Quang Le, general manager of the Huong Binh Bakery at Eden Center, doesn't think he can keep the family business going past June.
The weekend parking-lot at the Eden Center in Falls Church can be tough.
"You would essentially probably make four or five rounds in your car, and then not find parking there. And then if you travel with somebody, you'd just be like, 'Look, switch seats. Let me go inside and get what I need,'" says Richard Nguyen, who has been visiting Eden Center since he was a kid, and is now operations manager of Nam-Viet Restaurant a few miles away in Clarendon.
Nguyen remembers picking up food at the grocery store and grabbing pho on Saturday mornings with his family in the early '90s. He's bumped into out-of-state visitors looking to stock up at one of the largest destinations for Vietnamese goods and culture on the East Coast.
On a recent weekend at Eden Center, there were few out-of-state license plates and plenty of parking.
Storefront after storefront at the L-shaped enclave of roughly 120 shops, eateries, salons and grocers had closure signs prominently taped up. Reopen dates were scratched out and replaced with new ones or, simply, "until further notice." Saigon Bakery and Deli. Closed. Rice Paper. Closed. Huong Viet. Closed.
The pandemic that is shuttering restaurants across the country is draining the life out the Eden Center. Layoffs abound as foot traffic wanes. Revenue at still-open shops is tanking. Xenophobia lingers as yet another threat to business. And an immigrant community that's been here for nearly half a century is watching a beacon of its vitality grow dim.
In addition to its restaurants and shops, the Eden Center also hosts events, including this 2019 festival for Tết, the Vietnamese new year.
A Falls Church Center With Roots In Saigon
The Eden Center opened in 1984, repurposed from a strip mall previously known as Plaza Seven, built in 1962. But the center's origins reach back years prior: It's a descendant of the one-time Little Saigon neighborhood that stood a few miles down Wilson Boulevard. In the two decades after the fall of the then-capital of South Vietnam in 1975, some 2 million refugees fled the country. Some settled in Northern Virginia, which was seen as a desirable place to build a new life because of its proximity to the Pentagon and other job opportunities.
Clarendon in the late '70s and '80s proved to be fertile ground for this nascent immigrant community. The neighborhood stores had lost much of their business, as shoppers flocked to the Parkington Shopping Center in Ballston or elsewhere, says Elizabeth Morton, an urban planning professor at Virginia Tech's Arlington campus. (Parkington would be redeveloped as Arlington's first modern mall, Ballston Common, in 1986.)
"The traditional kind of Main Street walkable center — which now we planners are desperately trying to re-insert into an urban environment — was sort of falling out of fashion," Morton says. "And that was only exacerbated by the Metro."
While construction of the Clarendon Metro stop tore up the area around Wilson Boulevard in the 1970s, building owners offered short-term leases that were ideal for refugees with entrepreneurial ambitions, Morton says. But years later, after the station opened in 1979, development boomed, rents rose, and many of Little Saigon's business owners found better opportunities at the Eden Center, named for a shopping center in Saigon.
Courtesy of/Quang Le
Quang Le's family, refugees from Vietnam, opened Huong Binh in Arlington in 1986. Six years later, it moved to the Eden Center.
Courtesy of/Quang Le
Paying The Rent During A Pandemic
One of the restaurant owners I met at Eden Center this month says business is 10% of what it was before the pandemic. His usual weekend stream of about 1,000 customers has dwindled to one or two, and 90% of his staff has been laid-off. The owner, who asked that WAMU not include his name so he could candidly discuss his business's finances, says he just received funding from a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but remains concerned about covering all his expenses if business remains stagnant. (Loan forgiveness is contingent on stipulations that pose a significant challenge for restaurants with laid-off workers and little revenue, including that at least 75% of the money is used for payroll.)
He's still trying to negotiate his rent with property management, too.
Eden Center Inc., a subsidiary of Capital Commercial Properties, has adjusted its rent policies on a case-by-case basis, says senior vice president and legal counsel Alan Frank.
"Some are doing better business now than they did before the pandemic," Frank says, adding that the two supermarkets are doing well and have been paying their rent.
"We look at each case, but where we see that a tenant is unable to pay anything at all, then that's what happens. We're not going to kick them out."
In 2012, 16 Eden Center tenants sued the property owner over building conditions such as poor air quality and sewage issues. Some tenants also described rents that were substantially higher than they were for comparable real estate in the region. Eden Center says the case was dismissed and denies any wrongdoing.
"Just like any shopping center, we have things that need to be fixed every day and we fix it," Frank says.
Frank declined to disclose the center's rental rates, saying it was "between us and the tenants." He says 119 of the center's 120 units are rented out, and an additional business is interested in the remaining space.
'We're A Staple In The Community'
Quang Le, general manager of Huong Binh Bakery and Deli, is running his family-owned shop with a skeleton crew. The bakery first opened in South Arlington in 1986 and moved to the Eden Center in 1992. Le has worked there on and off since he was a teenager, and left his job as an electrical engineer a couple years ago to take over the shop when his sister passed away.
