Valley Boulevard, LA’s Chinese main street, was a ghost town in 2020. Can it bounce back? | national
LOS ANGELES – As California prepared to fully reopen, business at YungHo, a Taiwanese breakfast cafe on Valley Boulevard in San Gabriel, was almost back to normal.
Customers flocked to buy fried turnip cakes, rice porridge and youtiao, a fried churro-like dough, to take away. A science teacher placed a big order of black sesame mochi and hot soy milk to celebrate her latest Zoom class.
But the phone was ringing constantly with people asking questions that hinted at last year’s upheaval: “Are you open to eat inside?” âWhat items are still on the menu? “
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Valley Boulevard was a âcomplete ghost town,â coffee manager Andrew Zhang recalled.
As vaccinations increased and the number of cases decreased, Valley slowly came back to life. Locals started returning to their favorite noodle restaurant or dim sum dinner.
Another cause for optimism is the reopening of the state in mid-June. But it’s far from certain that Valley will regain its old hustle and bustle and sense of possibility. And the Boulevard will emerge in a new form altered by the pandemic, with some changes, such as stricter hygiene standards and a reliance on delivery apps, likely to stay there.
This stretch of Valley Boulevard has long been a mecca for Chinese dining and shopping, a place to find hand-drawn Xian noodles, mind-numbing Sichuan boiled fish, traditional herbal remedies, and the latest boba tea trends.
It is the heart of suburban Southern California’s Chinatown, both typical of Los Angeles and intimately linked to Asia, constantly changing as new immigrants bring in new ideas.
From the Alhambra in the west to Rosemead in the east, the closed storefronts on Valley Boulevard are a reminder of what has been lost in the pandemic. It has never been easy for businesses to stay afloat here, under pressure to keep prices low in an area densely populated with competitors. Adaptation has always been a watchword.
During the dark days of 2020, immigrant entrepreneurs saw their American dreams fly away. Catering workers, barely living on low wages, lost their jobs and some returned to their home countries. Language barriers and a lack of know-how have made it difficult for minority-owned businesses to navigate bureaucracy and obtain government assistance in the event of a pandemic, such as federal paycheck protection loans.
Anxiety in the San Gabriel Valley on the eve of the state’s reopening is manifesting itself in the area’s immigrant-rich shopping districts, from Whittier Boulevard in East LA to downtown Little Tokyo. Customers are back, but not at pre-pandemic levels. The businesses here are interconnected, with people walking remotely for, say, dim sum, then staying for shopping or coffee.
How far this consumer cycle will rebound is unclear.
“It has been a difficult and difficult year – the fear, the anxiety, which you have all overcome, are not lost on any of us,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a press conference in San on Monday. Francisco. âWe recognizeâ¦ our responsibility not only to be here today and tomorrow, but as we recover as a state, aware of the disparities that persist in the state, aware of our responsibility to support our small businesses and to get our hospitality and tourism industry back on its feet. “
In YungHo at the height of the pandemic, Zhang and another employee drove to Diamond Bar and Riverside to drop off food at no additional cost. They just wanted to keep the kitchen running.
Taiwanese breakfast is usually enjoyed at a cafe table. Youtiao loses its airy crunch in a few minutes. But customers, always wanting to start their days with familiar tastes, place take-out and delivery orders. Now the restaurant is back.
âLast spring, you know, we thought we might lose our jobs if we don’t try at all,â Zhang said. âWe must always serve people.
Other restaurants have also broken new ground, said David Chan, an LA lawyer and food historian who has eaten at more than 7,700 Chinese restaurants, many in the San Gabriel Valley.
Fondue restaurants created take-out kits, in the hopes that customers would make the soup boiling and the raw ingredients at home.
To boost revenue, restaurants sold non-perishable products linked to the pandemic such as masks, face shields and hand sanitizers. They stopped accepting credit cards, to save money on fees.
âThey can’t stay with the same habits and have awakened to new demands,â Chan said.
