Hope Amidst a Bittersweet Farewell - Little Tokyo Service Center

Hope Amidst a Bittersweet Farewell

By Mariko Lochridge, LTSC Small Business Counselor

When I first met Kenji (owner of Little Tokyo legacy business Suehiro Cafe) in late 2018, he sought support from LTSC’s Small Business Program to create a business plan for a potential Texas location. As an entrepreneur who inherited a successful restaurant, Kenji had never done market research or financial projections, so I shared tools and resources to support him. We spent 3 months working together, and the plan changed into opening a takeout concept in Chinatown instead. 

Unfortunately, the next time I met with Kenji was under much less hopeful circumstances. The pandemic hit in March 2020, forcing dine-in restaurants like Suehiro to pivot to delivery and takeout. With no previous online presence, Suehiro Cafe was virtually invisible–and Kenji was not the only one suffering from this problem. Dozens of legacy businesses across Los Angeles reached out to our program asking for help with everything from applying for PPP loans to setting up sales platforms like Uber Eats. Thankfully many of these businesses survived the pandemic and are stronger today for it. But in the big picture, they’re still facing an uphill battle.

local youth tour new Suehiro location with Kenji and Mariko

Local youth from LTSC’s after school program tour new Suehiro location with Kenji (Suehiro owner) and Mariko (LTSC small business counselor)

Little Tokyo is crucial to the Japanese American community, with businesses like Suehiro contributing to its cultural identity. Like many others, I can’t imagine Little Tokyo without these businesses. Yet, barriers like language, technology, and gentrification threaten their future. So while Suehiro was able to weather the pandemic, rising rent and gentrifying forces eventually pushed them out. Organizations like LTSC are fighting back against this nightmarish outcome for other Little Tokyo small businesses, and supporting legacy small businesses is key to this effort. 

Our small business program tackles these issues from multiple angles. We advocate and make recommendations for larger policy changes, like LA City Council’s Legacy Business Program. We provide direct technical assistance to business owners covering everything from digital marketing to loan applications. We build intergenerational volunteer programs to provide extra support and foster community connections. We help launch creative collaborations between our local businesses to give the whole neighborhood a boost. Even LTSC’s annual Sake and food tasting fundraiser showcases local small businesses. But systemic challenges persist, making Suehiro (and the dozens of businesses that closed during the pandemic) cautionary tales.

As Suehiro enters its last month on Historic First Street and holds its soft opening at its new location downtown, our work continues. Recently, we organized a tour of the new restaurant for local youth in LTSC’s after school program. Kenji shared Suehiro’s story and the youth met artist Robert Vargas as he painted a mural honoring Suehiro’s multigenerational history. One of the youth attendees is the daughter of a Fugetsudo employee, which led to a full circle discussion about the importance of Little Tokyo’s legacy businesses and the younger generations’ role in keeping our community’s culture and history alive. 

 While Suehiro leaves Little Tokyo’s geographic bounds, they remain an LTSC client and an integral part of the community. In fact, they’re exactly the type of business LTSC envisions as a commercial tenant in our upcoming First Street North project. For me, although the work is urgent and daunting at times, I treasure the history of our neighborhood’s small businesses and forge ahead towards the vision of a Little Tokyo worth fighting for. 

 

Learn more about LTSC’s Small Business Program and our free workshops.

Become a small business volunteer and join the Small Biz Hype Squad!

Read about LTSC’s small business program in the LA Times

 

Sign up to participate in Suehiro’s test kitchen, and receive a 20% off coupon.

Suehiro’s website: www.suehirocafe.com

Follow Suehiro on social media @SuehiroCafeLittleTokyo 

Read about Suehiro in the LA Times

 

No Comments

Post A Comment
Accessibility Tools
hide