Serbian-born Krstic brings elevated technique to Vietnamese street food. Kevin Marple

Dining Dispatch

In the Minds of Dallas Chefs and How They’re Coping Amid a Pandemic

A look at the tough calls chef-restaurateurs are making right now in the age of COVID-19. The calculus is painful, yes, but there's hope—and DJ-fueled virtual parties.

This is part one in our “In the Minds of Dallas Chefs” series on SideDish, wherein the D Magazine dining team will talk to the chefs, cooks, servers, and restaurateurs deeply affected by the coronavirus. Their businesses have been forced to shutter. They’ve had to pivot to takeout and delivery operations faster than you can shout “Order up!” And every day brings new challenges, tough decisions, stark realities. But still they rise. Here, we’ll share stories of both heartache and hope, directly from the people experiencing them. Check back for more stories as we have them. And you have any to share, email me. —Rosin Saez

Peja Krstic
Mot Hai Ba

For Peja Krstic the most important thing was not laying off staff. At Mot Hai Ba in East Dallas, he’s offering a full menu for delivery. Meanwhile, in the second Mot Hai Ba location in Victory Park, which was set to open in AprilKrstic and others held meeting as a community of small businesses to create a central pick-up location (Elias Pope’s large Hero) with its own aggregated pick-up menu of local Victory Park businesses, each spot having a few items on the to-go menu. It’s support in numbers.  

“We had a meeting in Victory Park. ‘How are we gonna get the people down here?’ Mot Hai Ba is not open, but what can we do to help each otherI asked management to cancel charges to the garages. Elias [Pope of Hero] was like, ‘We’re gonna do to-gos.’ Elizabeth who has the Sift + Pour [sweets shop] said, ‘Who’s gonna come and buy cookies?’ ‘How about we all take one or two items?’—we’re gonna call this VP Delivers. We’ll make the menu, a few of us people in Victory Park, including Mot Hai Ba, [Billy Can Can, Hatchways, and Dibs on Victory], and take stuff down to Hero. We’re just going to do beef pho and chicken pho. We’ll take the pho down there. I think it’s great to show how diverse a community came together, just like that.

On the East Dallas side, basically 90 percent of the menu will be available for take-out and delivery. I’m going to try to see if most of my employees can do our deliveries on our own. You know, like old-school pizza joints. In the three-mile radius, deliveries are free.

I didn’t lay anybody off. I’m firmly sticking to that. I don’t want to let anybody go. We had a meeting last Thursday. I said, ‘We need to think about what we’re going to do. You’re all going to get a week of paid vacation. After that, it’ll be 50 percent of what you’re paid. If that lasts more than 3 weeks, and we don’t have any income, then we’re going to have to do something else.’ I want to make sure we pay employees at least 50 percent of what they’re making.

Yes, I do have a business. But you have to be the leader. You have to be somebody who has answers for these people, even if you don’t have answers. I’m always going to be able to cook. But there are people who have families, who are doing prep, working part time. They can’t do other stuff. We can’t be senseless and just think about ourselves. I come from a country [Serbia] that’s had stuff in the last years. [You learn:] There’s no I, there’s just us. As long as there’s bread for me, there’s for you.”

Donny Sirisavath
Khao Noodle Shop

Donny Sirisavath is offering a menu of 10 items to-go from his award-winning Khao Noodle Shop, with the soups, but also a few new items he was planning to debut on a spring menuHis pivot is also community-minded, with virtual DJanddinner sessions, ideas for crowd-sourcing, and no firing of staff at all, if possible.

“We’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do. We’re probably going to do 50 percent pay. For front-of-house service, that’s the hardest part. Delivery will be all in-house. No Grubhub or Doordash. (Plus it takes up to two weeks to set up!) Then share tips, because we need people to take orders on the phone and online and pack up orders. We’ll limit who’s working, not working, rotate, so people can have time off. And just go from there. We’re limiting everyone’s hours. We sit down with them to understand their daily, weekly, monthly expenses so we can meet those needs—so we don’t have to lay anyone off. That’s my goal. We’ll come back to this in about three weeks, four weeks. It depends on what the city says: what we need to do, can do, can’t do. Worse-case scenario, if we do have to close, we’re thinking how long we’re gonna close for, how long can we survive. We have a plan B: If we have to eliminate staff, we can pay for some things.

