SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Working in the restaurant business is something Nina Ngoy, owner of Café Zella, never thought she'd be doing. But she needed to survive.

"You get married, you get a business, and that's how you support yourself and your family," Ngoy said. "Because I come from an older generation, so that was kind of the plan."

What You Need To Know

  • One local café owner has been able to stay in business during the pandemic thanks to loyal customers, two rounds of PPP loans, and donations from the community

  • Despite all the help, she says she still owes about $30,000 in back rent

  • The American Rescue Plan gives $26.8 billion in relief to restaurants and bars

  • The grant money is prioritized for restaurants and bars owned by women, veterans, and those who are socially and economically disadvantaged

Ngoy has operated her neighborhood café for 12 years and, before that, owned another restaurant in Glendora for 15 years. She's learned to love the business.

"I learned patience, I learned endurance, and I really learned how to survive," she said.

Ngoy is a Cambodian refugee and explained that survival is nothing new — but getting through the pandemic has been rough. She often sees upwards of 200 food orders per day, but she only had 10 orders during the lowest point. Over the past year, she's been forced to cut her staff and reduce the café's hours to stay in business.

"I had to let go of one cook, and then one was on a family leave because his wife passed away, so then I was down two people," she said. "So then I have to step up the game."

That meant working 16-hour days to wash dishes, make food, and take orders in front of the café, but Ngoy kept the doors open. She owes it to loyal customers, two rounds of PPP loans, and thousands of dollars in donations from the community.

"I can't even express how grateful I am," she said. "People were pouring in like $1,000, $500."

Despite the financial help, Ngoy still owes about $30,000 in back rent. Her landlord told Spectrum News 1 that tenants must pay at least 50% of rent during the pandemic, which follows the current Santa Monica City COVID-19 eviction moratorium. Ngoy explained how it's been tough recently to cover even that amount of rent.

"There is a couple of months, which is January, February, because literally we just have the reopening at the end of January, so January and February I only paid him 25%," she said.

But Ngoy remains positive that she will come up with the funds, especially since the American Rescue Plan will give $26.8 billion in relief to restaurants and bars. Owners must have fewer than 20 locations and apply for grants based on lost revenue between 2019 and 2020. Applicants don't have to pay the money back and don't have to pay taxes. Priority will go to grants for restaurants and bars owned by women, veterans, and those who are socially and economically disadvantaged.

Ngoy added that the federal relief, plus seeing customers return as Los Angeles County eases restaurant restrictions, brings her hope that she'll be able to survive the pandemic.

"I feel like it is the first time I see the youngsters, the adults, all returning back," she said. "And I mean, it's like old time. It was a good feeling."