Asian businesses in Houston look to rebound from struggles of COVID-19 during Lunar New Year

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- After nearly two years of unique hardships, a number of local Asian business owners are looking to Lunar New Year for an opportunity to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Debbie Chen became a co-owner of Shabu House at the end of 2019, shortly before the start of the pandemic. Chen said she could have never predicted what was about to happen.

"Even before the start of the pandemic, there were these malicious rumors about how there were people walking around grocery stores and restaurants in Asiatown and potentially infecting people," said Chen. "We saw businesses lose anywhere between 80% to 90% of their customers."

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These false rumors impacted Asian-owned businesses along Bellaire Boulevard, even before the first cases of COVID hit and shut down the city of Houston. Kenneth Li, chairman of the Asian Chamber of Commerce recalled Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Congressman Al Green, and Rep. Gene Wu coming together to dine and shop in the area to encourage the public to return for business.

Kevin Kan, developer of Bellaire Food Street said he saw an uptick in graffiti, vandalism, and burglaries that crippled a number of business owners financially. In 2020 and 2021, he recorded about a dozen incidents -- some of which occurred multiple times at the same businesses.



"At the peak, we had as many as four different nights of the storefronts being hit in a matter of a few weeks. It grew very tiresome and some stores didn't even want to bother reporting it to HPD anymore," Kan said. "Insurance was of no help either, due to high deductibles and the high cost of glass replacement. Business owners were stuck in the middle, needing to pay thousands out of pocket to repair multiple windows each time."

Although Chen said her business was never a victim to vandalism or graffiti, her store continued to struggle when restaurants shifted to takeout only. She attributed the reason to the type of food they specialize in.

"Hot pot is comfort food. Most people wouldn't think of it as something that you could order as takeout. For a business like us, it was dramatic. There were times when we would only make a couple thousand for the entire month," she said.

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Chen said her business was faced with the hard decision of laying off employees, but they chose to keep everyone.

"I couldn't let people go. I couldn't face telling people to go home and not have pay. You're literally telling people to go home and starve," she said. "My partner and I took money out of our personal savings. We borrowed money from credit lines and credit cards. We did everything we needed to do to make sure our people were still employed."

Chen's business unexpectedly became a space to support local organizations on their civic engagement efforts, such as OCA Greater Houston during their census outreach efforts. She said during that time, they reached 221,000 doors and helped employ other out-of-work restaurant workers.

"That was the saving grace and consolation that got me through this. I thought at least we were in the right place at the right time to support the community and make sure that our community members who live in this area got counted for the census," said Chen.



To help ease the blow for Asian-owned restaurants, Li said the Asian Chamber of Commerce efforted a project called Salute to Heroes. They raised $150,000 within a month to buy hot meals from local businesses and delivered them to essential workers. Li said they also delivered more than a million PPE items to schools and local agencies.

Even as COVID restrictions began to lift and customers returned for business, Asian restaurants started to face a new set of problems with a labor shortage.

"They couldn't get enough people to work for them anymore. With restaurants, they're very labor-intensive. We saw people who had to do the work of a dishwasher, kitchen prep, cook, and everything by themselves," said Li. "I know a few owners that were forced to either retire or close down their business because they couldn't handle that."

Chen said another issue they are still facing is inflation.



"The disruption and shortages of labor has made the price of food go up so much. To put this in perspective, a 5-gallon container of oil has doubled in price. Certain vegetables have tripled and quadrupled in price," she said. "You may be able to add $1 or $2 to your prices here and there, but you're not going to double or triple your prices for customers. It just wouldn't be practical."

Chen, Li, and Kan said this Lunar New Year brings a new sense of hope for Houston's Asian business community with more people gathering to celebrate in person -- some for the first time in two years. They hope that the Year of the Tiger, which symbolizes resilience and strength, will bring opportunities for the area to bounce back from the pandemic.

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"I'm hoping, along with everybody else, that this is a good boost for everyone ... that people will want to come out and see friends and family," said Chen. "I also hope that once COVID is stabilized and under control, the supply chain and labor will become more predictable."

"I feel the momentum. People want to come out, socialize with friends that they haven't seen in a long time and gather with family for a big meal. This is one of the busiest seasons for this area," said Li.

"We've persevered through 2020 and 2021 and hope that 2022 will bring about normalcy to our community. We've seen many of the businesses in the area bounce back and everyone's parking lots full again, which is a great sign that 2020-2021 is behind us," said Kan.

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