Azalina Eusope cries every day. “But the food comforts me,” said the 41-year-old chef and owner of Azalina’s, a Malaysian restaurant business in San Francisco.
“Ten years ago, my business started off in a survivor mode,” Eusope said. “I was selling food under a tent at the farmers market. As a newly single mother, I needed income. I prepared the food, and at 4 o’clock in the morning, with my kids sleeping in the car, brought it to the farmers market and set up.”
Fast-forward to March 15, when the coronavirus quarantines hit. “Now I’m back in survival mode,” she said.
Restaurants have been one of the hardest-hit businesses. Independents, like Azalina’s, “will bear the brunt of the closures, both because of attributes that make most independents more vulnerable in this pandemic (minimal off-premise presence, limited digital capabilities, low emphasis on value-based menu items) and because of their unfavorable economics (thin margins and poor access to capital),” according to a report by McKinsey & Co.
Eusope is a fifth-generation street vendor. She grew up on Penang Island off the coast of Malaysia and moved to San Francisco with her then-husband in 2001. “I was so far from my family, and I didn’t speak English very well,” she said.
She turned to her childhood mamak cuisine, a style from Muslim Indians, for solace. After she was divorced, “I was thinking, how am I going to survive here in the United States with no savings and no financial stability,” she said. “I was a stay-at-home mom. I thought about the food I grew up watching my mother, my father and my grandmother make, and I kept making it for me and the kids.”
Eusope’s footprint has grown steadily to include a food-hall kiosk, retail grocery sales and a catering business. Last year, she opened Mahila, a 2,100-square-foot full-service restaurant. She has 70 employees. Construction is underway for three more restaurants.
Eusope’s biggest concern is her employees, whom she did not lay off. “I need them. I can’t betray them. In the long run, they will be there for me.”
She asked some of the managers to take small pay cuts to make it possible to keep everyone on the payroll.
A multipronged business model has allowed her to improvise and generate revenue. She shifted from corporate event catering to selling packaged sauces and noodle meal kits to local grocery stores and directly to consumers, which she had not done previously. And, like many restaurateurs, she increased curbside takeout orders via online ordering.
Eusope applied for several financial-assistance grants, but none have come through. She also started a GoFundMe campaign. About $15,000 has been raised, toward a goal of $25,000.
Eusope has renegotiated her leases. “One landlord has been very kind and forgiven rent,” she said.
Nonetheless, the financial picture is troubling. She said the company had been healthy before, but she also took some money out of her personal savings.
“We have lost a lot of money and still continue losing money,” Eusope said.
Eusope is persisting with the last stages of construction for the next locations and planning to open them by December. She expects Mahila to reopen for dine-in customers on July 15. Seating will be only by reservation and at half occupancy. The menu will be limited and the prices lower. “This will help with inventory and less waste, and our takeout will be a simpler menu, as well,” she said.
Eusope is nervous but optimistic. “I am not a big-name Michelin-star restaurant,” she said. “We have a good following of people. They have been buying food and supporting us. Some customers bring me flowers and tell me how much they love our food and are so grateful we are still doing this. That feeling of being appreciated is priceless. It makes me want to work even harder.”