Unemployment. As a freelance writer with a background in theatrical production, the process of filing a claim for unemployment compensation is no mystery to me. That said, my most recent attempt to certify for my first payment on-line resulted in two hours of cursing as the site repeatedly crashed and I ended up filing by phone… and I’m still waiting for confirmation that any payment was made… while I wait for various checks that should be “in the mail.”

Our new normal, indeed.

As I have already suggested, no, I’m not exploring the world of local take-out and delivery options lately, much as I — and some of you readers — might like. What I have been doing is attempting to find a thread of hope and direction for the shuttered independent restaurants in our area as we all look to the uncertain future.

As originally reported by Farley Elliott in Eater-LA on April 16, a new chef-driven nonprofit program based in Washington DC — The Power of 10 Initiative — is branching out to Los Angeles and is now focused on reactivating one particular restaurant here in Arcadia: Sushi Kiyosuzu. 

The Power of 10 Initiative was quickly put together in March by DC-based Chef Erik Bruner-Yang, 34, whose restaurants Maketto and ABC Pony, along with Chef Peter Prime’s Cane became the first restaurants in a pilot program to test the program. Essentially designed to raise funds in order to activate shuttered restaurants and re-employ staffs, the program is loosely inspired by the activity of Chef Jose Andre’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen.  The idea is that with every $10,000 raised, a single restaurant will be enabled to employ 10 full-time staff members, while preparing 1,000 meals a week. The prepped meals will then be distributed locally to nonprofit partners servicing food insecurity as well as front-line workers at hospitals.  A minimum of four weeks of funding is allocated for each individual restaurant activation.

To date, the program has raised over $200,000 and has successfully activated a total of six restaurants in the Washington, DC area.  How is it that their first non-local expansion is happening at a small family-owned sushi restaurant in Arcadia?  “The Internet,” says Chef Erik by phone from .C. “Instagram… this guy David Wang reached out to me… (and said) ‘I really want to launch Power of 10 in Arcadia, where I live’, and he started doing all the logistical groundwork… Things moved very quickly. We have a donor who has a nonprofit called Creative Class based out of LA. (They) wanted to make a large donation to Power of 10 and I asked for them to earmark it for whenever we launched in LA.”

Arcadia resident Wang, 25, shares a mutual friend with Olympic-medalist figure skater Mirai Nagasu, 27, whose parents — father Kiyoyto, 63 and mother Ikuko, 59 — have owned and operated Sushi Kiyosuzu on Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia for nearly 20 years.  Mirai virtually grew up at the restaurant, that is when she wasn’t training with The Pasadena Figure Skating Club. “We couldn’t afford a babysitter!” she explains by phone. When the lockdown came, her parents struggled to successfully maintain the business with take-out orders, but it also took some persuasion by Mirai to convince them to try the Power of 10 model. “They had never done 100 meals a day… it took a lot of persuading.” When asked about the relative sustainability of the take-out model for restaurants in general, Bruner-Yang replies,”The sustainable part isn’t really the question. You really don’t have a choice… unless you want to completely lose your business. At this point you either lose your business or you put yourself in a situation where you do take-out and delivery and pray for the best. I think what’s great about the Power of 10 Initiative is that it gives the business owner options and is a classic model of ‘trickle-up’ economics.” 

As Mirai twisted her parents’ arms from Boston, where she is quarantining, Wang had his virtual boots on the ground in Arcadia lining up nonprofit partners to receive the meals that would soon be generated from the restaurant.  The self-described “foodie” turned local activist quickly established links with the Asian Youth Center in San Gabriel, Foothill Unity Center, and Methodist Hospital of Arcadia. “We’re delivering everyday for now. Tuesday through Friday for lunch. For Methodist we were delivering to them on weekends… for lunch and dinner.” He goes on to explain that the program scaled down for Sushi Kiyosuzu given its kitchen size and capacity so that a total of 500 meals are prepped and delivered each week with 5 full-time employees.

The menu? “We started out with a Teriyaki Chicken bowl with veggies and today we’re doing a salted, grilled salmon … Pork Katsu will also be worked into the rotation.” 

Is The Power of 10 Initiative a positive game changer for local independent restaurants? Is it effectively sustainable? As Bruner-Yang suggests, “The scalability is about fundraising…”

One of my readers familiar with the subject — my girlfriend from her bunker in the living room — sent me an email asking, “If I had $100 to support — particularly — my local restaurants, why, instead of buying $100 food/takeout, would I make a $100 online donation to The Power of 10 Initiative?” Answer: Because activated restaurants are enabled to substantively re-employ their staff full-time for at least four weeks, while servicing communities in need. That said, I maintain a bit of healthy skepticism over crowdfunding efforts right now, in so far as the “crowd” is largely unemployed and experimenting at home with new takes on rice and beans. It also might be more compelling if my donation could be more specifically earmarked locally for restaurants in my area. On that note, Mirai Nagasu is back, “It’s really important to see my community coming together… it’s about being connected to community.” Above all, this much is true.

Will Mom and Pop Nagasu and Sushi Kiyosuzu spur the first wave of revitalization for our local restaurants?  Sponsor a meal now or a thousand if you can.

With the Power of 10 Initiative, it’s all in the numbers.