Katie Rue, 28, is the owner of Reception Bar, a Korean American cocktail and elixir bar in the Lower East Side of New York City. As an Asian American small business owner, she’s had to navigate a year plagued with COVID-19 and amplified racism against Asians in America, which has only gotten worse in recent months.
Even though President Donald Trump, who has spurred anti-Asian sentiment and dismissed suggested safety guidelines like mask mandates throughout the pandemic, has lost the presidency, business owners are still struggling to survive. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned folks of an impending, dangerous “second wave” this week—just as the city steels itself for a long winter. Ahead, Katie Rue shares how she and Reception Bar are fighting for survival as the pandemic rages on—with little end in sight.
Like many people in this country, I thought the pandemic would blow over in a couple of months. We had to shut down on March 17, so we sent everyone home. I created a GoFundMe where all the money went directly to the staff.
I started seeing my business peers in Chinatown being targeted, ignored, or avoided because of who they were as early as January—before the pandemic even started stateside. Hate crimes against minorities are nothing new, but the pandemic has amplified them a lot. They’re hurtful reminders of where our country is at.
Even before the coronavirus, random people would harass me as I was opening and closing the bar. One time, a mom came in with her baby stroller after we had closed and started asking me probing questions about how I was running my business. I don’t know if it was a Karen moment because it was hard to tell if it was racially charged, but it was clear that she was trying to pick a fight. We were closing down, there was no noise, no people, and she came in assuming that I didn’t have the proper licenses. She was really surprised when I showed her them displayed on my walls for the public to see. Surviving and thriving is also a form of protest against those people.
But the business has certainly been impacted by the pandemic. We’ve lost nearly 40 percent of sales for a variety of reasons: Less seating because we have to be outdoors and socially distant. Losing our indoor seating meant going from 22 seats to 12, and in The Before, most of our sales came in between 10 p.m. to midnight. Now, per safety regulations, we have to close at 11 p.m. and last call is at 10:30 p.m. There’s another layer of wondering if the slow business is because we’re Asian.
When I opened Reception Bar in 2018, it was an interesting time to start a business and claim space as an Asian American. Crazy Rich Asians was really big, and being Asian was considered hot. Knowing that was the temperature of society at the time made me more firm in what I wanted to do: I didn’t want to exoticize my own culture or exploit it in any way. I needed to ensure that what set me apart was my love of being Korean American. Asian American-ness is a culture of its own and not a no man’s land.
Before the pandemic, things were great. I was hustling, wearing many different hats—business owner, accountant, bookkeeper, creative director, and even janitor. After we celebrated our one-year anniversary last year we were finally in the green, which is pretty quick for a place in New York. We were in a really good spot. I was expanding the team. I was getting ready to move away from the physical, day-to-day labor, and focus more on the management and creative side. Then the pandemic hit and that changed everything.
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It’s hard to balance—keeping the brand identity, still having a voice, and being happy with the product you’re pushing out, instead of just doing things for survival.
But I realize it’s not about a super-fancy night out anymore. It’s about treating yourself to a thoughtful drink without breaking the bank. I lowered my prices and increased the volume of what we produced.
In the Before Times, you felt like you could do anything in New York City. It’s an international hub of all kinds of people from all walks of life coming through being open to trying different things. There’s so much culture and stories that are told through food. It’s really unfortunate feeling like you’re not being supported by the government, and you also have to be the person in charge of policing people about public safety. They’re putting more stress on those of us who are just trying to survive and we’re the ones that bring flavor to this city.
I’m cautiously optimistic. There’s a side of you thinking when you should give up and realize that this isn’t going to work out right now, but I want to give it my best shot and do what I can to survive because I think what I’m doing is important.
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