“On the first day my restaurant opened on Jan. 1, 2005, I had two customers,” said John Seo, owner of the El Camino Mongolian BBQ at 3380 El Camino Real (cross street: Nobili Ave.) in Santa Clara. “I was so happy that I had two customers that I took a picture of them. Now our restaurant has over 7,000 photos of customers on our walls.”
Before the pandemic hit, a visit to this restaurant meant a pleasant self-service experience of filling bowls with raw meats, vegetables, noodles and sauces for a chef to cook on a big round grill. Complimentary sides, such as egg rolls, fried rice, fried chicken and chicken soup were also available.
The pandemic has taken a toll on the restaurant’s business.
“Usually, on a weekday we have about 150 to 200 customers, and on a weekend — Friday, Saturday or Sunday — we have about 300 to 400 customers per day,” Seo said. “Right now, we only get about 10 to 15 percent of these customers since the pandemic hit.”
In May, Seo built dividers between the tables to prepare for indoor dining. He also cleaned and organized spaces that customers and employees might come in contact with.
“Then the State of California announced that we couldn’t offer dine-in service for now,” Seo said. “So right now, we offer a to-go service. We premix our vegetables. We have seven different choices for protein — a meat combination, beef, pork, chicken, lamb, vegetarian and shrimp. Our pre-mixed sauces come in mild, medium spicy, spicy and extra spicy.”
“If the customer wants a customized meal, we can offer that and charge $2 extra for their meal,” Seo continued. “I am also offering an uncooked meal package so customers can prepare their meal at home. Each order, cooked or uncooked, comes with two servings.”
Recently, Seo signed up to work with DoorDash. He has also set up two small tables for outdoor dining.
According to Seo, the restaurant originally opened in 1993. The first owner ran this restaurant for two years and the second owner, for 10 years. Seo purchased this restaurant in January 2005.
Seo has donated money to various causes.
“I have donated money from the restaurant to the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, the local Red Cross serving Santa Clara County for the Japanese Tsunami Relief Fund, and to children’s hospitals,” Seo said. “A lot of my staff is from Guatemala. So, I’ve donated money to Namaste Direct, an organization that helps poor ladies living in Guatemala with their career goals.”
Right now, Seo is struggling to pay the restaurant’s rent.
“I applied for an EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) and a SBA (Small Business Administration) loan,” he said. “My requests were denied because I am not a citizen or a permanent resident. I have an E-2 visa, which is an investor visa. I have been happy living the American dream. If I close my restaurant permanently, my wife, Sunny, and I have to return to Korea within 90 days.”
Visit www.elcaminomongolianbbq.com for more details about the restaurant, including how to help the restaurant at this time.