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Part 3: Economic impacts of COVID-19 on Burmese restaurants

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Part 3: Economic impacts of COVID-19 on Burmese restaurants

Picture of SweSwe Aye

This story was written by SweSwe Aye while participating in the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2021 California Fellowship.

Her other stories include:

Part 1:  Burmese American Community's Vaccination Efforts

Part 2: Health and mortality impacts on Burmese Community by COVID-19 pandemic

Indoor dining in Yokohama lekei Ramen Restaurant in Fremont after California’s reopening.
Indoor dining in Yokohama lekei Ramen Restaurant in Fremont after California’s reopening.
(Photo by SweSwe Aye)
Myanmar Gazette
Friday, December 17, 2021

Jasmine Oo, the owner of her namesake restaurant “Unique Jasmine,” was excited about serving “hot, delicious” Burmese Chinese dishes at the food court of North Gate Mall, in Marin County, California. She is a 10-year veteran of the restaurant industry. Jasmine would start cooking at 8 am, so that when her food stall opened at 10 am, she would have her most popular dishes – Orange Chicken, Coconut Chicken, Chinese fried noodles, and fried rice. It was hard work but for four years she enjoyed serving Asian food to people of different races and ethnicities at the mall. “I was proud that my cooking was popular among so many different people,” she said.

Everything changed in spring 2020. When the pandemic started, the food service industry followed state COVID-19 guidelines. “We closed our dining-in service and just sold take-out orders,” Jasmine said. “Our daily income declined day by day, and we had to reduce the number of staff.” They were also worried about getting infected themselves. “There was a shortage of PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) like masks and hand sanitizer available. It was a very hard time,” Jasmine said. In the end, North Gate Mall couldn’t withstand the financial difficulties during the pandemic and closed permanently in May 2020.  She hasn’t been able to open another restaurant because of high rents and fears about the Delta and Omicron variants. “I am thinking about moving out of California at the end of 2021,” she said sadly.

Like other restaurants in California, the more than two dozen Burmese restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles were badly affected by the pandemic. Because of language and cultural differences, however, Burmese restaurant owners often didn’t benefit from state and federal relief efforts for small businesses, making their survival and recovery even more difficult. There were language barriers because the forms for the PPP loans and other government funds were in English. And Burmese community members who might otherwise have conducted workshops or offered assistance in filling out the forms were focused on helping support relatives back home after the military coup in Burma in February 2021 and the subsequent violence there. 

In May 2021, California state legislators held a special hearing on the impacts and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s restaurant industry. They heard that few sectors have been “battered” more by the COVID-19 pandemic, with as many as a third of restaurants estimated to have permanently closed and two thirds of restaurant workers estimated to have lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, although many jobs returned with the gradual reopening of restaurants. 

Nationally, the restaurant industry lost $240 billion in sales for 2020 and rising labor costs add to challenges facing the industry in the months since then.  

Aye and Si Thu, who prefer to only use their first names, opened their Burmese restaurant Nadi Myanmar, which means River Myanmar, in Alhambra, a small city in Southern California, in 2018. It was their first restaurant and a family affair. Si Thu ran the restaurant, Aye cooked and three of their four children helped serve customers on weekends and holidays. Aye used her family recipes to make her popular Burmese curries and customers also enjoyed her fish cakes stuffed with salad, Shan noodles (a specialty of the Shan ethnic minority group) and Kyay Oo (noodles soup with pork, vegetables and quail egg). “I love cooking and opening a Burmese restaurant was my dream,” Aye said. She was proud that Burmese immigrants throughout the San Gabriel valley would come to eat her food and she hoped to expand their menu. 

But the pandemic changed their plans. In February 2020, they had to serve to-go orders only. “We can’t earn our regular income back, but we tried our best to pay the rent,” Aye said. Even when California reopened dine-in restaurants in mid-June 2021, the couple remained concerned about the Delta variant. They have four children who are students and if they get infected they would have to miss school and stay home. Aye’s parents, who were senior citizens, also lived close to them and Aye was concerned about them getting infected. “We were worried all the time trying to balance our family’s health and finances,” Aye said. They didn’t apply for a PPP loan or any other government grants because the family didn’t want to take on additional debt, knowing they would likely have to take out loans for their children’s education in the future.  

Finally when their lease came to an end in September 2021, they decided with heavy hearts to close Nadi Myanmar permanently. Now, they deliver homemade Burmese food orders during weekends.

San, who prefers to only use her first name, owned the restaurant in El Monte called Cetanamon, which means kind heart in Burmese. It is well known for its authentic Burmese food, including Burmese tea leaf salad, Mon Hin Gar (fish chowder), Nan-Gyi-Thoke (chicken rice noodle salad), Burmese fish curry and Burmese desserts. She was struggling to keep her doors open during the pandemic and had to lay off 40 percent of the staff. San said her income was half what she made the year before COVID. In addition to her financial hardship, she also experienced a break-in during the pandemic, which made her feel unsafe. The restaurant door was broken down in April 2020, and the burglar took the money from the cash counter. A few months later, a man came into the restaurant at 11 a.m. and robbed money that customers had offered for good luck to the Buddhist statue that was near the front entrance. San was so worried for everyone’s safety that she decided to limit the restaurant’s hours. 

“Nothing happened like this in four years before the pandemic,” she said. San thinks it was because they only had a few staff working during the pandemic. But there has also been a broader rise in retail thefts this year in California, the subject of a state-wide anti-crime effort led by the governor. While there is no evidence of anti-Asian motivations by the thieves, she also worries it could be related to anti-Asian American attacks. According to a Stop AAPI Hate report, there has been a significant increase in hate crimes during the pandemic. Asians have been taunted, shunned, physically assaulted, spat and coughed on, shoved, choked and knocked unconscious. One of the most common reasons was people falsely blaming Asians for the coronavirus. This also affected the communities’ mental health. A survey found that many Asian Americans were more stressed by anti-Asian hate than by coronavirus. San says she still loves cooking but now she feels unsafe at work and isn’t as happy going to the restaurant every day.  (If you believe you have been the victim of a hate crime, report the incident to the police and https://stopaapihate.org.) 

According to the California Restaurant Association, restaurants are still struggling to get back to business as usual. Soe Thuya, a Burmese restaurant owner agrees. He had two Yokohama Lekei Ramen restaurants in Fremont and had to close one of them last year. “The daily sales of each restaurant was $4,500 a day before the pandemic and it declined to $700 to $800 a day in 2020,” he said. Soe blames the high rents. His income in 2021 is around one third lower than two years ago, before the pandemic. “Landlord didn’t waive the rent debt for all the year,” he said. Soe applied and received some money from PPP loans and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. He was lucky. Many Burmese business owners said they were not sure how to apply for the government money. There is just one Burmese community center in the Bay Area and none in Los Angeles, so community leaders didn’t have an easy way to reach the multi-ethnic, multilingual Burmese community.

Soe says now that restaurants have reopened (though with reduced capacity), businesses face other challenges. For one, labor shortages. “Amazon, warehouses and the other delivery services are now offering higher wages than us and we can’t beat them.” Another difficulty is the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant and now the new omicron variant. In addition, many office workers are still working from home and aren’t going out to restaurants as often. Soe believes it will take at least one or two years before the restaurant industry gets back to normal.

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