It's a slow climb back to normal for restaurants across the region, but worse for those owned by people of Asian descent, said state Rep. Tram Nguyen of Andover.
Bouncing back from the COVID-19 crisis been difficult for Asian-owned restaurants because they suffer from more than pandemic-related shutdowns, Nguyen said.
“Our local businesses have all been impacted by the pandemic, but businesses owned by Asian Americans and Asians have been hit especially hard this past year because anti-Asian rhetoric and scapegoating for the pandemic have caused a decline in patronage for many of them,” she said.
Nguyen and her fellow members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) caucus at the State House are working to ensure that Asian businesses are recognized in May, which is AAPI Heritage Month. Joined by U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Westford, and state and local officials, Nguyen recently visited Raagini Indian Bistro, Thai Sweet Basil and Karma, all in the Shawsheen Plaza.
Those restaurants received federal COVID-19 relief through the Paycheck Protection Program. The program helped the restaurants through some of the worst stretches of the pandemic, but they are still struggling, the owners said.
Jesse Pabla, owner of Raagini Indian Bistro, said he looks forward to welcoming more people to dine at his restaurant, which is offering outdoor seating. He said takeout has been the biggest success this past year for his restaurant.
"We are in recovery," Pabla said. "Dining (in) is not there yet, but we are getting better as more people come out."
The restaurant owners said they want patrons to feel safe coming out to dine because providing that experience — and having their employees earn the tips that go with it — are vital to everyone getting on more solid financial footing.
Iverson Gao, owner of Karma restaurant who also opened a Burlington location with a patio during the pandemic, is having trouble finding employees. He kept all of his Andover employees on the payroll, but is having difficulty luring employees for his new location, he said.
The problem is caused by people not feeling safe working and a lack of tips for workers because too few customers are coming out to dine, he said. Tips are a vital part of the wages earned by workers such as bartenders members of the wait staff, he emphasized.
At Karma's Andover location, the most pressing issue is inflation. The same salmon that cost $4 per pound last year now costs $8, Gao said.
"The sales are there, but the margins are gone," he said, worried he cannot raise his prices or he will lose even more business.
Trahan said officials at the federal level are watching inflation closely, especially after the recent cyber attack which shut down a gas pipeline in the southeast and has caused prices to rise at the pumps.
"It should settle and isn't indicative of the entire economy, and we are keeping a close eye on it," Trahan said about inflation.
While the pandemic has been challenging for small businesses, 59 percent of which report negative effects due to COVID-19, AAPI owners have fared even worse due to an increase in anti-Asian sentiment and decreased patronage. A survey conducted by the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce found that more than 80 percent of AAPI small business owners reported negative effects from the pandemic.
The financial impact of COVID-19 has been severe for small businesses, which have suffered more monetarily than larger businesses, according to Trahan's office. Her office said the financial impact has been even worse for Asian-owned businesses, with early one third of them having missed at least one loan or debt payment since the start of the pandemic, compared with just 19 percent of all small businesses being late with payments. A total of 28 percent of Asian-owned businesses remain behind on their payments, compared to 18 percent of small businesses nationwide, Trahan's office said.
“I was glad to bring together my colleagues at the federal, state and local levels to visit with incredible business owners and for us to hear from them about how vital local support and federal and state funding have been for them to stay afloat during these difficult times," Nguyen said.
"We need to continue to show these businesses and their incredibly hard-working staff the kindness and generosity that they deserve,'' she said. "These small businesses are what make our communities the great places they are, and I am grateful for their resilience and strength to weather the pandemic.”
Nguyen and Trahan both encouraged the business owners to seek help from the representatives' offices while navigating state and federal programs.