The fortune and misfortune of two minority-owned businesses in downtown San Jose crystallized the evening of May 29 as protestors first took to the streets to decry George Floyd’s public execution by police.
Hom Korean Kitchen and MiniBoss—both located in the same building along with two other businesses on East Santa Clara Street—ended up with markedly different outcomes. MiniBoss suffered vandalism damage in the form of two shattered 8-by-10-foot windows, while Hom escaped relatively unscathed.
“We were spared,” said restaurant owner Konan Pi. “I think the sign helped—I really do.”
Pi was referring to a hand-written note one of his employees taped to the window that read, “POC [person of color] owned small business.” That was approximately two hours before police established a perimeter on the corner of Second and Santa Clara streets.
At around 7:30pm on the first day of protests in San Jose, someone threw a brick at MiniBoss, shattering one window and cracking another. The barcade co-owner George Lahlouh said he and a couple of his employees saw the perpetrator before the suspect hopped on his bicycle and rode away.
“I called contractors and friends to board up the window, and now we’re trying to move forward with the insurance process,” he said. “These 8-by-10-foot windows are not easily replaced. We have to call a specialty commercial company, and sometimes they have it on hand, and sometimes they have to fabricate it to meet the proper dimensions. Not sure if we can get a replacement right away. It’s been a lot of sleepless nights since Friday.”
Due to the chaotic nature of the weekend’s protests, Lahlouh and his dozen-member staff at the time waited until around 11pm before heading home.
“We usually wrap up around 8pm, but we had to stick around because it was so dangerous outside,” he said. “I don’t know if there was tear gas, flash-bang [explosives] and rubber bullets being used, but you just don’t want to take that risk to go outside while that is all happening. So we all just kind of hung out and kept the lights off.”
Despite the vandalism, Lahlouh said that as a business owner he was fortunate compared to a couple of other downtown establishments, such as Mezcal restaurant, which suffered heavy damage. “Fortunately, we were not looted or ransacked like some other businesses were,” he said. “We were fortunate enough not to have hard-core damage done to us.”
Throughout downtown, the carnage was everywhere. The family that owns Elyse stood outside their business after their window was smashed and asked protestors not to loot them. All told, 21 businesses were vandalized on Friday and Saturday nights, according to Bree von Faith, the San Jose Downtown Association’s (SJDA) managing director.
The SJDA also counted several hundred graffiti tags, which the Groundwerx crew has been cleaning up starting at 6am daily. Von Faith also said many minority-owned small businesses were impacted due to the protests.
“We will all build downtown back together again, and we’ll get through this the best that we can,” von Faith said in a recent phone call.
For local restaurant owners, the damage from the protests adds insult to injury amid an already economically crippling coronavirus pandemic. Having already suffered tremendous financial hardship due to COVID-19, owners such as Lahlouh and Pi wonder if they’ll ever see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
To make matters worse for business owners who now have to rely on takeout service, the city of San Jose has implemented a citywide curfew from 8:30pm to 5am nightly until Thursday in response to the looting and rioting that marked the protests. “At this point we’re down to doing 10 percent of our gross sales [to what we normally do],” Lahlouh said. “We had to stop our takeout operation early Friday and refund a ton of people. First it was the coronavirus, the protests and now the curfew. Geez, it’s a tough situation.
“I definitely sympathize with the whole social-justice movement, and we’re not opposed to protest at all,” Lalouh clarified, “but unfortunately you have a few violent ones out there tipping over newsstands and setting dumpsters on fire. That’s when you get a little nervous. We’re all watching our security cameras, and there is a lot of holding our breath right around now. It’s not fun.”
Pi, who also owns Hom locations in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, agreed.
“We’ve been closing early everyday since the protests started,” he said. “The safety of our employees come first. ... We’re still able to maintain a little bit of profitability, but our sales have still dropped down at least 40 to 50 percent. Our other locations are not doing as well, and we might end up having to close everything except for San Jose.”