Oscar Lui, owner of Heavenly Freeze in Fresno, has been running an ice cream truck for the last three years. Lui opened up the frozen desserts shop in August and makes the ice cream by hand. Photo by Frank Lopez
Written by Frank Lopez
Opening a new business can be a daunting task.
It’s even more daunting during a world-halting global pandemic.
The coronavirus has altered world economies and left businesses in a state of flux. The Central Valley is no exception.
The restaurant industry has probably taken the hardest hit locally, with most eateries resorting to take-out, delivery and curbside pick-up options. Locations that don’t have an outside eating area are even setting up tents in their parking lots for customers to dine-in.
According to Yelp’s Economic Average report, as of July 10, 132,580 restaurants have closed, with 15,742 of the closures being permanent. California is leading the county for business closures with more than 14,000 permanent closures and over 15,000 temporary closures.
Even in the ripples of the economic disruption brought on by Covid-19, entrepreneurs in the Central Valley still went forward with their business plans.
Leon Alchian of Fresno, owner of Majestic Jewelry & Loan pawn shop and Majestic Music & More, opened Downtown Deli & Market right across the street from Fresno City Hall at the end of March.
Alchian had to push back the opening of the eatery located on Fresno and P streets due to concerns from the coronavirus, but he also had to get some cash flowing. He invested more than $100,000 to convert the former print shop into a restaurant.
During the early weeks days of the lockdown, implemented just before the deli opened, business was slow. The temporary closure of non-essential businesses and more city employees working from home meant a thin lunch hour.
However, the brief reopening of bars and restaurants in June did bring business to Downtown Deli & Market.
“It was pretty rough, but things have gotten better. We are slowly climbing up. Things reopened and then were closed again, but that did bring a spike to our business. We are slowly getting better and better,” he said.
Since most customers are ordering for take-out or curbside pick-up, the ban on indoor dining hasn’t hampered sales drastically. The deli offers UberEats and DoorDash for delivery.
At this point after opening, the word-of-mouth has spread and the deli is having a steady flow of customers.
“We’ve almost doubled our sales from when we opened,” Alchian said. “We still got a long way to go, but when it all comes back — city hall, the hospital, the federal building — we’ll triple our sales.”
Opening up deeper into the pandemic in May was Mélange, a juice bar and health foods restaurant on Perrin and Shepard avenues in Fresno.
Owner and Chef Alex Mirakyan has worked in the dining industry for the past few years. Mirakyan said that he focused mostly on higher end, fine dining in the past, but Mélange runs with more of a casual, health foods concept.
“I did feel that Fresno did have a need for more concepts like this,” Mirakyan said. “I wanted to share the healthy foods and juices with our community. Right now, more than ever, it could help make an impact with all the virus and health stuff going on.”
A lease for the space was signed in January. Then it had to be gutted and renovated to give it a clean, modern look. Mirakyan said there was a lot of investment and time to make the space ready to open.
There were plans to launch in April, but after the pandemic hit, the opening was prolonged until early May.
Even though there was some interest from the community before they opened, it was difficult to get buzz after opening with the state of the economy and apprehension from the public to go out.
“If the pandemic didn’t happen, I think the hype would have definitely been more prolific as far as people knowing about us, “ Mirakyan said. “Now, it’s taking some time for the word to really get out. People might not really have jobs right now or a stable income. People don’t want to leave their homes. It’s going to take some time to build that up.”
Within the last two weeks, Mirakyan has noticed a slight uptick in people eating in outdoor areas, but right now, during the peak of summer, people don’t stay outside for too long.
Just opened in August right around the hottest days of summer, Heavenly Freeze is located at Bullard Avenue and Fresno Street. The frozen desserts shop is attached to the 76 gas station, set up in a front corner of the store.
Issac Lui, owner of Heavenly Freeze, has also been running an ice cream truck bearing the same name for the last three years.
Lui said he invested about $200,000 to set up space to make the ice cream, as well as build the granite counters and walls.
A self-proclaimed ice cream fanatic, Lui makes the ice cream by hand in the shop. Customers can also purchase cookie sandwiches, Italian ice, frozen drinks, shakes, and ice cream sundaes.
“I personally like being able to make people’s day better. When it comes to food, I realized no one really gets mad or upset at ice cream. For the most part everybody is pretty happy and joyful when they come and get desserts, so why not be that person that is able to make people’s day,” Lui said.
Prior to running the ice cream truck, Lui’s family ran Rita’s Italian Ice, an East Coast chain that opened up three franchises in the area. Unfortunately, Rita’s Italian Ice didn’t perform too well and the family parted ways with the chain.
Lui said he had an existing relationship with the owner of the gas station, and he was always planning on attaching his shop to the store. It has been in the works for more than two years.
Though the dessert shop just opened, Lui said more people are coming in as time goes on and he expects word of mouth to keep growing.
“It’s been growing day by day. We have a good following with our desert truck, and we go to events and do private catering and use that to bring people into the shop,” Lui said. We wanted to open up. The coronavirus is beyond our control, but we are just being optimistic. For all those having to stay inside, at least we could spread some type of joy to them.”