Ming Lau has seen New Haven transform in the two decades that his restaurant has been in the city’s Ninth Square neighborhood. He never anticipated a global pandemic. Now, he’s trying to envision the future of sushi in New Haven while keeping the business afloat.
Lau is the owner of Miso Japanese Restaurant, a spot on Orange Street sandwiched between Million Asian Market and a sprawling parking lot. Currently, Miso is one of dozens of restaurants in the city—and tens of thousands across the United States—struggling due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He estimated that Miso is operating at 40 percent of pre-pandemic business levels.
“Before the pandemic is like night and day, ” he said in a recent Zoom call. “The entire restaurant industry has been hurting so bad, and everyone knows it. We’re on the front line of being killed.”
Before Covid-19, Miso was a success story. Lau was born and raised in Hong Kong, and moved to the United States almost 40 years ago, in the late 1980s. His friend already lived in New Haven, so that’s where he settled. The two started planning Miso together in the 1990s and opened the restaurant in 2002.
For 18 years, they built a devoted customer base and distinct style, known for their spare decor and fresh, meticulously plated sushi dishes. Customers might come for a an eel roll, and delight in a cluster of caviar arranged on top. Or mushroom roll, so hearty but delicate the absence of fish didn't matter. The restaurant became a regular spot for people who worked in the Ninth Square, slipped in for a date, or were in New Haven to catch a show or concert downtown. Between a fixed lunch service and dinner, business was bustling.
Then the pandemic hit. Lau estimated that the restaurant lost 60 percent of business a year ago, as Gov. Ned Lamont ordered restaurants to close across the city. On March 17 of last year, the business pivoted to a take out only model and shrunk business hours to a three-hour window in the evenings. Lau was forced to let five of his 16 employees go. Inside the restaurant, remaining staff stayed busy: Miso provided dozens of hot meals to Yale New Haven Hospital, Fair Haven Community Health Care, and the New Haven Police and Fire Departments. Meanwhile, he applied for federal relief. While he was able to secure federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding, that is now long gone.
“Currently we are using all of our available funds to maintain the door open, keep as many employees as we currently have and having them stay on the job,” he said.
Miso reopened for indoor dining on June 19 of last year, but the majority of its business is still through take out and delivery. Lau said he is concerned about how and if the community will return to local businesses and restaurants, including his own. Before Covid-19, Miso was about the experience of dining at the restaurant.
Raw fish—which is its specialty—came arranged with an artful flair and sharp eye. While the restaurant’s storefront is minimal, the interior once hummed with conversation and laughter. Currently, the bulk of Miso’s orders come from online delivery orders, using third party providers like Seamless and Uber Eats that take a percentage of the profit.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, Miso stayed busy by making food for emergency and frontline workers. This photo is from March 25 2020, one week before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended masks. Miso Japanese Restaurant Photo.
“I really worry, let me put it this way, about the restaurant business, because a large group of people who are used to getting their delivery service now,” Lau said. “They don’t want to spend any time going to the restaurant and coming home… I think our type of restaurant, which is somewhat decorative with a nice decor and great food and drink presentation will have the volume of the customers slowly decline, people will begin to think that if it is not a special occasion people won’t come to the restaurant.”
Lau also addressed his own personal fear—the possibility that the pandemic will never fully end. He said he worries that some Americans will refuse to get the vaccine, which makes stopping the virus harder. “I think the way to do business anymore will never go back to what it used to be,” he said. “Because people are not willing to cooperate and get these things done and over it.”
He shares the financial concerns of many restaurant owners right now. According to the National Restaurant Association, 17 percent of restaurants in America have shut down since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would just advise that if you can hang on, hang in there.” he said. “I think the positive times should be on the way, but again, it all depends on the revenue. I understand it’s very hard, including for myself to stay in business. And I think they should stay in business.”
“We build the economy by helping each other, by helping local businesses, helping your local supermarket, restaurant, bar,” he added. “Just being out again, we just cannot let the Covid beat us. When the time comes, we have to rise to the Covid.”
Miso Restaurant is located at 15 Orange Street in New Haven's Ninth Square neighborhood. Order at their website. Henry Fernandez is a graduate of the Youth Arts Journalism Program. He is currently finishing his sophomore year at ESUMS.