Some people familiar with Valley Boulevard say the shadow of anti-Asian violence, which has increased during the pandemic, is noticeable and can drive customers away.
âThere is a lot of pressure in society, and there can be a lot of danger,â said Maple Yuan, manager of Banh Mi Che Cali on Valley Boulevard in Rosemead. “But we try to focus on what we know and what customers want: good food, good prices and cleanliness.”
During the pandemic, Yuan nearly halved its staff of 30, opening later and closing earlier.
Business is now on the rise. Recently, customers grabbed cans of Vietnamese vermicelli with crab, tomatoes and broth to go, along with crispy egg rolls and baguette sandwiches selling for between $ 3.75 and $ 5.25.
As the crowd showed, Valley Boulevard has spread beyond its Chinese and Taiwanese roots. There were Korean American students who ate on a budget, Filipino nurses who dined for their night shift, and two Vietnamese sisters who translated ingredients for a Latino couple who bought desserts.
Hand sanitizing stations in front of cash registers can become a permanent fixture.
People have become “more difficult” during the pandemic, Yuan said. âThey look at each item – how it was packaged, how it was packaged. They ask, ‘Does it look clean?’
With many restaurants crammed into malls, alfresco dining has been slow to spread to parts of Valley Boulevard.
But Joz Wang, a marketing consultant whose family has owned a property in the Alhambra for 45 years, said alfresco dining is a habit in Asia that could take hold here, along with the late-night snacks already on offer in some cafes.
âWe really come to see how resilient Valley is, how the same space you’ve always known is reinventing itself,â Wang said.
At the Shanghai restaurant, plastic take-out bags filled with red-baked pork belly and steamed buns sat on an empty table, outnumbering lunchtime diners.
This trend is likely to continue, manager Jensen Zheng said.
The restaurant, located in San Gabriel Square, a historic mall on Valley Boulevard anchored by a 99 Ranch supermarket, contracts not only with Uber Eats and Postmates, but with Asian-inspired vendors such as Chowbus, HungryPanda, and Fantuan .
âIt’s been a ghost town for months and it’s very, very worryingâ¦ we’ve turned our attention to take out,â Zheng said.
Valley Boulevard attracts Asian Americans from across the region as well as international tourists. That traffic from outside the area almost came to a halt during the pandemic, said Michael Lin, who started a food tour of the San Gabriel Valley for the tour company Six Taste.
“The region is sure to thrive again. And restaurants that are flexible and can adapt to outdoor and takeout and third-party delivery applications will do so, even with changing state and county regulations.” , Lin said. “But some of the mom-and-pop places may not make it, because they may not be as tech-savvy, or may not have enough staff to handle all the changes.”
Some people still aren’t comfortable eating indoors, so restaurants will have to fill outdoor seating areas or find new ways to attract customers, said Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent.
“The only sign that things are not back to normal is that you can find parking right away,” he said of San Gabriel Square.
Since Petrillo’s opened 67 years ago on Valley Boulevard east of San Gabriel Boulevard, the region’s population has grown from majority white to predominantly Asian and Latino.
Petrillo co-founder Norbert Lighthouse still owns the Italian pizzeria. Her sons and a daughter-in-law run it.
Takeout was already booming before the pandemic, so Petrillo’s continued to make their special pizza laden with salami, pepperoni, peppers, mushrooms, onions and sausages.
But the restaurant’s long-standing role as a venue for wedding banquets, graduation parties and joint viewing of the Dodgers has been suspended. The hair salon next door has closed. A nearby florist has struggled to secure orders and a travel agency has yet to reopen.
Still, the worst may have passed for Valley Boulevard, said Helen Lighthouse, Norbert Lighthouse’s daughter-in-law.
âThere is so much hope on the streets. You have heard the words ‘ghost town’ all the time during the pandemic,â she said. “But people look for comfort in the familiar. They are trying to get back to normal or a new kind of normal, and we will bounce back.”
(Los Angeles Times editor Priscella Vega contributed to this report.)
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