MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Minneapolis restaurant owner adapted to the pandemic with a different approach: let customers pay what they can, if at all.
The program ran for six weeks and three days after owners John Ng and Lina Goh suddenly closed their doors at Zen Box Izakaya.
“Just like a shock,” said Ng, regarding the feeling that day. “It was like slow motion for us.”
In a moment, the hip ramen bar became a lifeline and they didn’t have to look far to see it unfold. Their staff left work unsure of when they’d come back.
“We were like, ‘Take,’” said Goh. “‘Take the rice, take whatever food we have with you,’ [We packed] meals for them and they took it home so that they [could] feel like, at least they have something to look forward to.”
That’s what drew the inspiration for pay-what-you-can: Food as a form of healing.
“We had a caller who was in tears telling us that two of her family members tested positive, and then lost their jobs, and they can’t feed the family,” Goh said. “We’re like, ‘Yes, we have food for you, and someone else paid for it.”
Ng and Goh got more than $2,700 in donations, and so much more from unexpected places.
“Our landlord has been very gracious,” Goh said. “I broke down in tears when they [gave us] the month of April free of rent.”
By encouraging customers to pay it forward, Goh and Ng felt the need to do the same.
“Whatever accumulates with leftover donations, we decided to make a meal for our frontline medical workers and then send it over to them,” Ng said.
They delivered those meals to M Health Fairview this past week.
As for what’s next, part of the allure of restaurants like Zen Box Izakaya is the physical act of bringing people together.
Ng and Goh are working on recreating the experience, safely, when the time is right.