One Restaurant’s Struggle to Weather the Pandemic 2023

Updated: February 5, 2023

Cover Story

One restaurant’s struggle to weather the pandemic.

Eric Wang first noticed something was wrong on March 9. It was a Monday morning, and the co-owner of Thamee, a Burmese restaurant in D.C. that had just been named a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, was doing his routine count of reservations for that evening. Usually, the number of bookings will rise between Sunday night and Monday morning, as guests making last-minute dinner plans sign up for tables online. On March 9, Wang saw the reservations drop by half overnight.

Many restaurants operate on wafer-thin margins, with little financial cushion to sustain the business through prolonged periods of diminished income. Thamee, which opened in May 2019 and made the Washington Post’s list of best restaurants of that year, was no different. The restaurant had only just completed its first five straight weeks of profitability when those reservation cancellations started rolling in. Like many new restaurants, Thamee was still in debt, with just about one month’s worth of rent and one pay period’s worth of wages on hand. Wang, 39, and his Thamee co-owners—Simone Jacobson, 35, and her Burma-born mother, 67-year-old executive chef Jocelyn Law-Yone—had to act quickly to avoid bleeding money on hourly staffers who might show up at the restaurant to find empty tables and not enough work to do.

The owners took one server off the schedule each night and had a bartender do double-duty serving tables. They dismissed members of the kitchen staff two hours early during every dinner service. As their customers began to avoid restaurants for fear of contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus, Thamee’s management could only try to keep the business afloat. At that point, Wang said, there was still no signal from government officials that public establishments should do anything differently to protect their employees or guests, or that there might be assistance coming for employees whose hours were dwindling. “There were no guidelines other than ‘wash your hands and don’t touch your face,’ ” Wang said. “For two weeks, that was really all we got, from the end of February to when the shit hit the fan.”

Every town has had its own shit-hitting-fan moment in the coronavirus timeline, when official response escalates from personal hygiene PSAs to business closures and isolation mandates. For D.C., it came on Sunday, March 15, when Mayor Muriel Bowser handed down an order requiring restaurants to eliminate bar seating and keep 6-foot gaps between all tables. Thamee had finished its brunch service and was less than an hour from welcoming dinner guests—both meals with a smaller-than-usual crowd—when Jacobson, the only owner in the restaurant that day, got the word. “I just went into crisis mode,” she said.

Simone Jacobson in the restaurant.

Co-owner Simone Jacobson in happier times.

Curry Hackett

Jacobson pulled out a tape measure and started mapping out a new table configuration, reducing available seats from 40 to 12. She called seven staffers on the schedule and told them she couldn’t afford to bring them in for the evening; some didn’t get the message in time and were sent back home as soon as they arrived. “I had a bartender, two line cooks, and me—that’s it,” Jacobson said. “It wasn’t our best service ever, but we gave it our absolute best. It was a lot of chaos and confusion. And really, that day was sort of a blur, because we didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

Here’s what happened next: Bowser banned dine-in service altogether on March 16, in an order that took effect just a few hours after it was issued. Some D.C. restaurants pivoted to takeout and delivery. Thamee management opted to close. All 28 employees, including the owners, have been out of work for more than two weeks, with no idea when they’ll be able to earn a paycheck again. Many have applied for unemployment benefits but have yet to receive any payouts. “That week, I felt like I lived a year in about seven days,” line cook Leeda Bijani, 26, told me. “I love being out in my city and working really hard. My livelihood, my happiness, my sanity is cooking and being in a kitchen. And it was gone overnight.”

As the U.S. economy staggers under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns, the hospitality sector is hemorrhaging jobs and revenue. Thousands of restaurants around the country have shuttered or curtailed operations under orders from state and local officials. In a recent survey of 5,000 restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association found that 44 percent had temporarily closed their businesses, 3 percent had permanently closed, and 11 percent projected that they’d have to close for good within the next month. The association estimates that 3 million restaurant workers were laid off in the first three weeks of March—about one-fifth of the entire U.S. restaurant workforce. April will look even worse.

“It’s like you’re a parent, and suddenly someone waved a magic wand and said, ‘Your previous toddler human child is now an armadillo. Figure it out.’ 

