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Column: Sole Uyghur eatery in San Diego is going to sell

(Courtesy photo)

Owner followed his dream of sharing ethnic culture, but pandemic dealt restaurant crushing blow

In late April, a GoFundMe appeal was set up for the preservation of an ethnic restaurant in Clairemont.

The headline pleaded: “Help Save the Only Uyghur Cuisine in San Diego.”

A $300 donation immediately came in from the GoFundMe team as part of its Gives Back program for “fundraisers that have touched us.”

“I was shocked,” said Azimat Ghayret, owner of the Kroran Uyghur Cuisine restaurant at 4310 Genesee Ave. But in nearly two months only $2,500 has been contributed to help pay off the $50,000 debt racked up by the struggling restaurant during the pandemic.

In desperation, Ghayret is selling the ethnic eatery at a discount price that will enable him to pay off debts — primarily back rent and utilities — leaving little, if any, money left over.

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An Afghan refugee, who was formerly in the Afghan army and worked with the U.S. government before the Taliban took over, has made an offer and hopes to close escrow at the end of this month.

Ghayret, 32, says he and his wife pumped their life savings into the restaurant. Relatives also contributed to outfit the restaurant’s two kitchens with specialized equipment, install fixtures and furnishings and decorate with authentic items from the Uyghur region.

Uyghur (pronounced Wee-gr) is an autonomous region in northwestern China. Kroran was an ancient city there along China’s Silk Road trade route linking it to the Middle East.

Its inhabitants are a mostly Muslim minority who have been oppressed in a systematic campaign by the Chinese government to dismantle the culture.

This oppression was exposed to the world when leaked documents, the “Xinjiang Papers,” were published by The New York Times in 2019. These documents revealed the forced detention of more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims in re-educaton camps by Chinese authorities.

In February, Gulbahar Haitiwaji published a memoir of her three-year imprisonment: “How I Survived a Chinese ‘Reeducation’ Camp: A Uyghur Woman’s Story.”

Ghayret’s dream was to introduce others to his national culture and traditions by establishing an authentic Uyghur cuisine restaurant.

“Kroran Uyghur Cuisine is not only a restaurant. It is our presentation of our culture and existence to the Western world,” Ghayret explained in his GoFundMe appeal. “We only want to serve what we have grown up within our Uyghur family homes.”

Food preparation is complicated and labor intensive. He uses four cooks with different specialties. They struggled to reformulate family recipes that take three hours to cook into a simpler process while still preserving the rich, hearty flavors.

The bread and dumplings are handmade, and the noodles are hand-drawn. Only natural ingredients are incorporated without MSG or chemical additives.

The menu offers steamed buns stuffed with minced beef and onion, handmade meat pie, stir-fried lamb with naan, spicy chicken stew, Turkish lentil soup, various kebabs, several stir-fried noodle dishes, Uyghur yogurt with honey and crushed walnuts and baklava.

It can be expensive to travel to this remote area of northwestern China to experience Uyghur cuisine in its natural setting, so Ghayret created an authentic U.S. alternative.

He believes it to be the first and only family-owned Uyghur restaurant in San Diego and, with seating for 100, one of the biggest Uyghur restaurants in the United States. Clientele come from throughout Southern California and Arizona.

Timing was not on his side, however.

Ghayret became owner of the restaurant in January 2020, just months before the pandemic spread. While payments on his three-year lease initially were deferred by the landlord, as the COVID-19 threat eased, the back rent became due, as did the utility bills.

The restaurant closed for the first few weeks of the pandemic but re-opened with reduced hours, and resumed full-time operation last March. There were days during the pandemic when they were making $300 a day yet faced a payroll of $18,000 to $20,000 monthly, Ghayret says. His mother, father, sister and other relatives jumped in to help work various jobs.

Ghayret took advantage of some government pandemic business loan programs, but the long duration of the pandemic, compounded by the skyrocketing cost of meat and other food supplies have made it difficult to survive.

“We can’t double our menu prices,” Ghayret says. Plus, they lost catering business, including meals regularly prepared for international students.

“My dream to preserve our culture and show people who we are could have worked,” he says. “Little did we know a global pandemic would hit.”

His dream has nearly bankrupted the young businessman who has both construction and software engineering training. Instead of pursuing higher-paying jobs in those professions, he elected to try to preserve and share his family’s culture.

With the past rent due by the end of December, he decided to try to sell the restaurant for $140,000 — considerably less than he initially paid, even before investing in equipment, remodeling and furnishings.

Fardin Naeimi, who entered the United States on a Special Immigration Visa, recently saw the “For Sale” ad and offered to buy the restaurant in partnership with his brother-in-law and sister-in-law.

He once operated an eatery in Afghanistan, but this will be his first such venture in the United States. Naeimi says he plans to keep the menu the same for now but gradually incorporate some Mediterranean fare and Afghan dishes — more varieties of kebobs and basmati rice dishes. The cultures are similar.

Ghayret admits that he was hesitant to start a GoFundMe campaign because he didn’t want it to look like he was begging for money.

“I wasn’t begging for money for me. I already lost all my money. I was trying to preserve our culture here. This became my baby, my house, my family, and I’m about to lose it.”

If the escrow closes and the sale of the restaurant is finalized, he pledges to return the donations.

Updates

11:16 a.m. June 21, 2022: Kroran Uyghur Cuisine restaurant is located in Clairemont.


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