In early February, the staff at four-year-old Bronze Empire on South Colorado Boulevard was surprised by a negative review on their Facebook page. The now-deleted post was accompanied by a photo of a Chinese person eating a bat, an image that was certainly not captured at the Denver restaurant, which specializes in Chinese hot pot.
“It was a post from a completely fake account saying that they got coronavirus from eating there and that we served bats or something,” says Kenneth Yoon, director of operations for One Concept Restaurant Group, which owns Bronze Empire. “It was just blatant prejudice and racism. That’s why Bronze was one of the first restaurants we closed.”
In late March, after state-mandated dine-in closures were put into effect, One Concept temporarily shuttered seven out of 10 of its restaurants, including Bronze Empire, Littleton’s Makizushico, and Thornton’s Sushi Umi. The group’s Kung Fu Tea and Go Fish Sushi locations have remained open for takeout, but Yoon says that the revenue from those two restaurants has only softened the financial blow the group has experienced. A significant loss in sales isn’t uncommon for restaurants during this unprecedented time—but acts of racism are one of the additional challenges some Asian-owned restaurants are facing.
On March 21, Jie Zheng, the owner of 10-year-old Volcano Asian Cuisine in Greenwood Village, was coping with an 80-percent revenue loss when he received calls from a blocked number. “Someone called the restaurant a few times with F bombs and racial slurs and hung up,” he says. “That was disturbing.”
Zheng, who is offering a simplified menu of Chinese and Japanese dishes for takeout, also experienced an act of vandalism on Volcano’s property in late February. “Someone just cut right across the tire on my car, so I reported it to the police and the landlord,” he says. “I don’t have any specific confirmation of whether it was race-related or an anti-Asian incident. It’s typically a very nice town. But we always know that in any place, in any country, there are always some bad apples.”
Apart from fielding a few coronavirus-related prank calls, Long Nguyen of one-year-old Anise Modern Vietnamese Eatery on Lincoln has not received any further negative feedback or harassment. “No one has come to our restaurant to picket or complain,” says Nguyen, who owns the Golden Triangle restaurant with his wife, chef Quyen Trinh. “We’re very lucky that our customer base has been really good to us.”
Yoon, Zheng, and Nguyen all told 5280 they were grateful for the support of their communities; it appears that there may be fewer incidents of anti-Asian racism in Denver compared to what Asian Americans are experiencing elsewhere. “We’ve had Asian Americans report instances of being spit on or leered at in grocery store parking lots,” says Fran Campbell, president and CEO of the Asian Chamber of Commerce. “But fortunately, we haven’t had the big assaults like what’s happening out in New York, Texas, and California. But everybody is scared because that could happen here.”
Campbell says a diminished customer base is the biggest obstacle for Asian restaurants, supermarkets, and retail outlets. In late February, more than a dozen Asian-owned spots in Aurora and along South Federal Boulevard reported a 40 percent drop in patronage from white and non-white customers. “Businesses have had to deal with not just the shutdown, but with anti-Asian paranoia, even before the first coronavirus case was reported in Colorado,” Campbell says. “As all of these small businesses are looking to reopen, Asian-owned businesses are six weeks behind them.”
The chamber has been busier than ever providing resources to help its over 140 member businesses apply for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and local and federal stimulus relief funds. The process is more challenging for minority-owned businesses due to language and cultural barriers, Campbell says.
Volcano Asian, Anise, and a few of One Concept Restaurant Group’s restaurants were able to secure PPP loans, but all of the establishments 5280 spoke with are uncertain about what the future will hold.
Anise relies on dine-in service for 90 percent of its sales, so Nguyen was eager to open on May 27 with the state’s revised safety guidelines in place. The pho restaurant celebrated its one-year anniversary on May 10 and was just beginning to see an increase in monthly sales before the coronavirus hit. “With only 50 percent inside capacity allowed right now, we really are not sure if we are going to make any money. But we have to push on,” Nguyen said in an email. “Outdoor expansion onto the sidewalks adjacent to Anise is going to help a little bit, but the application process is very confusing with too many steps.”
Volcano Asian Cuisine and all of One Concept Restaurant Group’s venues do not plan to welcome patrons for in-house dining just yet. Though Volcano’s Zheng says executing the required distance between tables inside the restaurant and on the patio wouldn’t be a problem, a lack of sufficient coronavirus testing and contact tracing and the unpredictable demand—or lack thereof—for dine-in service are among the reasons he intends to continue with takeout and delivery service only for the time being. “I think Volcano is one of several restaurants that are not ready to immediately reopen for dine-in under the current environment, with the limitations imposed and with the risks to employees and customers,” Zheng says.
Bronze Empire began selling DIY hot pot kits and other to-go dishes last week, and One Concept Restaurant Group plans to reopen Makizushico and Sushi Umi for takeout only in June. “We read through the guidelines that the state and city mandated. We will not be opening for dine-in until COVID-19 subsides,” One Concept Restaurant Group’s Yoon said in an email. “We will continue to operate to go, delivery, and curbside pick up. We do not want to risk the safety of our staff and guests. The risk is not even close to the reward.”