— Simone Jacobson

This gutting hasn’t been distributed evenly across the industry. Spending at fine dining restaurants has dropped 98 percent from the pre-coronavirus average. Chain restaurants—which are more likely to have drive-through or takeout options—are faring better: Fast-food restaurants, for instance, have only seen a 45 percent decline in spending. For a small, mid-to-upscale independent restaurant like Thamee, abruptly converting to a takeout and delivery operation was a tall order. At first, Wang thought it might work: The restaurant could keep just the salaried staff members on board to cook, package, and deliver food. When Thamee bar manager Richard Sterling, 34, heard that the D.C. Council had passed emergency legislation to allow restaurants to sell wine, beer, and liquor with takeout and delivery orders, he saw it as an exciting challenge. “I was like, ‘Let’s go, let’s do this’—thinking about smaller portions of our cocktails, thinking about larger carafes we can seal,” he said.

But when Wang, Jacobson, Law-Yone, Sterling, and general manager Jordan Lee sat down to talk through their options two days after the mayor’s order to end dine-in service, the prospect of hastily fashioning a takeout joint out of a restaurant known for its warm, familiar ambiance, lively open kitchen, and frequent tableside visits from the owners felt increasingly grim. The logistics alone were prohibitive: Thamee has an exclusive deal with the Caviar/DoorDash family of delivery apps, so they’d have to renegotiate that, sign up for all the other apps, and launch an aggressive delivery marketing campaign to maximize sales. And even if they could boost their app orders, the numbers wouldn’t make sense. “You’re being asked to change your business model overnight,” Jacobson said. “It’s like you’re a parent, and suddenly someone waved a magic wand and said, ‘Your previous toddler human child is now an armadillo. Figure it out.’ ”

More importantly, the team couldn’t reconcile how they would run a restaurant without endangering their employees or their customers. Law-Yone had been spending more time away from the restaurant since early March, as she started hearing reports about the acute dangers the coronavirus posed to people her age and older. As executive chef, she knew it would be next to impossible to operate a kitchen during a pandemic without some risk of viral transmission. As a proud mother figure for her staff—Thamee means daughter in Burmese; several employees said Law-Yone, or “Chef Jojo” as they called her, cares for them like family—she worried for the safety of workers forced to commute to the restaurant and interact with customers.

“Our entire leadership team is immigrants or first generation,” Jacobson said. “In our parts of the world—Mexico, Tajikistan, China, Taiwan, Burma, Jamaica—you listen to the elders. My mom was adamant that the moral thing to do was to close.”

Two people smiling in a restaurant kitchen.

Jocelyn Law-Yone and Eric Wang in the kitchen at Thamee. Law-Yone started working from home before the restaurant shuttered.

Mariah Miranda

On Wednesday, March 18—what Jacobson calls “the worst and hardest day of my life”—she called each employee to share the news: Everyone who worked at Thamee, including all management, would be laid off. She sent them information on applying for unemployment benefits and invited them back to the restaurant to pick up their final paychecks that Friday. “For me, personally, it was kind of bleak and a little depressing to see everyone I know be out of a job in an instant,” said Geoffrey Chang, 32, a bartender at Thamee. “But I was more concerned about Simone. She invested a lot of time and money into opening the restaurant, and it hasn’t even been a whole year yet. It’s a really hard blow for her.”

Jacobson had been through the restaurant grind before. She and Wang met years earlier on OkCupid. “The romance part didn’t work out, but we respected the hell out of each other,” Wang said. A few months after their introduction, when they ran into each other at a café in their neighborhood, Jacobson told Wang that she was trying to open a Burmese falooda shop with her mother, who was retiring from a high school teaching career. Wang said he wanted to support the venture with what little money he had—“it was a lot of money to me,” Jacobson said—and a business partnership was born. The enterprise, Toli Moli, was an introduction to restaurant ownership for all three partners. Over the course of its nearly four-year run, it grew from a sporadic pop-up to a permanent stall to a full bodega before closing late last year.

For two years, Jacobson didn’t take a salary for the work she did at Toli Moli. She supported herself as an arts consultant instead but gave up that career path—and took on a lot of debt—for Thamee. Opening the restaurant “was a sacrifice for me in some ways,” she said. “I knew my mom really wanted this restaurant. I wanted to be able to actualize that dream with her, and I knew if we didn’t do it, someone else would be right behind us. … This was not my dream, but I’ve made it my dream. And if I wasn’t sure before, I’d better be sure now that this is really what I want to be doing.”

