Queens Restauranteur Navigates Covid Economy without Government Help

There are around 30 Nepali restaurants in Queens, New York, operated by Nepali immigrants or Nepali speakers. Several relief programs were introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic to help restaurants and small businesses affected by it, and many Nepali restaurants received assistance through these programs. However, some Nepali restaurants, including Gorkhali, did not qualify for such grants or loans. Gorkhali is a Nepali restaurant located in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, that had to operate without any federal grants or loans.

In December 2018, Gyan Thapa, a mother of four, signed a five-year lease for the restaurant space at 77th Street, Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, planning to open Gorkhali Restaurant in 2019. Due to a lengthy construction period and a gas connection issue, she had to pay rent for the entire year before opening the doors. When the restaurant finally did open in February 2020, it had to shut down entirely for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We heard that others received different types of federal grants and loans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we received nothing. There was no business operation history due to the pandemic coming soon after starting the business. We were disqualified for grants or loans due to a lack of documents,” said Gyan.

Although programs like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund were established to provide aid, the Gorkhali Restaurant was not eligible for any of them. To qualify for the targeted Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) advance of up to $10,000, a business had to be operational before February 15, 2020, and have experienced a reduction in gross receipts of more than 30% during an eight-week period starting on March 2, 2020, or later. Since Gorkhali Restaurant had scant business history, it did not receive this assistance.

Similarly, Gorkhali did not meet the stipulations for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund since it required having been in operation at least one year of operation prior to February15, 2020, and present tax documents for 2019 and 2020. Moreover, the restaurant did not qualify for assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program since the pandemic hit before the payroll of the first quarter could begin.

“We applied for EIDL loans with low interest rates, even though we were not eligible for the targeted advance grant. We were not even eligible for the loan as we did not have the 2019 tax filing documents. Small businesses operating at the beginning of 2020 were more affected than those that had been operating before. But those who were hit the hardest did not receive any aid,” Gyan explained.

At the Gorkhali restaurant, a customer is being served tea by Gyan Thapa. Photo: Kishor Panthi

Despite not receiving federal grants and loans, Gyan hoped that she would be eligible for programs brought by the State of New York and New York City. Once again, Gorkhali did not qualify for the Small Business Resilience Grant offered by New York City, which required the business to have been operational in 2019 and show a loss in 2020. It was also not eligible for the New York State’s Small Business Recovery Grant Program, which also required the business be functioning since in 2019. While it was initially denied grants or loans, the restaurant was able to secure $10,000 from the Seed Funding Grant Program of the State of New York, with the help of Chhaya CDC, a non-profit organization working for the economic development of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities.

Urgen Sherpa, Senior Small Business Organizer at Chhaya CDC, states that the organization has provided support for small businesses to apply for grants and loan assistance. He also noted that businesses that were initially denied grants or loans have been able to obtain them successfully with the help of Chhaya CDC.

Despite being unable to secure federal grants, Gyan is hoping to obtain a low-interest loan from the Small Business Opportunity Fund provided by New York City. While the loan must be repaid within 5 or 6 years, Gyan plans to use it to improve and expand her restaurant if she is able to obtain it. “If I am able to secure that loan, I will use it to enhance the restaurant,” she stated.

Overcoming Adversity: Widow’s Journey After Losing Husband Just Months After Arriving in USA

Gyan Thapa was very happy to come to the USA with her husband in March 2013 along with their two daughters aged 17 and 15, and two sons aged 13 and 8. Although Mr. Buddhi Thapa came to the USA in 2007, he was unable to bring his wife and children to the USA until 2013 due to his immigration status. However, their happiness was short-lived when on November 26, 2013, Buddhi Thapa died after being hit by a car, while walking on Second Avenue and 89th Street in Manhattan.

Gyan was deeply saddened by her husband’s death, especially as all her children were under 18 years of age. Nevertheless, she found the courage to take care of her children and herself. She recalled, “At that time, I had just come from Nepal and was doing odd jobs. It was very difficult because the children were small and all were of school age. Even though I took leave from work, I had to drop off and pick up my younger son from school.”

Later, Gyan started making Selroti, a Nepalese sweet fried doughnut, at Tawa Roti on 72nd Street in Jackson Heights. While sitting in a corner cooking Selroti, she started to entertain the idea of a restaurant business. She had many ideas about what customers were interested in and what kind of restaurant could work. After saving some money, she started a restaurant called Bhanchha Ghar with some partners at 74th Street and 37 Road in Jackson Heights. Shortly after that, she started selling momos (steamed dumplings) and chowmein on her own in a space at the Merit Kebab Palace on 74th Street.

