What will save Buford Highway’s restaurants from COVID-19?

Buford Highway’s restaurants and workers face additional threats due to COVID-19. They might also be better equipped to survive it.

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This story is part of our Resilience of Restaurants issue, which also identifies 10 ways to help restaurants survive COVID-19 and examines the hopes and hardships of restaurant-industry couples.

It’s dinner time on Friday along Buford Highway, and the flood of cars that once rushed the boulevard’s six lanes has diminished to a trickle. The taco stands, dress boutiques, and barbershops of the sunset-hued Plaza Fiesta, whose nearly 300 stalls until recently served as the hub of the corridor, mostly are shuttered; the only activity in the plaza’s parking lot are the police vehicles patrolling for rule breakers. The Pinetree West shopping center, where hungry diners used to circle the El Rey del Taco parking lot in their cars, hunting for an elusive space like vultures, now is sparsely populated by a handful of to-go patrons lined up outside, spaced six feet apart. After a month of social distancing to offset COVID-19, the humans visiting the highway on this April evening seem to be outnumbered by the birds, who’ve slowly reclaimed lost territory and coast the clear skies high above the pavement, flocking together much more closely than people safely can.

Just a few hours earlier, Allen Suh had closed down his restaurant for the day, and for what might be the last time. In November, Suh had bought Donquixote, the Korean comfort food stalwart. After 15 years of working at innovative Atlanta restaurants like Gato, Restaurant Eugene, One Flew South, and Gaja, he’d decided to return to his roots: “Our family’s been going to Donquixote since they opened” in 1998, he says. He grew up around Buford Highway; he says his mom had been the area’s first Korean insurance agent, working out of an office just a half block south of the restaurant, where they’d eat donkas and bibimbap twice a week or more. “A lot of people have the same attachment to this place that I do,” he says. “I can’t believe that, after six owners and 22 years of business, I’m going to be the one who shuts it down.”

The country’s restaurants have been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and those on Buford Highway are no exception. More than two dozen of the 150-plus restaurants along the corridor were closed as of late April, at least temporarily. Some of the qualities that have made the corridor a national destination for multicultural dining also make it more economically vulnerable to the wrath of the virus: Because most BuHi restaurants are independently owned and family-operated, they’re less likely to have the cash reserves or the deep-pocketed investors to help weather months of closure. “I’m terrified that, in a year, we’re going to lose the businesses that make Buford Highway the unique place that it is, if nothing changes to have them get the support they need,” says Doraville Mayor Joseph Geierman.

But other qualities that distinguish Buford Highway’s restaurants might bolster their resilience to the pandemic. Along this multicultural thoroughfare, the taquerias thumping with Banda music and the Chinese dining rooms rumbling with dim-sum carts and the Korean barbecue joints buzzing with late-night diners offer more than just food. For the region’s robust Asian American and Latinx communities, Buford Highway’s restaurants are a social, cultural, and economic lifeline. And they’re now more crucial than ever—if they can adapt to these unprecedented challenges.

Buford Highway restaurants struggle coronavirus
El Rey del Taco general manager Ruben Valdez

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

In March, as shelter-in-place orders were issued and restaurant sales plummeted, many longtime restaurants on Buford Highway, kept busy for decades through word of mouth, had to quickly figure out new methods of doing business. At El Rey del Taco, which used to draw thick crowds whether at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m., management quickly pivoted to takeout, curbside, and delivery, signing up for apps that the perpetually busy dining room previously hadn’t needed. While El Rey had a steady stream of takeout orders in April, they amounted to 70 percent of typical business. “We’re not making a lot of money, but we’re paying the bills for the employees we have,” says general manager Ruben Valdez, noting that, in addition to reduced hours, El Rey now has only eight or fewer employees on each shift, compared to the 30 employees the restaurant would need on its busiest nights.

Yet the volume of business El Rey is doing is hard for other restaurants to attain. At Yen Jing, a Korean-inflected Chinese spot beloved for its traditional noodle soups and dumplings, owner Ching Hsia and her three siblings, who operate the restaurant their parents founded nearly 30 years ago, signed up for delivery services that they’d never used before—only to find that several of them charge up to 30 percent in commission. (Some cities, like San Francisco, have capped the fees that delivery apps charge at 15 percent during the pandemic.) Yen Jing is now relying on Postmates, whose terms Hsia says are more reasonable, but the money the restaurant is making from delivery orders isn’t nearly enough to approach the loss from shuttering the dining room: “If we normally make $1,000 [per day], we’re making about $200—an 80 percent dip,” she says. Because the restaurant’s staff is mostly family, they’ve been able to keep Yen Jing afloat by not paying themselves.

