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KPBS Evening Edition

City Heights Restaurants Move Outdoors, Change Menus To Adapt To Pandemic

The outdoor grill at Nhu Y on El Cajon Boulevard on Aug. 18, 2020.
Max Rivlin-Nadler
The outdoor grill at Nhu Y on El Cajon Boulevard on Aug. 18, 2020.

Indoor dining is still banned across the state of California, leading many restaurants to take their business outside. In City Heights, some Vietnamese restaurants are embracing the opportunity and finding success.

The afternoon rush during a recent sweltering August day looks a bit different than it normally would at Phở Hoa, where the menu has stayed pretty much the same since 1984 — hot Phở soup. But now, instead of the air-conditioned and spacious interior of the restaurant on El Cajon Boulevard, it’s being served outdoors in its parking lot.

City Heights Restaurants Move Outdoors, Change Menus To Adapt To Pandemic
Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

An Cao is the owner of Phở Hoa. For months during the pandemic, he relied on takeout and delivery for his restaurant. But he said that it wasn’t enough to pay his bills.

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VIDEO: Little Saigon Restaurants Move Outdoors, Change Menus To Adapt To Social-Distancing

“It was hard to gauge how bad takeout was going to be. I would guesstimate I lost 80% of my business, while trying to maintain 90% of my staff. That was hard,” he told KPBS.

The restaurant was founded by Cao’s parents over thirty years ago, and he felt committed to keeping it open — so like many other restaurant owners across San Diego, he adapted, going outdoors once the city loosened restrictions on outdoor dining.

“When we're forced to do it outside, it’s almost like ‘you know what you know’ but you’re also relearning all these things as well. In terms of the cost of everything, you almost have to view it as an investment, it costs what it costs,” Cao said.

He’s not alone. Across El Cajon Boulevard, Nhu Y has completely altered its menu to offer Vietnamese-style street food, more typically found at a night market.

Its owners purchased a large grill, and it’s staying open later than other restaurants in the area. The El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association has been helping local restaurants transition outdoors.

Julie Tran runs Good Body Mortuary nearby and is a board member with the El Cajon BIA.

“It feels right at home. I was just thinking sitting out there, that I just saved two grand sitting and not having to travel to Vietnam to experience this,” Tran said. “I can just drive to City Heights, to get that feel of being in Asia, being outside, nice weather, good food. Have friends and family around.”

With San Diego’s weather well-suited to outdoor dining year-round, Tran hopes that business owners in Little Saigon don’t give up on outdoor dining.

“For a long time we advocated, 'Hey can we dine outside, can we experience this?' But not a lot of the local businesses saw the same vision, because they’re used to what they’re used to. But now with COVID and us being open-minded to try to please everyone, I don’t think it will ever go back. I sure hope it doesn’t, to be honest."