, containers, and accessories are made by weaving or assembling durable paper tapes once used for tying bags of rice by traders in Japan. The tapes, made from recycled products such as milk cartons, are repurposed as colorful handicraft material. Despite its popularity in Japan, the handicraft is still unknown in the United States.

On Feb. 22, Murai celebrated the opening of her store. Colorful tapes were displayed in every color along with samples of hand-made baskets and bags. Customers watched as Murai introduced the handicraft kit and demonstrated the craftband techniques. It was a day with a full of hope.

Less than a month later, on March 4, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency, and Murai’s dream was crushed.

“My plan, demonstration classes, and the instructor training course are shut down. I was planning to buy a booth at spring and summer events, or festivals, but all the community events were canceled,” Murai said.

She turned for help to Mariko Lochridge, a small business counselor with the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC).

The small business assistance program is a collaboration between six community organizations: Chinatown Service Center, Koreatown Youth & Community Center, Little Tokyo Service Center CDC, Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, Thai Community Development Center, and United Cambodian Community, all under the aegis of the Asian Pacific Islander Small Business Program.

Cooke Sunoo, retired founding director, explained that API SBP was formed in 1999 out of the sense that Asian Pacific Islanders were highly entrepreneurial but struggling to find in-language business assistance.

Murai has been busy during the pandemic cutting and packing the colorful tapes, seen in the shelves behind her, to create the ready-to-weave craft kit. (TOMOKO NAGAI/Rafu Shimpo)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent report “Survey of Business Owners,” there are currently 1.9 million businesses owned by Asian Americans. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Asian-owned businesses grew by 23.8 percent.

“All of the partner organizations are basically social service orgs, and they realized that there’s a high percentage of entrepreneurship in Asian communities and that the health of these small businesses related directly to the health of the community,” Sunoo said.

“They realized also that not one of those organizations had the strength to develop a program to serve only their own ethnic community because business-serving programs were difficult to get funded. It would be difficult to get a specific program funded only for the Chinese American community or the Japanese American community. It would be best to do a collaborative program.”

Each of the organizations is responsible for hiring their own business counselor, who is screened jointly with API SBP. Part of the funding comes from a grant from the Small Business Administration. Lochridge, a broadcast journalist who is fluent in Japanese, brings skills to her work with business owners that include social media and marketing.

“I feel like we’re being forced to update our program to address needs that may not have been addressed through federal funding,” Lochridge said. “Where the emphasis had been on getting loans, getting a lease, now the emphasis is on setting up websites and social media.”

Murai meets regularly with Lochridge for consultation over Zoom, covering topics from Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest to Etsy. Since the pandemic started, Lochridge said that she has assisted in filing 34 successful PPP applications, 22 EIDL loan advances and helped negotiate rent relief for eight individual business owners.

A weekly e-blast brings updates on changes to the PPP, grant programs available for small businesses, permits and tips for social media.

Still, 40 of Lochridge’s clients have reported that their landlords have offered no concessions on rent, and three businesses have closed.

“We can make suggestions, translate, but we cannot force a landlord to look at the bigger picture,” she said. “It’s not within our capacity to do tech assistance and advocacy with government agencies.”

Small business counselor Mariko Lochridge (left) works on social media with Naoko Ikeda, owner of Blooming Art Gallery in Japanese Village Plaza. (Photo by Anthony Marsh)

Besides new businesses like Kagocraft, Lochridge has been helping longtime mom-and-pop restaurants in Little Tokyo join UberEats and DoorDash and create social media accounts. All the businesses share the similar stories.

Hiroshi Yamauchi, owner of Kouraku Restaurant, is grateful for the help he received. He was able to create a Facebook page to solicit new customers. In his first post, he said, “And thanks to their help, Facebook, UberEats, and new promotional photos, all of this has been set up for Kouraku. I urge all of you to support Little Tokyo at this time. Not just for the Kouraku of right now but for these young people’s future.”

A limitation for the small business program is in capacity. Besides Lochridge, LTSC staffer Megan Teramoto also assists small businesses, and she has engaged a team of volunteer translators.

A strength of the overall program is the bonding within Little Tokyo, a 135-year-old downtown neighborhood that, besides restaurants and shops, is home to Japanese American churches and major institutions such as the Japanese American National Museum, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center and LTSC.

The close ties have fostered a sense of collaboration, as struggling businesses devise creative ways to partner.

When Murai began her counseling sessions with Lochridge, she was particularly impressed by the topic of collaboration with other small business owners.

“Now I have a collaboration project with Miyabi, a Japanese restaurant in Torrance. Kagocraft is going to provide hashi oki (chopstick rests) made with our paper eco-tape. They are very cute and actually very easy to make. Once restaurant is fully open, Miyabi’s customers will enjoy the colorful paper chopstick rests,” Murai said.

Murai has also found new customers by creating craft kits for seniors who live in Little Tokyo and are able to attend free classes offered through LTSC. The center recently created a Little Tokyo coloring book for older adults. Similar to the popularity of children’s craft kits, there is a demand for senior craft kits.

During the pandemic, the role of the small business counselors has been to offer advice, translations of rapidly changing regulations, and a sense of hope.

“We have to make sure that every time we come to them, we are bringing support and hope,” Lochridge said. “We may not have (all) the answers, but we are looking for solutions.

“Little things add up. When you purchase from a small business, an actual person does a happy dance,” she added.

Sunoo pointed to the longevity of API SBP as an indicator of its success and the importance of the services it continues to provide, particularly in this moment.

“Entrepreneurs are really creative people just by nature. If they weren’t creative, they would never open a business. If they didn’t have the chutzpah, they wouldn’t open a business,” Sunoo concluded.

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Tomoko Nagai is a Rafu Shimpo staff writer for the Japanese Section. Born and raised in Tokyo, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Nihon University College of Art (a.k.a. Nichigei). In 1983, she traveled to New York, where she worked as a correspondent for a Japanese publisher as well as Cosmopolitan Japan. She lived in Paris for two years before returning to Japan in 1993. She has lived in Southern California since 2007.

Gwen Muranaka is senior editor of The Rafu Shimpo, in charge of the editorial and production staffs. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA in 1990 with a degree in English literature. She spent one year at Waseda University in Tokyo and was an intern with Mitsubishi Corporation. She began her journalism career as a reporter for Pacific Citizen, national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League.

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