SANTA CLARA (CBS SF) -- Hundreds of Bay Area businesses have shut down due to the pandemic, but for one Santa Clara restaurant the closure means the owners are also forced to leave the country.
John and wife Sunny Seo bought El Camino Mongolian Barbeque restaurant in January 2005. The popular restaurant has a huge following and has become a local institution over the years.
"This is our favorite place," said long-time customer Dina Alkhoury.
"The food, the ambience, the all your can eat," said customer Liza Purtell. "We've been coming for the last 5 or 6 years. And we came all the way from Marin County."
It's always fresh, always tasty," said Dave Wilson, who's been a customer for about 10 years. "This is probably the best interpretation of Mongolian food."
Like many kids pictured on the walls, Alkhoury ate countless meals at the restaurant.
"I was a little kid (and now I'm an adult)," said Alkhoury. "I'm going to miss it a lot."
John Seo said he'll miss his customers, too. They've become friends over the years. He and his wife made the tough decision to close down for good after December 15.
"I love this restaurant and the people," said Seo.
When he first started the business, he wanted customers to feel at home when they come into the restaurant. And a good home, he said, should be full of great memories.
That's why over the last 17 years, he and workers have taped roughly 7,000 pictures of happy customers on the walls and ceiling.
Seo said the pandemic knocked out his business by 70 percent last year. This year, it's down 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels. The rising labor and food costs made it impossible to continue. He said they're losing money every month.
He and his wife Sunny even sold their house to pay off restaurant debt.
"During the COVID pandemic, my wife and I (had a lot of tears)," said Seo.
Because they're staying in the U.S. on an investor E-2 Visa, closing down their business means they'll need to go back to their home country of South Korea within 90 days or they'll be arrested and deported. If they have a choice, Seo said he and his wife would want to stay in the South Bay.
"Even though I'm sad, I've reached the America dream," said Seo.
He said he has no regrets because his adult son and daughter now have successful careers in the U.S.
"He's leaving behind a big family," said Wilson.
"I wish them well, I hope them success and happiness in Korea," said Alkhoury.
"We just want to thank them for creating this vision and bringing people together," said Purtell.
When asked what's going to happen to the pictures, Seo said ideally, someone would buy the restaurant, the recipes, and everything inside to continue the business.
Seo and his wife plan to spend their remaining time in the U.S. with their son and daughter before going back to South Korea in March.
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