Bethel restaurant owners consider closing down, returning to Korea

Alex Kim, owner of Chopstix Sushi Restaurant, says he may have to return to Korea if business doesn’t pick-up. (Katie Basile / KYUK)

Restaurants all over the nation are being ordered to close their doors to avoid spreading the coronavirus, and it’s no different in Bethel.

Limited to delivery and takeout, Bethel restaurants report that their sales are a fraction of what they are normally. Many Bethel restaurant owners are from Korea, and some say that they are considering returning to their home country, where the COVID-19 outbreak now seems to be on the decline.

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“It’s really bad, almost shut down,” said Thae “TJ” Jeoun, owner of Zen Restaurant on Tundra Street. He says that ever since his restaurant was restricted to just delivery and pickup, sales have been around 30 percent of what they normally are. Jeoun adjusted his employees’ schedules, full time workers have become half-time, but he says that at this rate, he’ll have to lay off workers soon. 

“Because the water bill, the electric bill is all the same,” Jeoun said. Since closing Zen Pho Restaurant to dine-in eating, owner Thae “TJ” Jeoun says his sales are 30% of what they would normally be.

Since closing Zen Pho Restaurant to dine-in eating, owner Thae “TJ” Jeoun says his sales are 30 percent of what they would normally be. March 31, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska. (Katie Basile/ KYUK)

Chopstix Sushi Restaurant has already laid off most of its staff. Owner Alex Kim says that what is usually a five-man operation has been reduced to just him and his dad, and they’re still mostly waiting around. The other day, the restaurant received five orders total. He says that if he gets one customer every hour, that’s good for now. 

An added challenge for Kim last week was feeling like he couldn’t wear a mask to protect himself from the coronavirus. In Korea, where he’s from, he says that it’s normal for healthy people to wear masks. But in Bethel, he worried that his few remaining customers would think that he was sick and be scared off. Unable to wear a mask and facing a reduction in business, Kim said that it was a difficult time for him. 

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In just the past few days, though, Kim said that Bethel’s attitude toward wearing masks has become more accepting as the coronavirus threat in Alaska has grown. Still, if business remains the same for two more weeks, Alex says that he’ll have to close his doors and go back to family in Atlanta or even Korea, now that the coronavirus outbreak in the country seems to be dying down.

A sign hangs on the front door of Zen Pho Restaurant in Bethel. Like all restaurants in Alaska, Zen Pho is closed to dine-in eating and owner Thae “TJ” Jeoun is struggling to pay bills and keep his staff employed. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Hae Sook Min, owner of Bethel Airport Restaurant, said that it was just a few weeks ago when she was the one calling her family in Korea every day, asking if they were okay. Now, she says it’s reversed. Her family has been calling her as the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has soared.  

Min says that she doesn’t know why her restaurant is still open. Orders are less than a quarter of what they are normally. Her workers still come to work, and that’s why she says that she’s still opening the doors. She has already had to lay off two employees. 

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Min says that she wants to think positively. If her restaurant can just make it until June or July, she thinks they’ll be all right. On the other hand, she says that as soon as tests confirm the first positive case of COVID-19 in Bethel, she will close her business. As she says, in order for the restaurant to survive, first of all, she and her employees have to stay alive.