Focusing on family: how Mom and Pop restaurants brave the pandemic

Two family run restaurants share how they adjusted to the new reality of COVID.

“What do you want to say about Dosanko?” 

“It’s the best restaurant in the world. I like the food.” 

“How about the owners, do you like them?” 

Seven year old Maya doesn’t respond. She would rather show off her cartwheeling skills to her adoring fans: a writer, a photographer, and her parents, Nathan and Akiyo Lowey, the owners of Dosanko.

The Lowey family. Photo credit: Jon Wat.

Thousands of restaurants in North America faced an unknown future at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In August, it was predicted that 60 percent of Canadian restaurants could fail by fall. Compared to their large chain neighbors, family-owned restaurants have less cash reserves and less access to technology and tools in the face of a changing world. 

In these unprecedented times, family-owned restaurants braved a new reality as they always have done, by focusing on family. 

Life at a family-run restaurant

If you ever visited Dosanko in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood, you’ve probably seen Maya or Liam doing their homework or playing games at the couches in the back of the restaurant.

They are the latest to carry the torch in the long tradition of kids who grew up in their parent’s restaurants. Similarly, a few decades ago in South Vancouver at another family-run restaurant, Raymond Mah spent his childhood on bunk beds.

“We had a bunk bed in the back in the storeroom of my grandfather’s restaurant,” Raymond said.

Operating out of a South Vancouver lumber yard above a hardware store, the Northern Cafe is run by the Mah family. Husband and wife Jimmy and Connie took over the restaurant in 2008. Ten years later, their son Raymond was convinced to join the family business after working as an executive chef at restaurants around the city for nearly 18 years.  

Northern Cafe. Photo credit: Kathy Lee.

Raymond grew up in restaurants throughout his entire childhood. His father Jimmy came to Canada from Hong Kong when he was just 14 to work at his own father’s restaurant in Shellbrook, a town in Saskatchewan of only 500 people at the time. From then on, Jimmy would work 12-14 hour days, seven days a week at restaurants all over Canada until he was 53. 

“Growing up, I never saw my parents that much,” Raymond said. “The restaurant business is unrelenting, especially with family-run restaurants.There is the constant balance between working hard to provide for their kids and working less to spend time with them.”

Northern Cafe kitchen. Photo Credit: Kathy Lee.

Dosanko owners Nathan and Akiyo made that balance work by shaping Dosanko into their kids’ second home. The restaurant has a kitchen play set in the corner, from when Maya was younger. It’s now for customers with young children and was a conscious decision to keep it there.

“We used to have so much trouble eating out when the kids were young,” Nathan said. “We would go to a restaurant and get shushed. We want to welcome all families and babies and want everyone to be comfortable. That’s why we have a kids’ area.” 

The second home concept also extends into the menu. Dosanko serves Japanese home-style food, similar to what Nathan and Akiyo made at home for their kids. “The flavours are like anyone’s childhood. It’s comforting. It’s like food made by the Japanese grandmother that you never had,” Nathan described. 

Prior to opening up Dosanko, Nathan was a chef at restaurants including Campagnolo and Campagnolo Roma. Akiyo was also in the restaurant business, running front-of-house operations at Tojo’s. Nathan recalls, almost word for word what Northern Cafe owner Jimmy says about the restaurant life: working 12 to 14 hours a day and never getting to see his kids.

Creating Dosanko as a family business gave Nathan and Akiyo more time for family. “There’s little moments where they just come and distract you enough to warm your heart to make it through,” Nathan said. “That’s all I missed all those years chef-ing away, you know? And so now we wouldn’t change it.” 

Dosanko owners Nathan and Akiyo. Photo credit: Jon Wat.

See also: Behind the counter: Restaurants and the immigrant narrative

Holding onto family

Maya, the cheerleader for Dosanko, took her role seriously when it transitioned to a takeout only service. 

“Maya made me a stress reliever one time. It was popsicle stick with two pieces of foam,” Nathan described. “She said, “Don’t worry, Dad, when you get stressed out, you can just squeeze this.””

