Sam Ung, owner of Phnom Penh Noodle House in Seattle’s Chinatown, poses in front of his ‘Wall of Fame’. Amongst the photos is one of him and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize receipient Al Gore. Photo credit: Nick Wong.
Sam Ung, owner of Phnom Penh Noodle House in Seattle’s Chinatown, poses in front of his ‘Wall of Fame’. Amongst the photos is one of him and 2007 Nobel Peace Prize receipient Al Gore. Photo credit: Nick Wong.

These days eating out is considered a luxury. With our pockets slashed in the midst of an economic recession, “eating in” becomes more frequent, and “dining out” a rare occasion. But how does it affect the other side of things? From family-owned businesses to corporate eateries, restaurant owners to restaurant servers, the food industry has seen a drastic downsizing in recent years. In an industry dependent on consumer incomes, as our own paychecks go down, theirs do as well.

“Percentage wise, [the economic crisis] has affected me pretty noticeably,” says Jason Luke, a server at a local waterfront restaurant. “I make just enough. I wouldn’t say I’m struggling, but I’m not comfortable.”

Luke has worked in the food industry for nearly a decade, assuming almost every position in the business, anywhere from the backroom dishwasher to assistant manager. But despite the smaller paycheck, Luke isn’t too worried, as his seniority safeguards his employment.

But others haven’t been so fortunate, such as one immigrant server that found herself without work when her former employer went under. Once working at a successful Japanese restaurant, she found her flexible part-time schedule convenient for other responsibilities, such as caring for her young son. Unfortunately, the restaurant couldn’t stay afloat in response to consumers trimming their budgets.

After losing her job, she looked for other opportunities in the food industry, but reported that most restaurants are cutting labor, not adding on. However, she still remains hopeful as she cites her key job candidacy advantage: her ability to speak English—an attribute she encourages other immigrants to attain.

Sam Ung, owner of the Phnom Penh Noodle House in Seattle’s International District, takes that advice to another level. The multilingual entrepreneur speaks a variety of languages, including three dialects of Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian and English. His ability to communicate with people of many backgrounds earned him the respect of the local community, which has been crucial to his business surviving over the past decade. But while Ung has weathered incredible adversity, such as the traumas of the mid-70s Cambodian killing fields, and the difficulties of starting a business as an immigrant, the recent economic downturn presents yet another obstacle.

“There are a lot of people cautious. They don’t spend much money now,” says Ung. “Before we used to get constant business, but now, not so much.”

However, the Noodle House owner isn’t worried. He says business is still “enough to pay our own,” and he learned to cut costs by employing family members, including himself; he acts as the restaurant’s head chef, working from open to close; a total of roughly 13 hours a day.

But while working within a family business may be acceptable in Asian cultures, a venture into the food industry outside a family business is not viewed favorably, according to Jason Luke.

“Asian families want their kids to go to college to be engineers,” says the 29-year old server, who left his family’s restaurant to find his own occupational independence. “When I tell them that I’m a waiter, they always ask if I’m doing something else, like a degree; the whole stereotypical thing.”

Regardless of age, gender, job title, immigrant, non-immigrant, family business or corporate-owned, the economic crisis did not discriminate in taking a huge bite out of not only the food industry, but of all jobs in general. And because of this, Luke is now able to shrug off those past criticisms, as he argues, “In this economy, you’re lucky to have a job.”

To contact Nick Wong, e-mail [email protected].

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