Le fled Vietnam by boat in 1977 when he was 6 years old. It was one of several trips his family members made over several years to the United States (Le is one of 11 children and has seven surviving siblings). When his father arrived in 1982, it was after eight failed attempts.
"He was jailed four times. Talk about perseverance," Le says in a phone interview.
The family first settled in Salt Lake City and later moved closer to D.C., where Le's mother put her baking skills (she trained at a culinary school in Vietnam) to use at home and eventually at the bakery. Le's father, nearly 90, is often at the store, checking inventory and talking to customers, Le says.
The Eden Center has changed over the last decade, Le says. Fewer shops are run by Vietnamese families because the next generations are "not stepping up." Children and grand-children of the previous generation of immigrants are more likely to pursue careers in law or medicine than restaurants, Le says. Before the pandemic, some of the center's longtime businesses were already "trending" toward a decline. "We're a staple in the community, the Vietnamese community," Le says. "Everybody knows us."
"Will my neighbors be able to make it through? I'm not sure," Le says.
Le's revenue is down about 50 percent versus this time last year, and the business has had to dip into its reserves to pay the bills. His catering branch of the businesses is nonexistent and four employees have "self-furloughed" for fear of illness. The bakery may no longer have the staffing needed to continue participation in a meals-on-wheels program for Vietnamese-Americans in Fairfax County. If business remains this sluggish, Le says the bakery won't be able to make it beyond June.
When we first talk, Le expresses skepticism about PPP loans, in part because chains such as Shake Shack and Potbelly received money in the first round of disbursements. (Shake Shack has since announced it will return the $10 million loan.)
Le is manning the bakery and managing life for his three sons at home while his wife, a health professional, is deployed to New York City's Javits Convention Center. ("My kids are sick of my spaghetti with sides of leftovers," he writes in an email.) "The chains are the first in because they have a lot of resources; they have CPAs, they have people who do this ... money to get the name in front of the line — versus the tens of millions of small businesses like us," Le says. "We're on our own trying to figure out the paperwork and stuff like that."
A few days after our first conversation, he reaches out to say, despite his concerns about a lack of resources for small businesses to navigate the process, he'd decided to apply for a PPP loan.
The South Vietnamese and U.S. flags fly in tandem over the Eden Center parking lot.
Fighting Coronavirus And Xenophobia
A recently posted notice on the Eden Center homepage referenced a Facebook "rumor" linking the strip mall to COVID-19.
"We would like you to know that there have not been any confirmed cases of the virus at Eden Center, or in the City of Falls Church," it declared (though there have been confirmed cases and deaths in Falls Church). "Moreover, Eden Center management is working every day to keep the tenants and customers of the center as safe as possible," the statement continued.
Frank says the post was in response to a rumor linking the virus to the Eden Center that emerged a few weeks ago and "freaked everybody in the Vietnamese community out." He says the rumor hurt businesses early on. The post was removed in the days after our conversation.
Anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes are on the rise in the U.S. during the pandemic. Some Americans mistakenly blame and attack Asians of many ethnicities for a virus that's thought to have originated at a market in China (and politicians including the president have used rhetoric to similar effect).
Racism and xenophobia are nothing new to the Eden Center; in 2011, some tenants protested the treatment of defendants arrested in a police raid targeting gambling and gangs at the center. Some business owners felt the claims of illegal activity were exaggerated.
"If there are so many crimes at the Eden Center, for such a long duration of time, the only conclusion that one comes to is failed policing," one lawyer said in a Washington Post article on the controversy. "If these crimes do not in fact exist ... then we face a worse problem: racism."
Nguyen, who temporarily closed his Arlington restaurant beginning March 18 as sales declined, says he "thankfully" hasn't witnessed that kind of discrimination first-hand.
"We are wise enough around here to not really throw the Asian community under the bus like that," he says.
Though many of the businesses have changed over the years, including a significant expansion in 1996 and the inclusion of some non-Vietnamese eateries, Nguyen says it still has its original character. If the Eden Center did succumb to a protracted economic downturn, Nguyen says the loss would be significant.
"You're losing culture; I mean, that's the only way I can put it," says Nguyen, who adds that other immigrant-run businesses in the area, such as Ethiopian-American eateries along Columbia Pike, are also vulnerable.
Le, who wrote in Arlington Magazine that he hasn't had "any backlash as an Asian-American business owner," says his concerns about the pandemic's toll at Eden Center extends beyond the family bakery.
"When there's enough of us around, it makes us a destination. When there's only a few of us, it just makes us a business," he says.
Yet Le says he doesn't think Eden Center will "fail." As he looks around at some of the original owners, now in their 70s and 80s, still hustling in the kitchen or running errands to grab ingredients, he sees resilience.
"They're gonna do what immigrants and first-generation do; they're going to tough it out. They have the mental fortitude to do it," Le says. "They're just going to be in a deeper financial hole."