Hsia says she isn’t the most digitally savvy restaurateur; Yen Jing only has a Facebook page—not uncommon for Buford Highway restaurants—where Hsia now posts frequently to drum up business. She’s grateful for how much support she’s seen from her customers, but she says the restaurant has gotten several racist prank calls denigrating the restaurant’s food, mocking their accents, or asking if her employees all have COVID-19. Those calls make her worried that, even when the economy fully reopens, Chinese food will carry a stigma due to the coronavirus.

Not every Buford Highway restaurant serves food that easily translates to delivery. At J’s Mini Hot Pot Deluxe, where diners would cook raw meats and vegetables right at the table in pots of simmering, seasoned broth, co-owner Lilly Zhao considered switching to “dry” hot pot dishes, like stir fry, or delivering the separate hot pot ingredients for self-assembly at home. But, she says, “our customers wouldn’t necessarily know how to handle raw meat or vegetables.” Instead, Zhao decided to shut down the restaurant (and the J’s location in Duluth); in April, she reopened the poke bar next door for takeout.

Still, many restaurants along the highway have shifted successfully to takeout and delivery in an attempt to ride out the storm. You can order Sichuan pork belly fried rice from Gu’s Kitchen, or a traditional Guatemalan brunch—complete with plantains and fragrant beans and eggs—from Xela Pan, or banh mis on crispy-soft French bread from Lee’s Bakery. We Love BuHi, the nonprofit founded to celebrate and promote the Buford Highway corridor, has encouraged its 11,000 Instagram followers to support the businesses open for takeout. “People are still moving forward,” says Lily Pabian, the organization’s new director. “They’re finding other ways to do this, and I think that’s pretty cool to see.”

Pabian has connected restaurant owners and workers to multilingual help filling out loan or unemployment applications and, with neighborhood group Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, has delivered food and rent assistance to out-of-work employees living in the corridor. But as the economic shutdown persists, more robust help is needed for small businesses like those on Buford Highway, says Rebekah Cohen Morris, a Doraville city councilmember and housing director of Los Vecinos de Buford Highway. Cohen Morris says that the city has deferred some of the taxes restaurants pay, like those on alcohol sales. And it is trying to advocate for negotiations between small businesses and their landlords—which would lead to, say, rent deferrals or creative payment plans. “We’re just pleading with landlords right now to find a way to work with them,” Cohen Morris says. “But we’re also pleading with state and federal officials to find some way to ensure that a lot of these small businesses don’t shut down forever, because that’s going to change the character and the soul of Buford Highway.”

Allen Suh, Donquixote
Donquixote owner Allen Suh

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

For some restaurateurs, like Suh, there’s no way to make the math work, even with a deferral. Donquixote’s rent and utilities cost Suh about $4,500 monthly; he says that with labor and supply costs, he needs revenues of $20,000 per month to make a slim profit. In February, Donquixote made about $15,000; in March, $9,000. Usually open until 9 p.m., Donquixote saw business slow so much in March that Suh had to let go of his two other employees, a part-time server and a prep cook, and started closing at 5 p.m., then 3 p.m.

On the last day Donquixote was open, in April, Suh began his routine of closing up shop while listening to his normal playlist of Sam Cooke and ’60s girl groups. He washed dishes, checked the supply stock, stacked the chairs atop tables. He had 40 pounds of poultry—for a new dish he’d wanted to bring to the menu, Korean fried chicken—and 25 pounds of kimchi that he didn’t know what to do with. He was weighing his options for making money, maybe working with his mom in insurance for a while. (“As a lifelong cook, I’m someone who’s never been a nine-to-fiver, but it’s my only choice, and I am broke.”)

“Part of me thinks, maybe it’s not over,” he says. “What if I win the lottery? I have a scratch-off ticket in my car. What if I win $300,000? That’s plenty enough for me to spread the wealth to the rest of the shopping center.” The center includes places still doing takeout, such as Hae Woon Dae, which opened 30 years ago as one of the first Korean barbecue restaurants in Atlanta, and Bellagio’s, an ice cream stand. “These are the places that you’ve always loved, and we’re still doing the same thing, and the charm is still there,” Suh says. “We always hoped that would bring the people back, you know?”

