The hospitality industry has been doing it tough for the last two years. Lockdowns and restrictions have further squeezed restaurants that already relied on wafer-thin profit margins. But despite the hardship of lockdown, the husband and wife team behind Raijin Japanese Cuisine in McKellar has turned their attention to helping people in their community.
Zilla Tam and Eddie Cho started their business as a small food stall at the Old Bus Depot Markets in 2018 and, with encouragement from customers, opened a restaurant in McKellar later that year. Far from central dining precincts with lots of foot traffic, Zilla and Eddie have relied on word-of-mouth recommendations and returning customers to build their business. And it worked: pre-COVID, their small restaurant is usually packed on weekends with customers lucky enough to know about this suburban gem.
From the very beginning of their business, Zilla and Eddie have created strong bonds with their customers. Zilla jokes that their regulars have been teaching her to speak “more Aussie!”, and last year they ordered extra rolls of toilet paper to give away when shops were running low.
Zilla says their customers have been concerned about them during lockdown.
“They send us messages saying, ‘Are you okay? Is business going well?’”
Like many small businesses, Raijin has suffered over the last few weeks. Eddie and Zilla estimate that their sales are down 60 per cent as a result of the lockdown. But knowing they had the support of their community, they still wanted to do something to help out.
“Our customers keep coming back, they call us, tell their friends to support us, and we appreciate that. So we wanted to do something to help other people who need it,” she says.
They sat down and budgeted they could afford to give away 30 free meals each week, so they posted on social media.
“This is a very challenging time for all of us due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are families who are already struggling to get a healthy meal on tables … If you or someone you know may need help, please give us a message.”
Zilla told me she was particularly concerned for elderly and disabled people in their area, as well as single parents who might be struggling with work, homeschooling and childcare. They’ve also received calls from students, unable to work and feeling isolated.
They plan to give away the meals every Saturday for the duration of Canberra’s lockdown. Several customers have offered monetary support for this initiative, but Zilla has urged people to donate to other organisations that are better set up to provide assistance. She insisted that for them, giving back to the community is their pleasure.
“We won’t receive any donations because this is from our heart. We really want to help each other if we can.”
Zilla and Eddie suggest you show your support by telling friends about their business and buying a meal for yourself (if you’re lucky enough to be in the area). After listening to Zilla speak passionately about the freshness and flavours of Eddie’s cooking, I was starving.
To keep their staff COVID-safe, they’ve set up a system to run takeaway orders out to customers in the car park, so I was able to pay for and receive my meal without leaving my car!
I ordered Okonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake. It is packed with vegetables and surprisingly big for an entree. I also tried the Chicken Karaage Black Curry Don. The chicken is juicy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and the black curry sauce is peppery and delicious. They’re both simple, nourishing dishes that manage to pack a lot of flavour.
Zilla and Eddie are wonderful examples of how individuals can have a positive impact on their community. Raijin may be a small restaurant, but it has a big heart.
Raijin Japanese Restaurant is at Bennetts Close, McKellar, and it’s open for takeaway Tuesday through Saturday.