Liam, Maya’s ten year old brother also adjusted to help the restaurant, becoming the restaurant’s watchful eye, letting people know when people were at the door to pick up their order. 

As Maya and Liam began virtual learning in the midst of the pandemic, this arrangement worked better than they could have imagined. Instead of being at their physical school, they were at the restaurant for most of the day. 

Maya at Dosanko. Photo credit: Jon Wat.

“It was tough at the beginning, but it ended up being pretty great. Having some time with the kids and making sure they get their homework done,” Nathan said, “we got to teach and bond with them that way.” 

Akiyo added, “When I’m busy, I forget to eat. And Liam would ask me, ‘Momma, are you hungry? I can make something.” They’re so mature.”

The Northern Cafe closed voluntarily prior to the official provincial health order and then again after the order. When the restaurant opened, Raymond continued to stay at home with the kids while his wife was at work. 

“My dad and mom told me I don’t have to come into work yet. My wife works at the hospital and I was at home caring for my kids,” Raymond said. “I can’t do it without my parents. The only way I could do it is by leaning on family.” 

Jimmy and Raymond at Northern Cafe. Photo Credit: Kathy Lee.

See also: Redefining authenticity: how chop suey and sweet & sour pork reflect Chinese Canadian values 

New spaces, familiar and new faces

To get to Northern Cafe, you have to walk across a working lumber yard and then make your way up wooden stairs. The hallway to the diner is narrow and the floor is uneven and wobbly, a funhouse type of hallway with hints of pine and cedar.  Inside the cafe there are red booths, low ceilings, and Chinese calendars that are common in Chinese households. On the walls, handwritten notes from customers around the world are proudly displayed and an old CRT television sits on top of the fridge in the corner. 

All these details play into the hidden gem charm of Northern Cafe but also reflect the reality of their space; it’s small with one entrance. There are physical limitations to how the cafe can be restructured for COVID. 

Because of this and concern for customers, Raymond and Jimmy decided to close the Northern Cafe for two months to prepare. And when the restaurant reponed, they didn’t announce it on social media. As much as they missed new faces, they served regulars first. 

“You know why? Because they’re family and we want to treat them like our family,” Raymond said. 

While the restaurant was closed, Jimmy got calls from regulars that asked if the restaurant was open. “They say, “Jimmy, you got nothing to do, go back there and I’ll come pick up some food’,” Jimmy said. 

For two months, Jimmy had to say no. But when the restaurants did finally open, he joyfully responded to the calls by saying, “Come on in! The lights are on aren’t they?” 

Northern Cafe counter. Photo credit: Kathy Lee.

By focusing on their regulars, there were fewer people in the space as they added more safety protocols. The regulars also became co-creators; they told the Mahs what they’ve seen at other places that might work. And the Mahs listen. 

The Lowey family miss their regulars too. Dosanko’s regulars were local professionals working in the area who celebrated birthdays and milestones at the restaurant. When the office workers moved to working remotely, the Loweys didn’t get to see them as often. 

It’s not as busy anymore for the lunch service. But luckily, they’ve started getting new regulars, customers who do takeout only but do it with such regularity that Nathan and Akiyo started to know them personally. And with their children as cheerleaders and pseudo-security guards, the entire family is involved in creating a new community of regulars.

As for adjustments to the Dosanko space, the transition was smoother for the Loweys because they maintained the restaurant as a second home for their kids. Because their children spend so much time at the restaurant, they kept the space clean and sanitized with them in mind. And now as they opened their doors for dine in, they’re hoping to see familiar faces again, alongside new friends.

Family and food 

“Food is my passion, but family is my inspiration.”

Northern Cafe table and food. Photo credit: Kathy Lee.

This sentiment was repeated by Dosanko owners Nathan and Akiyo as well as Northern Cafe’s Raymond. For both families, their restaurant isn’t simply a business. It’s about family: both the immediate family and the extended family of regulars and customers. 

Featured image of Northern Cafe by Kathy Lee

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