San Jose Vietnamese businesses struggle to survive

Vietnamese residents packed a local restaurant to speak with San Jose’s mayor about the biggest issue on their minds: small businesses.

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan and District 8 Councilmember Domingo Candelas hosted a town hall with residents Thursday afternoon. More than 50 attendees filled the seats at Nam Giao Restaurant in East San Jose. Residents said coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic has left business owners struggling to stay afloat.

Restaurant owner Quyen Le opened her business right before the pandemic in December 2019. She said it’s been challenging, but she holds on to hope.

“Standing here today, I (went) through so many things but I survived it,” Le said. “I worked 16 hours per day for the last three years, seven days a week.”

The pandemic hit small businesses especially hard. The mayor’s recent budget plan involved discussions on extending small business grants, as owners contend with inflation and supply chain issues. Funds are still available for businesses looking for rent relief.

“Our job is not to create businesses, it is to create the environment in which businesses can thrive,” Mahan said.

The mayor said addressing post-pandemic effects on the local economy includes taking a closer look at the city’s permitting process and addressing homelessness and crime near businesses. Entrepreneurs expressed concerns about losing business as the city struggles to find places for unhoused residents to go.

“What has been the challenge, as I talk to small business owners, has more to do with the environment we’re operating in: how slow it is to get a permit, how high the business fees are, the lack of safety, the lack of support around our unsheltered community,” Mahan said.

Silicon Valley Vietnamese-American Business Association founder Thuan Nguyen said he attended the town hall after having numerous conversations with small businesses around the city. He said entrepreneurs faced stringent restrictions during the pandemic and are still trying to regain lost customers who are now used to staying home and relying on delivery services for their meals.

“A lot of people suffered,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “Even right now, when the pandemic is over, (people are) still in survival mode.”

Former District 7 Councilmember and attendee Tam Nguyen said part of the issue for the Vietnamese community is the digital divide. Small business owners struggled to access pandemic-era government aid and pivot to online ordering and delivery. Regulations and shutdowns during COVID affected businesses, from nail salons to restaurants.

“We started disadvantaged in the first place and now we’re way behind,” Tam Nguyen told San José Spotlight.

District 8 Councilmember Domingo Candelas greets residents before the town hall he co-hosted with Mayor Matt Mahan. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

Candelas said the city is working to help business owners get back on their feet through grants, and his district is working with local organizations to increase access to resources.

“From what I’ve been hearing in speaking with Vietnamese leaders and residents, the pandemic really took a toll on our mom-and-pop shops,” Candelas told San José Spotlight. “As a city, we need to support and empower opportunities for our Vietnamese and monolingual businesses.”

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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