“My livelihood, my happiness, my sanity is cooking and being in a kitchen. And it was gone overnight.”

— Leeda Bijani

Jacobson and her co-owners remain optimistic that Thamee will reopen, though they say those chances decrease with every month it’s closed. Their survival plan depends on a confluence of government policy, local funding, and community support. D.C. halted all evictions and utility cutoffs, and lifted restrictions on unemployment insurance, allowing Thamee’s employees to apply for benefits without having to look for other work, because there is none. That helped the team decide that laying everyone off was a safer bet for the restaurant’s future than depleting its resources to keep the staff employed for another week or two. (Thamee, according to its owners, did not employ any undocumented workers when it shut its doors. So unlike many other restauranteurs, Jacobson, Wang, and Law-Yone did not have to worry that their staff members would be ineligible for unemployment insurance.) The owners are also applying for a D.C. small-business recovery microgrant, a James Beard Foundation grant, a grant funded by the Bumble dating app, and loans from the Small Business Administration to help pay expenses until the restaurant can open its doors again.

That money will buy Thamee a bit of time with no cash flow, but bills are still coming in. The week Thamee closed, the restaurant’s management team went through their profit and loss statement line by line to see what services they could put on hold. A shuttered restaurant doesn’t need trash removal, oven hood cleaning, liquor liability insurance, or a towel provider. (When Sterling, the bar manager, called Thamee’s towel vendor to cancel their order, the vendor was feeling down, too, after having had to lay off several members of his own staff.) But Thamee is still on the hook for property taxes, pest control, a security system, and rental payments for its ice-maker and dishwashing machine, among other monthly fees. Right now, those costs add up to about $2,500 a month. Come June, if the owners aren’t able to negotiate any further payment deferrals or rent abatement, they’ll be spending $14,000 a month just to keep hibernating. 

Wang says Thamee is in a better position to weather a short closure than most other new restaurants because of the particular nature of its debt. Most of Thamee’s initial funding came from the Latino Economic Development Center, a local organization that offers loans to small businesses owned by members of underserved communities, which has paused repayment requirements until the coronavirus crisis passes. The restaurant has also benefited from the kindness of its small-time landlord, a Korean American man who told Jacobson, “We’re family, we’ll get through this together,” when he agreed to waive Thamee’s April rent and use its security deposit for May’s. (The landlord will let Thamee build that deposit back up through smaller payments over time.) “We’re working with a lot of individuals who have been understanding and accommodating,” Wang said. “For them, it’s just as important that we have a restaurant to open after this is all over.”

The same could be said for Thamee’s fans. In one 24-hour period after Bowser’s shutdown order, individuals purchased nearly $10,000 worth of gift cards for the restaurant, to use when it reopens. One buyer said he and his wife had been looking forward to having dinner at Thamee for some time but hadn’t yet made it over. He put down $1,000 toward their future meals. “We were so humbled by that,” Jordan Lee, 34, told me. “I think all of us kind of cried a little bit, just to really see the impact we have on people.”

Nobody knows exactly what to make of this cataclysmic event in the restaurant industry, and the world. Were the last few weeks the start of a brief period of hardship, followed by a colossal government bailout and the eventual return of a thriving independent restaurant economy? Or were they a comparatively peaceful lull before a monthslong wave of permanent closures and job loss? How long can converted takeout and delivery joints stay open before their staff members fall ill? How many landlords will be as understanding as Thamee’s, and for how long? Will half of our favorite restaurants be Chopts or Potbellys by next spring?

Right now, Wang places Thamee’s chances of surviving its coronavirus closure at 100 percent, but his calculations change every day. If the restaurant is still shut down by June, it’ll be closer to 50-50. There’s just no way to make informed predictions. “That’s the part that makes me really anxious,” he said. “The known unknowns.”

When Thamee’s employees recall the abrupt closure, they describe a feeling of momentum stalled. New plans for the restaurant’s upper level were on the verge of completion. Law-Yone, who’d spent months building up her kitchen staff, said she had finally landed on a team that clicked. They had plans for a tasting menu to celebrate Burmese New Year in mid-April, and a new spring menu—“our best yet”— that had long been in development was about to hit the dining tables. Thamee cooks have now taken to calling it the “spring-summer-fall-winter menu,” determined to resurrect it once they return to the kitchen, whenever that may be.

