Asian American Cafe Owners Reflect on a Hard Year

Nick Cho of Wrecking Ball Coffee believes that allyship has to go beyond consumerism.

Nick Cho knows he has a lot of influence as the co-founder of Wrecking Ball Coffee and his popular TikTok alter-ego, “Your Korean Dad.” It’s not something that he — or his wife and co-founder, Trish Rothgeb — take lightly.

“It’s always awkward to talk about yourself in this way,” Cho said. “We’re both individually considered thought leaders.”

Indeed, the public-facing Cho — who now boasts 2.6 million fans on TikTok — has seen his personal star rise rapidly over the course of the past year. But off screen, Cho has struggled with the same traumas experienced by the Asian American community writ large: Grappling with both the overt COVID-19-related racism and acts of anti-Asian violence, along with the pernicious microaggressions they’ve endured for generations.

At the Berkeley Wrecking Ball location, Cho recalls a few incidents where white customers reacted negatively when they found out their pastry chef was Chinese American. (Wrecking Ball is Asian-owned, Cho says, but a cafe-goer might not know that right away.)

Clement Hsu, co-founder and pastry chef at Breadbelly in the Richmond District, can relate. In spite of the many obstacles of the past year, Breadbelly has persevered, as Hsu has grown relationships with neighbors and guests.

“We have continued to create foods and beverages that we are proud to serve to our community,” Hsu said in an email. “The small team we have at Breadbelly has been so resilient and patient.”

Nothing New

For Annie Cheng of Home Coffee, racism is nothing new. She is a first-generation Asian American whose parents emigrated from Taiwan in the early ’80s. Her husband and co-owner In Hwan Heo emigrated directly from Seoul, South Korea in 1989. Their parents were small business owners, as well, and experienced racism firsthand over and over again. 

“Resilience as a small business owner is what my parents went through,” Cheng said. “I’m proud to be the daughter of hard-working immigrant parents. Their struggle and sacrifice will not be lost.”

In March of 2020, Cheng had to close their Chinatown location due to the lack of business and foot traffic that the neighborhood as a whole was experiencing. “Our business was tremendously affected by COVID-19 even while it was only prevalent in China,” Cheng said. “It was a hard time. We had maybe eight customers a day.” They’ve since re-opened, and Cheng said she sees a few more people walking around Grant Street again.

“We have seen our communities pull together and continue to provide us with so much support throughout this challenging year,” Cheng said. 

Wrecking Ball Coffee was fortunate enough to stay at pre-pandemic sales numbers, and Cho shared his strategies on Medium to hundreds of followers. “Restaurants in general, leaders in their field, acted like there was a shipwreck,” Cho said. “They were clinging to driftwood, struggling to survive.”

The Flipside

While Asian American cafe owners endure COVID-19-related racism, they’re still reminded of the strength of the larger community during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month.

Hsu hopes that more young cooks and food entrepreneurs will chase their dreams and continue to build up the POC-owned business community and that consumers will be conscious about what they’re buying, and who they’re supporting. 

“I have an obligation to be a steward,” Hsu said over email. “Be thoughtful about what you’re eating, wonder about the people who made it, and research where your food originates.”

Hsu reflects on his own menu as a part of the diasporic experiences of Asian America. “While we pay homage to this spectrum of Asian peoples from whom we have borrowed, it’s important to note that we have trained in mostly American kitchens with fundamentally European culinary traditions,” Hsu said. “It’s this mash-up of traditions and not necessarily who we are as immigrants and children of immigrant families.”

For Asian Americans like Hsu, this can be empowering. But for white food leaders, Cho believes that when they aren’t aware of the potential to co-opt culture, it wrests power away from Asian Americans.

“Our culture is our power,” Cho said. “And we see it being used as an aesthetic or an amenity. It’s been dismaying and disappointing to see.”

Enjoying cultural products isn’t the issue, Cho said. It’s when people profit from those items without sharing resources, they take that opportunity from the communities where those cultural products originated from. “But it’s typical. People are very confused as to the difference between appropriation and appreciation.”

‘Let Us Live’

It’s not that Cho doesn’t want people to participate in certain aspects of Asian and Asian American culture. “We want people to share these things when it’s offered up and shared,” Cho said. “The fundamental thing we want is to just let us live.”

And that means being able to support the Asian American community beyond a single heritage month. 

Hsu’s advice is to encourage people to support Asian-owned businesses. “Go out and eat,” Hsu said. 

Cheng said she feels the same way. The owners of Home just gave birth to their first child, baby Logan. Cheng said she hopes for a world wherein her baby will never suffer like she and her parents.

“Our dream is he will grow up in a more loving, compassionate, and kinder world and racism will be a thing of the past,” Cheng said.

But Cho has a different challenge for people wanting to demonstrate allyship: “ People try to use their consumerism to be their social activism. That only goes so far.”

SF Weekly’s editorial staff contributed to this story.

Paolo Bicchieri is an intern at SF Weekly. Twitter @paoloshmaolo

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