SANTA CLARA (CBS SF) – Hundreds of Bay Area businesses have closed due to the pandemic, but for one restaurant in Santa Clara, the closure means owners are also being forced out of the country.
John and his wife Sunny Seo bought the Mongolian barbecue restaurant El Camino in January 2005. The popular restaurant is highly regarded and has become a local institution over the years.
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“This is our favorite place,” said longtime customer Dina Alkhoury.
“The food, the ambiance, whatever you can eat,” said customer Liza Purtell. “We have been coming for 5 or 6 years. And we came from Marin County.
It’s always fresh, always tasty, “said Dave Wilson, a customer for about 10 years. “This is probably the best interpretation of Mongolian cuisine. “
Like many children depicted on the walls, Alkhoury ate countless meals in the restaurant.
“I was a little kid (and now I’m an adult),” Alkhoury said. “I will miss it a lot.”
John Seo said he will miss his customers too. They have become friends over the years. He and his wife made the difficult decision to shut down permanently after December 15.
“I love this restaurant and the people,” Seo said.
When he started his business, he wanted customers to feel at home when they walked into the restaurant. And a good house, he said, should be full of good memories.
That’s why over the past 17 years, he and the workers have recorded around 7,000 photos of happy customers on the walls and ceiling.
Seo said the pandemic destroyed his business by 70% last year. This year, it is down 50% from pre-pandemic levels. The rising costs of labor and food made prosecution impossible. He said they were losing money every month.
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He and his wife Sunny even sold their house to pay off the restaurant’s debt.
“During the COVID pandemic, my wife and I (had a lot of tears),” Seo said.
Because they stay in the United States on an E-2 investor visa, closing their business means they will have to return to their home country, South Korea, within 90 days or else they will be arrested and deported. If given a choice, Seo said he and his wife would like to stay in South Bay.
“Even though I’m sad, I achieved the American dream,” Seo said.
He said he had no regrets because his adult son and daughter now have successful careers in the United States.
“He leaves behind a big family,” Wilson said.
“I wish them good luck, I wish them success and happiness in Korea,” Alkhoury said.
“We just want to thank them for creating this vision and bringing people together,” Purtell said.
When asked what would happen to the photos, Seo replied that ideally someone would buy the restaurant, the recipes and everything in it to keep the business going.
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Seo and his wife plan to spend their remaining time in the United States with their son and daughter before returning to South Korea in March.