Koreatown Restaurants Fight to Survive as Office Vacancies and Crime Increase



The outdoor dining setup at UDON Lab in Midtown’s Koreatown. Photo: Teresa Zhang

It’s 1 p.m. on a Monday. UDON Lab, a noodle restaurant in the Midtown neighborhood of Koreatown, was once loud and bustling during lunch hour. But today is surprisingly quiet. One waitress stifles a yawn, while another surveys the empty chairs before her. A spoon hits the floor, breaking the silence and startling everyone. On this Monday, the restaurant has almost as many servers as customers.

“People who work around here came for lunch a lot before the pandemic, but now most of them are working from home,” said Kay Park, manager of UDON Lab. He said lunch sales have dropped by 70% compared to pre-pandemic times. The restaurant now fears it will soon not be able to afford the soaring rent.

Centered on West 32nd Street between Madison and Sixth avenues, Koreatown, also known as K-town, is packed full of Korean restaurants and bars. While it attracts locals and tourists at night, most of K-town’s businesses are dependent on local office workers during the day. But the Delta variant has delayed return-to-office plans across the city, including in K-town. The area has also seen an uptick in crime, which some said has deterred them from visiting restaurants around there. Now many neighborhood restaurants said they are fearful they won’t be able to keep their doors open.

More than 110,000 eating and drinking establishments closed across the country last year, either temporarily or permanently, according to industry business group, The National Restaurant Association. In New York City specifically, more than 1,000 restaurants and bars have closed since March 2020, but more detailed tracking could take years, food blog Eater reports.

UDON Lab is not the only K-town restaurant seeing a decrease in lunch traffic. Louis Park, host at Miss Korea, a decade-old Korean barbeque restaurant and neighborhood staple, blames the Delta variant.

“The world hasn’t returned back to normal,” said Park. “Before Covid, there were always a substantial number of people. Now, there are more workers than customers at lunch hour.”

The office vacancy rate around K-town is now at 50%, compared to nearly fully occupied pre-pandemic, according to JK Kim, vice president of the New York Koreatown Association. According to brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield’s second quarter reports, office vacancy in Midtown South, which includes K-town, increased by a total of 11.8 million square feet this year. In Midtown overall, office vacancy hit a historic high of 19% in June.

“Weekdays are so bad for the restaurants,” said Kim.

Vivian Yu is a senior manager at LinkedIn, which occupies 10 floors in The Empire State Building, a three-minute walk from K-town.

“I used to go to restaurants in K-town two or three times a week with my teammates,” said Yu, who lives in Brooklyn. “Visiting those restaurants is significantly less now, as I am working from home,” she said.

In addition to office vacancies driving down business during the day, K-town restaurant workers said there’s another issue that has decreased the number of customers coming in at night.

“The increase of violent and petty crimes we’ve been seeing in K-town has hurt our night foot traffic,” said Jonathan Ra, assistant manager of late-night eatery, Bangia. “It’s made walking around K-town and Herald Square at night more dangerous.”

According to the New York City Police Department, crime in Midtown South is up 42.93% from a year ago. Hate crimes, specifically, are up 900% in the area, the department reports. Ra said hate crimes have become a particular problem since the pandemic began.

Ji Kwon, who has lived near K-town for over five years, said she was a victim of hate crime in January, when a man spat on her after yelling a racial slur, as she walked home.

“I have noticed a dramatic increase in verbal and physical harassment late at night,” said Kwon who used to frequent with her friends, Pocha 32, a Korean pub on West 32nd Street. But she has not returned since the incident.

“Ever since the pandemic, I don’t feel safe going clubbing or hang out in K-town as much,” she said.

Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition which tracks incidents of hate against members of the Asian American Pacific Islander communities, received 9,081 incident reports nationwide from March 2020 to June 2021. Women reported 63.3% of the attacks, and most of these crimes occurred in public, according to the group.

To address the issues, the Koreatown Association sent a letter on behalf of restaurants in K-town to the Mayor’s Office and the Midtown South Precinct in August, urging action against crime, especially on West 32nd Street, where most of the restaurants are.

“Please, increase the presence of police officers on 32nd Street: one at each end of the block and walk the beats every hour,” the letter said.

Kim said police have told him they are working on it, but no action has been taken yet.

“I know it’s not a simple issue. I know the answer isn’t just more cops,” said Ra. “But something needs to be done.”