"Sometimes I want to tweet about it and say, 'Hey, small businesses are gasping for air right now because there is such a crunch, especially in Silicon Valley,'" Khan said on Monday, standing in the sunlit kitchen of the Menlo Park home. She predicted that only chain restaurants would survive if housing costs continue to escalate.
Khan, a native of Pakistan, opened her first restaurant in Mountain View in 2014 and the second, larger location on California Avenue in Palo Alto two years later. From the beginning in Palo Alto, the restaurant was closed on Mondays and only open until 9 p.m. — despite late-night demand from Stanford University students and others — due to a lack of reliable staff, Khan said.
She tried raising wages. She rented an apartment in Santa Clara for employees, but the landlord didn't like the setup. When she found the 1,100-square-foot home in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, she decided it would be a worthy investment for both her and her staff.
Three Zareen's employees — two cooks and one part-time cashier — currently share two bedrooms at the clean, sparsely decorated house. Their rent includes maintenance, electrical, garbage, cable and high-speed internet. They're about 6 miles from the Palo Alto restaurant.
Khan rents the master bedroom and bathroom at about $1,500 per month to non-restaurant workers to help pay for the mortgage.
"It's a good deal," Khan said — a vast understatement given that the average rent for a three-bedroom home in Menlo Park is about $5,400 per month and about $7,000 in Palo Alto, according to real estate website Zillow.
Her employees earn between $15 to $25 per hour.
Cashier Muhammad Umair Siddique was previously renting in Hayward, paying about $1,000 a month, before moving to Manteca, near Modesto, where housing is cheaper. He worked for a food distribution company in Manteca during the week but commuted to work at Zareen's on the weekends.
Living at the house has changed Siddique's quality of life, financially and personally, he said.
Compared to other living situations with random roommates who come and go without any interaction, the Zareen's employees cook together, hang out on their day off, host barbecues in the backyard and provide a support system for other immigrants who are far from home and family. Siddique moved to the United States from Pakistan four years ago. One of his roommates, chef Shakeel Muhammad Naqvi, moved from his native Pakistan to Phoenix before arriving in California this spring.
"We don't feel like we are not at home," Siddique said. "When you only work, study, go home, then you don't have any extra activity to go sit together, to say what you feel and to share all that stuff. Since I moved in, it's totally changed my life."
On Monday afternoon, Siddique and Naqvi waited while Kelly Ghuman made lunch, an egg curry — his mother's recipe, made with cumin, onions, ginger, garlic, spices and hard-boiled eggs.
Khan said none of her 25 employees live in Palo Alto. Most commute from San Jose or Hayward. A handful live in East Palo Alto, where median home prices recently broke the $1 million mark. One employee has no home and sleeps in his car in between shifts at Zareen's and a second job at Acme Bread. On weekends, he rents a motel in Los Banos in the Central Valley to visit his children.
"At some point it's important for them to have quality of life," Khan said.
As an independent restaurant owner in the Bay Area, labor is Khan's No. 1 pressure. The increasing cost of housing is contributing to a regional restaurant labor shortage that many owners worry will spell the end of mom-and-pop restaurants. She believes more affordable housing and an embrace rather than rejection of building density in the area would go a long way to helping restaurants stay afloat.
In the meantime, she's trying to think outside the box — providing health insurance is a consideration — for how to help her employees survive and by extension, her own business.
This story contains 779 words.
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