The headline of the March 10 Palo Alto Online story didn’t leave much room for hope: In bold-faced letters, it stated that Taste, a Sichuan restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, was “on the brink of permanently shutting down amidst coronavirus spread.” The owner, Sandy Liu, told the publication that the restaurant’s revenue was down to as little as $600 a day and said she might be forced to shut the entire operation down in a matter of days.
“Basically nobody is dining out — for my restaurant, a Chinese restaurant,” Liu said at the time. “Who can afford to keep losing money every day?” This, of course, was a week before the region-wide shelter in place went into effect. If Taste had called it quits at that point, it would have been one of the very first Bay Area restaurants to shutter specifically because of coronavirus-related financial losses.
What happened next was somewhat unexpected: Even as other restaurants up and down University Avenue temporarily closed, Taste stayed open. It didn’t even close for a single day.
“Everything is changing, but fortunately our business is still okay,” Liu tells Eater SF. “It’s not very good, but it still can survive. It can still pay the rent. It can still make a little bit of profit.”
According to Liu, there wasn’t any single moment that helped the restaurant turn the tide on its miserable February and March, but rather a combination of factors. Once the shelter in place went into effect, the demand for takeout increased, though Liu stresses that business goes up and down: “One day will be very good, one day will be very bad.” She was also able to secure a federal stimulus loan through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but that, too, has been a mixed blessing: Since she isn’t in a position to hire all of her workers back, she isn’t expecting that the loan will be forgiven.
Perhaps the most important factor is that Liu hasn’t had to pay her full rent — a make-or-break issue during the crisis, according to restaurant owners who are pushing for rent abatement legislation. In Liu’s case, her landlord was willing work with her on a month-to-month basis, and didn’t expect her to pay more than she could handle based on the revenue the restaurant was generating. As Taste landlord John Felt tells Eater SF, “I didn’t come to Sandy and say it’s full rent or it’s no rent. Each month we said, what can we do? Where can we meet?”
Liu has only been in the restaurant business for two years, taking over Taste from two friends in March of 2018 after spending the previous decade in financial services. Her previous job also helped cushion the blow, as she has cashed out some of the retirement funds that she’d built up.
Of course, Liu recognizes that her restaurant is far from out of the woods. Known for chile-laden dishes like its spicy fish fillet with pickled veggies, Taste used to get a lot of catering and lunch business from the tech companies in the area — tech companies whose employees will be working from home for the foreseeable future. Liu doesn’t know how she’ll make up that income, but she’s fairly upbeat given the circumstances. Her business went right up to the brink of complete disaster, after all, and it’s still standing.
“Since March, how many people got infected — millions of people — and how many people died?” she says. “The whole world, all the news is very, very negative. But we keep going.”