Helping with Heart - Little Tokyo Service Center

Helping with Heart

Kenji Suzuki eating with his mother Junko Suzuki, owners of the family business SuehiroKenji Suzuki, owner of Suehiro Cafe (a Little Tokyo legacy business) has been working closely with LTSC to weather the pandemic’s devastation on his personal and professional life. “Mariko (LTSC Small Business Counselor) matched me with volunteers, gave me Little Tokyo Eats orders to help with revenue, and helped me apply for business loans. Mariko and [LTSC volunteers] even helped me create an online memorial to honor my late mother, who recently passed away due to complications from COVID-19. I can’t thank Mariko enough for all that she’s helped me with. She’s our beacon of light. She’s always accessible and always there. She’s been a huge help. I think she’s kept the whole small business community together as far as I’m concerned,” said Suzuki.

What has LTSC been able to assist Suehiro with?

LTSC’s volunteers Jason and Kathy help run my social media accounts and make updates to my website, since I know very little about that. It’s wonderful that they can help us, so we can stay in touch with our customers and let them know we’re still here and in business. The Little Tokyo Eats program also had a big impact. Our landlord isn’t giving us a break on rent. But with LT Eats, if we got four Mondays of meals through the program, it was enough money to cover rent. So that was a big deal for us at the time. LTSC also helped me apply for loans. I was hesitant to look for loans because I heard of a lot of scams going around. I only applied to loans that Mariko had linked to my email, so I knew they were legitimate. She alerted me about new opportunities and would actually help fill out some of the applications, which really helped me out right after my mother died.

I’m so sorry to hear that your mother passed away from complications due to COVID-19. Tell me about this memorial project that LTSC volunteers  helped create on social media?

Mariko, Jason and Kathy created a mini series of stories of how people remembered my mother. We talked about my mother and how she got started in the States, how she built Suehiro, and how I got involved in the business. It’s a series of posts on Suehiro’s Instagram and Facebook pages.

Because of the pandemic, you couldn’t hold a public service for your mother.. How has this memorial project helped you and your family process Junko’s passing and honor her memory?

My mother has been in this community for so long. Everybody knew her – especially the older generation. They wanted to come pay their respects, but we didn’t want to be responsible for a super-spreader event, so we kept the service just within the family. It was sad that she passed away and no one could go see her. The last time I saw her in person was back in March when the nursing home went into lockdown. We would FaceTime, but it’s not the same. This online series was a nice way to bring her back and show everybody that she lived a good life and left a nice place for everybody to gather. This is a way for everyone to pay their respects and honor her.

How will your mother’s memory and legacy live on in Suehiro?

I was very proud of her. Growing up, all the other stores were owned by men and my mother was the only woman that was running a business. Even as a child I could see how other people viewed her and how everybody talked to her. They talked to her with a lot of respect. Running a restaurant isn’t easy and Suehiro was not a very popular place in the earlier days. She would try to save money for her employees by eating over ripe bananas. That’s what she ate to keep the business going. That experience really toughened her up, so when the business got off the ground and was doing well, people had a lot of respect for her because they knew all the hardships that she went through and didn’t give up. When I took over, I made a promise to myself that I’d keep the business going while she was alive. When she passed away, it was bittersweet. I felt like I accomplished my mission of keeping the business afloat, but it was sad because I lost her.

For new customers or people that didn’t have the chance to know your mom, what’s something you’d want them to know about her?

She always told me, “the customer is God”. She had the best service of any person alive, because of the hardships she went through. Every customer that came through the door was a make or break moment. If that customer didn’t come back, it would lead to her downfall. So she treated every single customer well and made sure they came back again. Always talking to them, thanking them. And it’s not the same now – when she said it, you felt something from that. You knew that you had to come back because there was something in the way she looked at you or the tone of her voice or her gestures – it made you want to come back. If you didn’t know my mom but you came to the restaurant, you would definitely come again.

What was your mom’s favorite dish on the menu? 

The house special. It’s a stir-fry bell pepper, eggplant and beef dish braised in miso sauce. There’s no real name for the dish, so we called it the house special. When my mother was in Japan, the cafeteria at her first job served this dish. She liked it so much she asked the cafeteria lady for the recipe. So that became our house special.

What does it mean to you to have the support of LTSC and the Little Tokyo community?

Without LTSC, I wouldn’t be here. My restaurant probably wouldn’t be here. The impact that they had on me is total. After experiencing such devastating news one after the other, your will to keep going and keep the business alive starts to evaporate. And in those times, Mariko, Jason and Kathy (LTSC volunteers) really helped me. Just to have someone to talk to that helped me keep going. It’s still not easy –  every day it’s hard to wake up in the morning, but having meetings with them keeps me accountable and gets me out of bed. They’ve helped me more than they probably know.

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