By Daniel Wu
At 7 p.m. on Saturday, one day after Stanford confirmed a case of coronavirus among its faculty and cancelled classes, only two small tables of college students were eating at Sichuanese restaurant Taste in Palo Alto. One block away, Curry Pizza House’s bartenders had more to keep them busy.
“I’ve been passing out shots of lemon juice to boost people’s immune systems,” joked Curry Pizza House waitress Lee Ann Vuk in between serving customers.
Palo Alto restaurants have responded to news of coronavirus in Santa Clara county with varying degrees of concern. Some, facing declining sales and the threat of closure, fear further impacts as Stanford escalates its own response.
Among the businesses reporting significant disruptions are many of the area’s Chinese restaurants.
“Everything’s gone down,” said Sandy Liu, Taste’s owner. “We’re struggling to pay rent, salaries, all the bills.”
Liu estimated that her business had seen at least a 50% decrease in foot traffic over the last two weeks due to news of coronavirus. Employees at Jing Jing Chinese Gourmet, Peking Duck Restaurant and Hong Kong Restaurant reported similar shortfalls, starting as far back as early February.
“During lunch time, we’ve lost at least half of the people,” Liu said. “For night time, it’s been almost dead. No one over the whole weekend.”
“I think most restaurants have been affected, but Chinese restaurants the most,” she added. “The virus is in China. I think [when] most people think about Chinese food, Chinese [people], they have problems. I think that’s the theory.”
Employees at Peking Duck Restaurant and Steam, a Cantonese restaurant, said that Chinese customers especially seemed to be staying home. Victor Lau, assistant manager at Steam, told The Daily that he had heard of a few Chinese restaurants that were closing, including one in Millbrae that was closing for two weeks after business dropped.
“There are no Chinese customers; they’re worried,” said Linda Chen, a waitress at Peking Duck Restaurant, when asked about customer reactions to coronavirus news. “They’re scared because they’ve seen a lot of [coronavirus] news from China.”
Asked about the impact of coronavirus on their business, other restaurants described smaller drops in foot traffic amid a mood of uncertainty. Stephan Walsh, general manager of Tin Pot Creamery, said he doesn’t expect to see an effect on his business until an official announcement like local school closures. Dustin Carpenter, assistant manager of Lemonade, and Rick Juncker, owner of Kirk’s Steakburgers, also said they had not yet experienced a noticeable change in business.
“It hasn’t really affected us too bad, but we have seen a slight drop in numbers,” said George Garcia, a supervisor at Pizza My Heart. “But I do think it has taken a toll on restaurants throughout the area for sure.”
Most restaurants interviewed described stepping up precautions, including more regular disinfecting of surfaces and providing hand sanitizer for employees.
Some restaurants also expressed concerns about the impacts Stanford’s own precautions could have on the local community. On Friday, Stanford canceled in-person class meetings for the remainder of winter quarter, following previous announcements limiting attendance at athletics competitions and discouraging events of larger than 150 people.
“We do a lot of catering for Stanford,” said a manager at Jing Jing Chinese Gourmet, who asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns. “Since classes are cancelled, I think a lot of orders will stop too. I have another company’s order that was supposed to deliver next week. Tonight they sent me an email to cancel.”
At Kirk’s Steakburgers, Juncker said he usually gets traffic from students and other campus community members. He told The Daily that Stanford’s decision to cancel classes could have a ripple effect.
“If it got to that point where Stanford felt that way, other places would feel the same way, and then I think people would stop moving around as much and that would impact us,” Juncker said.
For some Palo Alto business owners, more immediate concerns loom. Many affected restaurants are considering closures if business does not improve.
“Right now I’m thinking I need to close one day [in the week],” said Jade Luong, owner of Vietnamese restaurant Pho Banh Mi. “With [our sales] we cannot pay every employee right now.”
Taste’s owner, Liu, said the situation could get even worse.
“We’d have to shut down, there’s no other choice,” Liu said. “The rent is so expensive here.”
Asked about their expectations for the near future, Liu and Luong said that coronavirus had created a fragile situation for certain local businesses, and that more customer support would be needed to sustain them.
“We need to support every business,” said Luong. “But take care of yourself first.”
Contact Daniel Wu at dwu21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.