Donquixote’s landlord, ML&S Management, offered Suh and the other tenants a rent deferral, with the balance due as a balloon payment down the road, but “I don’t know how we’re going to get the capital to pay that all back,” Suh says. He’s looked at national restaurant grants, but “basically everyone in the whole world is applying. How much larger of a hole do I need to get into?” Michael Park, a spokesperson for ML&S Management, says the company’s lender has created the same balloon-payment scenario for them, forcing the company to pass those terms onto the tenants. “We’re trying to provide relief and help, but we need banks and lenders to give us some clear idea of what the options are,” he says, noting that ML&S itself is waiting on a small business loan. If more financial options don’t materialize, Park worries that the eventual economic reality will prove disastrous for Buford Highway. “If [these restaurants] can’t survive this ordeal, then maybe it becomes just like any other commercial stretch with a lot of franchise restaurants and chains.”

Hsia and Zhao both applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, though neither has received assistance yet—and both are frustrated that many large businesses, some with thousands of employees, received infusions from the initial $349 billion earmarked for the program. (Many large chains returned the money). But Hsia has used her experience to carry out a greater good; with the help of a local Chinese community bank, she’s connected other Chinese-speaking Buford Highway business owners—some of whom don’t have computers—to translation help for filling out loan paperwork. “When they’re focused on running their business every day, they don’t have the luxury” of learning English, Zhao says.

Hsia’s parents ran a restaurant from the time she was born. “I was at the restaurant every day growing up,” she says—often doing homework in the storage room. Keeping Yen Jing alive is a way of honoring her parents’ lifetime of hard work. The importance of family extends beyond blood relatives: Even though she and her siblings aren’t currently paying themselves, she’s still making monthly payments to her out-of-work employees. “They have family, too,” she says. “If we’re not doing that, how are they going to survive?”

Buford Highway restaurants struggle coronavirus
Yen Jing owner Ching Hsia

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

For many Buford Highway restaurant employees who’ve been forced out of work—many of whom live along the highway—uncertainty about the length of their restaurant’s shutdown has created a kind of purgatory. Dayana Robledo, who worked at Tortas Factory del D.F. for two years until it temporarily closed in late March, has enough in savings to last until early May, when she hopes the restaurant will have reopened. But she worries about her family, who lives in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, and whom she financially supports. “I try to remind myself: Calm down, it’s going to pass. This has to pass,” she says, translated from Spanish.

At El Rey, about 85 percent of employees decided to self-quarantine, according to Valdez. “The majority of our servers are moms or take care of parents or grandparents” and feared bringing the virus home, he says. The restaurant recently received a federal small business loan, which Valdez says will allow El Rey to continue paying its employees. Prior to that, he had been helping his workers file for unemployment insurance.

Of course, not every worker is eligible for unemployment. Undocumented workers are a large part of the hospitality industry’s workforce, and that’s especially true for Buford Highway, an area with one of the highest rates of ICE raids in the country. Undocumented people are ineligible for benefits like unemployment and stimulus money. And while they might be able to access free testing if they suspect they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, fear of deportation might stop some from getting the test, which could lead to a higher rate of infection in those communities, says Adelina Nicholls, cofounder of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. In addition, much of the information that’s been released by state agencies, including unemployment applications, isn’t translated into other languages. GLAHR has focused on outreach in both of those areas. “I think that this is the time when we have to look out for others,” Nicholls says. “Because our government will not cover many immigrants.”

Though it doesn’t fully make up for the diminished size of the government’s safety net, Buford Highway has unusually vast community resources, especially for those living along the corridor, says Cohen Morris. Many residents, sharing the same language or cultural ties, band together, distributing food to one another and watching over neighbors’ kids if their parents need to work. With help from the community, Los Vecinos has raised nearly $10,000 to provide rent assistance, circulated sample letters to help tenants negotiate payment plans with landlords, and delivered more than 7,000 meals to the area’s residents and workers.

There’s an inherent strength in communities as tight-knit as the ones along Buford Highway, Cohen Morris says. “And that strength [becomes] much stronger in situations like this.”

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.

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