[My wife] Noy and I are thinking maybe create a crowd-funding for others in the same boat. We’re family-owned; we want to support everyone that’s in that mom-and-pop phase of a restaurant.

We are going to work on something fun that will be collaboration with different businesses, with music: kind of like a virtual meetandgreet while we’re eating, like a virtual party… It’s a sense of community. 

It’s kind of funny, where we’re starting to rethink the norm. We used to grow our own vegetables, raise our chickens to barter…maybe play on that, too: If anyone needs foodwe can barter for that.”

Carlo Gattini
Botolino Gelato

Carlo Gattini is in the midst of opening his second gelato shop location. He has perspective that’s informed by having family in Italy. For him, the best thing would be a total shutdown to quell the threat of contagion. Meanwhile, he has to juggle payroll equities. He’s making the gelato that customers can pick up to-go. 

“With all my family and friends in ItalyI’m not really worried about the business so much. I mean, life goes on. It’s more about the responseIts a huge disruption to our industry. But if we don’t do it properly, it’s all for nothing. We’re lucky enough that we’re the last wave that it’s kind of getting to. So we can learn from other countries and other places that are worse hit.  

We haven’t really laid people off officially; we just can’t schedule them. I have guys in the back [on the production side] that have families and depend on the work. And then I have [employees] in the front and many of them still live with their parents or family, and they have some cushion. In the back, one of them I’ve known for many years. So I’m prepared to help them, ready to give them advances. It’s really so new.  

I was about to order 500 kilos of pistachio paste from Sicily. The price has quadrupled for air shipping. But I think they’re quite eager for business in Italy, so they’re quite happy to send me 500 kilos of pistachio paste. 

But I hired a bunch of new people for the new location, and can’t schedule them. It’s a limbo.” 

Julian Barsotti
Fachini, Sprezza, Carbone’s, Nonna

Julian Barsotti talks about why he drastically reduced his staff. He speaks to the pressures facing a restaurateur as far as the sheer numbers.

“I decided over the weekend, if we were being realistic and not delusional, I knew it was inevitable that they would shut our restaurants down.  

Our top line revenue, 33 to 40 percent goes to paying your employees. We had to let go of a lot of people. I had pared down, before they even announced the ban, down to like two or three front of house employees and in the back, two to four. And my thought was…their chances of collecting unemployment are greater than committing suicide as a business. Can we essentially furlough and hire these people back? The other prayer is for some kind of legislation that targets the hospitality industry.   

This is massive, and you know how systemic things are. Restaurants are connected to real estate, food suppliers... Restaurants are an extension of retail. It’s uncharted territory in the unconventional ways they tried to jump start the economy. It’s not like a stock market crash.  

Let’s say we sell 100 pizzas tonight [to-go at Nonna]. That’s like $1,800 dollars, no alcohol sales. We’re still hemorhagging money in terms of all the employees we have. The timeline of two weeks, I’m like, ‘There’s no way.’ As testing ramps ups, it’s going to look a whole lot worse in two weeks. I think we’re looking at best casscenario six weeks before we’re operational. I’m just praying that there will be legislation that will help all these hourly workers who are paycheck to paycheck 

We’re staring at the abyss. Opening a restaurant, the amount of capital that takes, in terms of replenishing inventory, preparing, hiring. It’s a costly deal. The longer it goes, the more it’s almost like reopening a restaurant. It’s just so daunting to think about the damage that this is doing. And how much carnage is going to be unleashed. And how much will be, frankly, lost from this halting [of] our entire way of life and economy. 

The existential fearto me, is way more than 9/11 or the financial crisis. For me this is much scarier. We’re looking at numbers. And it’s the worst catastrophe in our lifetimes.”

Interviews have been edited for length.

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