Even after the inception of the updated USC Village, local small businesses around campus remain an integral part of the USC experience. COVID-19, though, has changed the landscape of nearly every aspect of life on and off the USC campus, including the small businesses students and community members rely on.

With fond memories at local establishments with family or friends, students now look to them for a sense of comfort and a feeling of getting “the USC experience” they are missing out on from restrictions prohibiting classes and organizations from meeting in person.

“I wanted to go to a local restaurant near USC to try and feel like things were at least semi-normal,” junior journalism major Olivia Novato said. “Thai by Trio is one of my favorite spots to go with friends, so it was some semblance of normalcy for us to grab take out from there.”

Restaurants nationwide have lost over $120 billion in sales leading to inevitable work force cuts. But hit harder have been small restaurants, particularly those that rely on their student clientele, like those around USC. In the University Park neighborhood alone, 233 people had lost their job in the accommodation/food service industry as of June. Students are doing what they can to show their support for struggling small businesses around USC.

“Living near campus this summer, I’m glad that the majority of the restaurants were able to stay open and my friends and I tried supporting them as much as possible,” senior international relations global business major Max Jablonski said.

Viztango Cafe, an Italian restaurant on Figueroa street, lost about 50% of its business during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to owner Tito Rivera. (Photo by Yannick Peterhans)
Viztango Cafe, an Italian restaurant on Figueroa street, lost about 50% of its business during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to owner Tito Rivera. (Photo by Yannick Peterhans)

On the wall by the cash register at Viztango Cafe, an Italian restaurant on Figueroa street, is a framed magazine article in which legendary USC football quarterback Matt Leinart names the restaurant as one of his favorite spots to eat near campus. The everyday special? Buy a pitcher of beer, get a free pizza. It’s a classic college kid spot.

Viztango normally loses about 25% of its business during a typical summer break at USC. But, having hardly any students in the area for such an extended period of time, coupled with the added strain of the pandemic, has been even more challenging.

Viztango Cafe lost about 50% of its business during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to owner Tito Rivera. He was forced to cut down the hours of all his employees as well as lay some off.

Rivera had a message for the USC community. “We want you to support local mom and pop businesses like Vitztango,” Rivera said. “By coming or ordering from us you help our families and our employees’ families.”

Spudnuts, a donut and coffee shop in the same plaza as Vitztango, is not your average cafe. Think anything from fruity pebble donuts to breakfast sandwiches to milkshakes. Before the pandemic, it was open 24 hours, making it a popular late-night pitstop for students leaving the 9-0 or the row.

In the mornings, LAPD officers and local grade school students could often be seen mixed in with hungover USC students. “We still have a good amount of loyal customers,” manager Malivan Long said. This helps keep the momentum going in the shop when USC students, the majority of Spudnuts’ patrons, are not around.

But Spudnuts has not been immune to the effects of the pandemic. The business has been forced to take out loans, cut down on staff hours, and pay rent in increments until it is able to pay in full down the road. It even closed its doors from late March through early April. “We thought we’d just close for a week and then reopen, but that wasn’t the case,” Long said. “When things got worse, we stayed closed.”

Although Spudnuts has since reopened, it has taken a while to find its footing and draw customers back in. Long is hopeful that Spudnuts will “pull through” on the other end of the pandemic, given that the establishment has been around since long before COVID-19.

Jablonski echoed that sentiment. “I think Spudnuts, El Huero, Viztango, and all the other unique Figueroa restaurants are an absolute staple to South Central and arguably as synonymous with USC as Felix the Cat,” he said. “Spudnuts was actually the first place I ever got food when I visited USC as a sophomore in high school and I hope that it’ll be here for decades to come.”