When even epidemiologists can’t forecast the shape of the plague to come, and with so much riding on variables Thamee’s owners can’t control—the distribution of relief funding, the acceleration of viral spread, the city’s long-term coronavirus containment strategy—Jacobson, Wang, and Law-Yone are trying to focus on what they can. Jacobson and a few other former Thamee staffers are volunteering with World Central Kitchen, the José Andrés­–run relief organization that has mobilized to feed health care workers, seniors, and those experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic. Law-Yone has been writing stories for her granddaughters, who live nearby but haven’t been able to visit for the past several weeks. One is about a pangolin, the adorable armored anteater that may have been an intermediate host for the virus now keeping Law-Yone and her family apart.

The rest of the Thamee staff is making do however they can. Some are living with their parents. Sterling has been hosting live cocktail classes online, and Bijani is considering a venture into pizza-making video tutorials. People are looking for silver linings in the gloom: One sous-chef is eating three meals a day for the first time in a long time, freed from the punishing schedule of the service industry. Line cook Mike Powers, 28, now sleeps 16 hours a night. At first, when the restaurants closed, he was playing catch-up after a long stretch of working 70-hour weeks at his two jobs—but these days, he’s just bored as hell, and there’s nothing else to do.

Always the general manager, Lee is encouraging his staff members to relish in this rare opportunity to rest, if they’re able, because their work will be essential when the pandemic subsides. “I don’t think people understand what makes a restaurant special to them. It’s not just the food. … It’s the all-encompassing hospitality, that I walked in here and it’s warm and I can feel like a guest in someone’s home,” Lee said. “Because of social distancing, everyone can’t get that right now. Once this is all over, they’re going to need the best of us.”

Two days after Thamee closed its doors, almost every employee returned to the restaurant to pick up what will be their last paychecks until some indeterminate crisis endpoint beyond the scope of current imagination. A midpandemic reunion of laid-off workers at their shuttered restaurant sounds like it would be unbearably somber. Instead, Bijani said, “it ended up feeling more like an end-of-the-world party.” They shotgunned beers and danced to a killer playlist. Sterling treated each employee like a valued guest at the bar—they’d give him their preferred flavor profile, and he’d whip them up a custom cocktail. Someone FaceTimed Law-Yone so she could join the festivities from her home. The now-former staffers set up the dining room like a grocery store, stocked with every remotely perishable food item in the building. Among the cache was more than $500 worth of duck that had been dry-aged for three days in preparation for the week’s entrées—enough for everyone to take home an entire fowl.

The free groceries were a godsend. Powers, who lives with another laid-off restaurant worker, usually keeps nothing but beer and condiments in his refrigerator. Now, it’s packed full of food from their shut-down restaurants. Powers isn’t sure what to expect in unemployment benefits. So far he’s gotten one $367 payment, much less than his normal weekly take-home pay of between $800 and $900 for working at Thamee and Momofuku’s now-shuttered D.C. outpost; he and his roommate have been making kimchi jjigae and freezing chicken parts to stretch out their vegetables and meat for as long as possible.

Delicious savory duck and sauce based dishes.

Photos of home-cooked meals that laid-off Thamee staffers shared with one another on WhatsApp.

Thamee staff

The former employees are also using their Thamee stashes as an excuse to stay in touch. On a staffwide WhatsApp chat Wang calls “a little support group,” they are sharing cooking tips and photos of their creations alongside memes and updates from the mayor. “There’s a lot of, ‘Hey what do I do with the duck, I’ve never seen a duck before,’ ” from the front-of-house staff, Law-Yone said. “Invariably, one of the cooks will say, ‘It’s already been confit-ed, just warm it up!’ ”

“We’re all a bit naturally competitive, so now we have elevated to this level of plating our breakfasts really nicely,” Bijani said. “Even if it’s just eggs and bacon, we’re making it extra nice so we can post it on the WhatsApp. So I made hot dogs and mac ’n’ cheese, but I shingled the hot dog against the mac ’n’ cheese, so it looked real chef-y.”

They’re also making meals they learned from Law-Yone. “Nine months ago, myself included—we had no idea about Burmese food,” Lee said. “And now, Chef Jojo gets to see her whole staff making Burmese-inspired food. That’s what touches me the most—when she started this, no one knew what mohinga was,” he said, referring to the catfish stew widely considered the national dish of Burma. “Now, people are making their riffs on mohinga at home.”

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.


Read More

Leave a Comment