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Stories

A Year Of Stories From AAPI Voices

While we’re publishing special features for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at Zagat, we’re committed to covering AAPI subjects in the restaurant and hospitality industry year-round. Accountability and transparency are critical in these efforts. Here’s a collection of stories from AAPI voices from June 2021 to April 2022—that is, in all the other months besides May—from oldest to newest.

The Upside Of Slowing Down At Saucy Porka
“There were all these moments that stopped me in my tracks. I felt like I was doing the same thing every day for the past few years. Suddenly I had to rethink my entire concept and redo everything. It was refreshing. I look at that as a positive because it made me get out of that rut that I was in.”

How NYC’s Atoboy Stayed Open And Connected To Community
“Among our regular customers is a couple named Casper and Dora. They were super-regular guests before the pandemic, but after the pandemic hit, they came out to pick up their own food every Friday, no matter if it was a rainy day or snowy day. They cooked and baked for themselves, and whenever they came on Friday they always dropped off some food for us too when they picked up our food. Every single week, they made a pastry or granola or cake for us. When we reopened our restaurant, they were our first guests, and they brought us flowers. And whenever we did a merchandise collaboration, they bought everything.”

All Day Baby’s Lien Ta On Speaking Up For Community
“What I’ve learned through all of these experiences is that if I say something—if I speak up—chances are that someone is listening. I have to have a voice in this community because I work in a place of leadership. I’m someone’s boss, I’m someone’s employer, and I guess I’m someone’s community leader, too. It’s not really what I’m most comfortable doing, but I’m happy that I’ve overcome a little bit of this fear. I wouldn’t even have known what a community is, or what it means to me, if this hadn’t happened.”

Francesca Hong On The Road From Restaurants To Politics
“I think restaurant workers are inherently committed to care. What that looks like, and how it’s defined, should be connected to politics. Income disparities, housing, public transportation—what directly impacts the service industry workforce impacts the workforce across Wisconsin too.”

Ellen Yin On Collaboration As Pandemic Survival Strategy
“I’ve learned so much by being on calls with people in other cities. Sometimes you hear something out of context that strikes a note and is a great way to move forward. For example, women in Chicago were getting their food out to the suburbs by scheduling through a home-repair app, an Angie’s List type thing. So my group did something similar, where we partnered with somebody who was coordinating food for people in the suburbs, trying to curate great brands together and have them all hooked up 10 to 15 miles outside of Philadelphia.”

The King Cake Triumph Of A Vietnamese Bakery In New Orleans
“At first our sales were pretty dismal. I think we sold about one hundred king cakes our first season. Either people didn’t hear about us, or they figured what would a Vietnamese family know about making king cake? Now we make 1,200 king cakes each day during Carnival season.”

What Does It Take To Run An Ethical Neighborhood Restaurant?Yuka Ioroi and Kris Toliao
“When we opened Cassava here in San Francisco, a big part of our mission was focused on avoiding exploitation in our work environment and the way we source ingredients. We don’t want to sell things that are made with blood. We don’t want any sorrow, any resentment in the food because it’s about energy. It’s not morally right.”

The Kim Brothers Missed Kanye But Sold A Lot of Sausage
“I’m a huge Kanye West fan, but I didn’t see a single song of the concert. Zero. When we were working, it was just like boom, boom, boom, just the bass rumbling the whole time. My friend, she left a little early, and she’s like, ‘Hey, these are VIP tickets, front row. Go enjoy yourself.’ And I remember I was heading home and was like, ‘Should I go watch one song? Or should I go home?’ I went home.”

Love Brought Hong Thaimee Back To RestaurantsChef Hong Thaimee poses inside her restaurant, Thaimee Love
“I am learning every day not to be too mean to myself. I deserve kindness, too. I learned not to get too upset when things don’t go our way.”

Sheldon Simeon On Ohana And Prioritizing His Own CommunityChef Sheldon Simeon stands in his restaurant, Tin Roof
“My wife, Janice, runs the restaurant, and I tag along. We both have learned to respect what we’re good at. We always ask each other’s opinion on things, but we understand that to be successful, we trust in each other’s decisions. It’s great that we get to spend time together. We get to be mom and dad of our staff. I’m excited to see my staff grow. These guys are hungry and passionate, and they’re going to get their opportunity to go into these higher-responsibility roles. It gives me the opportunity to do other things. I want to see them succeed.”

How Resilience (And A Viral TikTok) Saved A Vegan Taiwanese Restaurant
“Like with anything that’s viral, we got tons of attention that first week. We got customers from all over the place. People drove down from San Francisco, San Diego. They even came from New York and Chicago. People came from everywhere to try out the restaurant, and they really enjoyed it.”

Sophina Uong On Making Waves While Treading Lightly At Mister Mao
“We wanted to cook the food that we like to eat, and the stuff we miss having. Heavily spicy, South Asian flavors, just a mashup of whatever. At first, I spent a lot of time worrying, ‘I don’t know if people like this, or if it’s too weird, or not New Orleans.’ I still don’t tell people I’m from California. I tell people I’m from Minnesota. I’m a snowflake. We tread lightly here.”

Lindsay Jang On Surviving By Following The Love
“All in all, I think that we have been fine, though our perspective and goals of profitability have completely changed. Now it’s like, let’s make sure we can break even, let’s make sure we don’t have to let go of any staff, or cut the quality of the food. There’s so many things that you could do to save money in the short term. But we’ve stood our ground. We’re not about to fire a bunch of people or order shittier ingredients. What I have realized is you really come together as a team, and we’ve always been anchored in that mentality.”

Amelie Kang On Gaining Confidence And Inspiring New School Chinese Cuisine
“I think people’s perceptions of Chinese food have changed, but we’re not there yet. This is just the beginning. Also, the pandemic really set us back. There was a really good momentum going on at the end of 2019. We would hear stories about people trying to open new types of Chinese restaurants. People were going really, really regional. But unfortunately, the pandemic killed a lot of that. I think it is changing, because you can see different clienteles that we didn’t see before.”

Judy Ni: Even Small Restaurants Need To Invest In Their Teams
“As an industry, we need to focus and treat ourselves and value our work. That includes reexamining the way that we’ve done things simply because it’s been done this way for so many years. Clearly, we knew—we all knew—that there were problems, and yet we were happy as an industry because it worked, and it was fine for now. And that is a dangerous way to operate a business in general, because now that we’ve seen that it’s a brittle and broken system, what are we going to do to address that?”