“After leaving the Bhanchha Ghar,” Gyan says, “I couldn’t sit still. I had to take care of my children, so I rented a small place and started selling momos and chowmein. The rent there was very expensive; however, I felt that if I started a small business, I could grow it into something bigger. The momo and chowmein business had been very good, which gave me the courage to open a Gorkhali Restaurant.”

The Gorkhali restaurant located in Jackson Heights. In the past, the term “Gorkhali” was commonly used to refer to Nepali people. Photo: Kishor Panthi

After opening the restaurant and the forced two-months closure due to the pandemic, in June, Gyan set up for outdoor dining and took the business forward. She also started taking online orders from Grubhub, Uber Eats, and other food delivery apps. After obtaining a liquor license in 2022, the restaurant also arranged for live music on weekends. Consequently, the business has improved significantly. She says, “Now my children have grown up, and my youngest son is also 18 years old. They are also helping with the operation of the restaurant. I did it with guts, but it also happened like a dare.”

Now, however, she is concerned about the lease. The five-year lease signed in December 2018 expires next December, and she has not been able to invest further in the restaurant. She says, “The landlord has promised to renew the lease, but if not, I am confused about what to do. If the lease is extended, I plan to upgrade the restaurant further. There are also plans to improve the decor and add new items to the menu.”

Challenges in Accessing Government Resources and Limited Public Awareness

Although the local government provides various resources for small businesses and businesses run by minorities and women, it is difficult to understand how to access such resources due to the language barrier, Gyan explains. She admits her English-language skills are limited, and even though her children learned English, it is difficult for them to understand the language used in official documents.

Dr. Rajan Thapaliya, a professor of computer science and data science at both National University and Trine University, said that when it comes to linguistic justice, it is not only a question of language translation but also a question of how people in the community understand government services, rights, and resources. He says, “First of all, the resources of the local government are very limited in the Nepali language. Secondly, there is a problem because the community members do not understand the language used by the government, even though it is in Nepali language, and it is complicated.”

“There are language classes for immigrants. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs manages ‘We Speak NYC,’ the city’s no-cost English Language Learning program. But in such classes, because English is not taught through the Nepali language, and Nepali is not taught through the English language, even the students who participate in those classes have not been able to learn the language. Since the language classes are entirely in English, such language classes have not been useful for the members of the Nepali community. Such classes can be useful if the language instructor also understands Nepali. English should be taught by people who speak Nepali language as much as possible,” says Thapaliya.

Thapaliya observed that the Nepali community is forced to be voiceless because there is no proper platform to express its problems. He says, “Even those who understand the language lack information about local government or state resources. There is no information about how to benefit from those resources; therefore, there is a lack of public awareness of programs and local government or state resources.”

Chhaya CDC’s Urgen Sherpa agrees that because of the language barrier, community businesses are unable to learn about the many opportunities, rights, and facilities provided by the local government for businesses run by small and minority communities, and since the training provided by the local government is in English, is not useful.

He says, “There is a situation where small businesses are not getting the help they need get due to a lack of public awareness. Due to the flood of various types of grants and loans, some businesses were confused. There was also a problem in distinguishing whether it was a grant or a loan, so the businessmen were confused as to whether there would be any problem after taking it. Due to the language, there is also a problem in follow-up. Some businessmen even said that they have not heard about grants and loans after the Corona pandemic.”

Having led several organizations within the Nepali community, Urgen Sherpa is now Senior Small Business Organizer at Chhaya CDC, where he continues to engage in social activities. Photo: Kishor Panthi

Urgen Sherpa has seen that some Nepali businesses have not been able to receive federal grants and loans after the Corona epidemic due to the immigration status of the owners. This includes some Nepali restaurants. Urgen says, “An SBA EIDL loan of $83,000 was initially approved for a Nepali restaurant. But because the owner did not have a green card, they could not get the loan later.”

Improper paperwork and tax documentation has a broader impact than just posing problems to accessing grants and loans but affects even when changing the name of the business and buying and selling one. Chhaya CDC plans to conduct a training program on keeping tax documents and other documents in an orderly manner to address this issue.

(This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.)