Yesterday, Khao Noodle Shop’s Donny Sirisavath announced on Instagram and Facebook that he would be closing his restaurant for the time being. The East Dallas institution’s final days of service will be Thursday, April 16 through Saturday, April 18 (Saturday being the last service), and then discontinue takeout for the foreseeable future.
In this, we lose a noodle shop that has become a destination and contributed immeasurably as part of the dining landscape that brought us a nod from Bon Appetit as Best Restaurant City of the Year. Sirisavath’s bright Laotian noodle bowls splashed across the pages of “Best” lineups in Texas Monthly, our own D Magazine, Eater, and elsewhere.
It takes courage to close. The hardest thing was not merely to tell the world but also his unusually tight-knit staff, says Sirisavath, who in the last few weeks had been using the opportunity of creating a takeout menu to present new dishes. He’d added a warm coconut milk and taro dessert, the first on the menu; also dishes like congee, a Laotian laab, or the lightness of a green mango salad that introduced the Texas touches of grapefruit and pecans.
But the most important thing is his staff, he says. They’ve been applying for unemployment, even as Sirisavath looked into small business aid. “It’s best to see them back healthy, when it’s all over with,” he writes in his post.
Sirisavath says he will continue to employ several of them who were not able to get unemployment a few days a week—for days of deep cleaning and research and development. And he will work on offering pre-packaged items to take away, which will include Lao sausage, jerky, his pickled greens, jeow sauce, and other items from his bag of fermentation tricks, as well as the deep-purple sticky rice, which he’s planning as a microwaveable staple. He will also continue to offer Khao Mart “convenience-store” packages of snacks he’s set up in the last week. All of which will help pay the rent, though it can’t support a staff.
It’s all part of the painful necessity of taking what he calls an “involuntary, unpaid vacation.” Which is not wholly negative. “We grew up so fast that we didn’t have a recipe book in place, procedures in place [for new staff],” says Sirisavath. This time of forced respite he’s choosing to see as a time to refine ideas for a new concept he’d been envisioning.
As I look around at the dining landscape, it’s clear that we’re entering a phase in which small businesses—restaurants in this case—are being forced to assess what is feasible in their hastily and often ingeniously assembled responses to the dining shutdown. What they can manage, weighing it against the health of their staff, often with varying realities and pressures relative to leases and rents. Others, too, like Sirisavath, are running an exceedingly tight ship, with a small crew and tips going to the team or split among furloughed staff. And there is the very real specter of exhaustion when one is waging what feels like a daily battle.
What will this new phase look like? Where will it lead? This is the reality on the ground now.
Time is the only lens through which this will become clear. This is a crucial time, when we will no doubt see others have to adjust their models as the impacts of coronavirus settle in and are felt. As Sirisavath says, “Seeing where it’s gonna go.”