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Robberies, Economy Hurt Restaurant Sales

15 October 2008 No Comment

By Adelaide Chen

The nightlife in Oakland’s Eastlake area has never thrived, but it existed quietly. Among the local businesses today, many of the Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants close early, before 8pm.

If it wasn’t enough that the a string of robberies scared away customers in the evenings a few months back, business for the 20 or so restaurant owners have been hit by another factor–the downturn in the economy.

“We lose customers during dinnertime,” said Dien Dam, owner of Pho King Noodle House, which specializes in Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

“This time the economy has gone down and food prices gone up.”

Dam’s restaurant has never been robbed in its 14 year existence. But when four restaurants in the neighborhood last summer, no customers patroned her place after 4 or 5 o’clock.

These days she closes the restaurant at 6:30pm.

“There’s not enough (night)life,” she said. “Nobody walks outside.”

In Eastlake, over 150 small, immigrant-owned businesses line two parallel streets, International Blvd and East 12th. Storefronts often have signs in two or three languages. There are auto repair shops and beauty salons, realty and mortgage brokers, lawyers and doctors that cater to the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Latino residents in the area.

Kimberly To’s family owns New Saigon Supermarket and she has gotten to know how their business is affected directly by the financial situation of her clients.

The store’s highest sales fall on the first of each month when paychecks and food stamps are issued. During property tax season her sales are lower because her clients are saving up.

“They tend to cook at home more than eat out now,” she said. But it hasn’t affected the supermarket’s bottom line “because (the customers) still have to eat.”

Jackie Xian, 36, hasn’t fallen on hard times. But when he eats out with friends, he prefers to drive outside of the neighborhood, he said, to places where there are more businesses open and more people around.

“To have a good time, you need to feel safe,” he said. At 6 o’clock on a recent night, Xian, among others, was picking up takeout items for dinner, and not sticking around.

He said he chooses to meet his friends in other hotspots for Chinese restaurants. He preferred strip malls in Richmond off the 80 interstate, or south down the 880 freeway to the suburbs in Fremont and Milpitas.

Jose Macias said his family-owned restaurant and bar, La Estrellita, has been in business for four decades, and it has never been robbed. But the family takes precautions. The doors lock after dark, and the staff lets
customers in and out.

“I think everyone felt it,” he says of the robberies in Eastlake, that struck four restaurants serving Asian cuisine.

Macias said he noticed a ten percent drop in his sales this year, but his situation might be different compared to the Asian restaurants. His customers come from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds, he said.

“They’re diverse, like Oakland,” he said.

Victor’s, a bar down the street who serves a primarily Latino clientele, hasn’t had much of a drop off in sales either, according to the owner. On a early Sunday evening, a handful of bartenders and servers entertained over 20 customers. Ranchero music blared from the speakers.

Candelario Cuevas, who has owned Victor’s for more than 30 years, said he isn’t too worried about safety.

“The police patrol a lot,” he said. “They come around. You see them almost all night.”

Across from Clinton Park at Cafe DaHuong, Thanh Pham, 33, said more activities and festivals used to be held at the park that drew crowds.

Pham has lived in the neighborhood for over ten years. As far as the nightlife, young people would come to Eastlake, cruising Lake Merritt after hip-hop shows, he said. But the city began enforcing the ban on cruising, he said.

“Because hip-hop is supposed to be violent, the police say,” he said.

The Rainbow Cafe, which serves Hong Kong cuisine, used to be a popular late-night hang out place. It stays open until around midnight.

The manager, Alice Huang, remembers having more customers in their twenties come in.

But this year alone, the cafe has been robbed three times. The owner is thinking about closing the restaurant she said, partly because of the economy, partly because of the robberies.

On an early Sunday evening, there were a few occupied tables. Some of the customers had their eyes glued to the T.V. screen watching a football game.

“In a little while no one will come, once it gets dark,” Huang said, as she prepared for a late night at work.

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