Khao Noodle Shop. Elizabeth Lavin

Coronavirus

Restaurants Are Fending Off Challenges Big and Small, and They Need You

The story of a small block of restaurants on Bryan Street helps illuminate the things that are coming at restaurants all at once.

Last week, I wrote a story about the difficulties facing landlords and food-related retail and restaurant tenants as they adapt to the coronavirus reality. Small businesses are struggling. Margins that were razor-thin turn all but non-existent. And the rent is due.

“It’s a complex and high-stakes equation,” I wrote. It turns out, it was more complex than I presented it.

I offered the situation at the Bryan Street holdings. The small shopping center at Bryan and Fitzhugh includes Khao Noodle Shop, Mai’s, Pickletopia, and Top Round. I spoke with Khao Noodle’s chef-owner Donny Sirisavath and with David Eitches of Eitches Management, who leases the properties.

But that was not the end of it.

“Eve, the article is wrong,” Sirisavath texted me late on their last night of service. “We did respond.”

A conversation with Pickletopia owner Lee Theilen and again with Eitches and Sirisavath suggested that the timeline was wrong. Eitches initial spoke of an offer of 50 percent deferment, which, he said, was not responded to. This, he said, was followed up by a collective letter from the tenants requesting 100 percent rent forbearance for three months. It seems the inverse is true: Eitches declined the offer but instead presented a 50 percent rent deferral. If Pickletopia didn’t respond, Theilen says, it was because he didn’t realize it was an offer that needed to be answered. (Though he found the offer fair, he says: he would never expect his landlord to say, “’Oh, until the end of this is over, you don’t have to pay.’”)

Tenants face realities in front of them (rent, payroll, inventory) and, simultaneously, problems with entities and forces (government loans and aid programs, unemployment filing) that feel insurmountably far away but gather to a storm. While the fragility of the industry is nothing new, the pressures are colliding in ways that leave even beloved and critically-acclaimed restaurants fully exposed, caught in a struggle that lays bare how few resources these small businesses have.

They’re operating without clear flight paths and only the haziest sense of the future. Rattled and up-ended, they’re sorting and sifting through conflicting messages from nation, state, county, and city. (And they’ll have more.) They are doing this while applying for small business association or payroll protection loans, even as their employees apply for unemployment or report back to them about their statuses. They’re wondering how and when to make the call to lay off staff or close. All of this takes an enormous amount of energy.

They’re doing this while trying to figure out how to stay operational, sometimes navigating new takeout models and sourcing takeout supplies. Their bar managers are making cocktail kits for which they have bought all new inventory. They’re working within sometimes hazy guidance from the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. Their dining rooms look like paper-supply shops, crowded with to-go bags, surrounded by the piles of the pantry items they’ve devised a way to make and sell. They’re setting up contact-less curbside pick-up or delivery, in some cases using different point-of-sale systems or online interfaces for each. They’re posting on social media daily to drum up awareness and interest.

At Pickletopia, Theilen has reduced hours and thrown out product. That is the hardest part, he says, when you throw out revenue. That, and “not generating any business and still having to pay bills and try to keep it together and not lose something we have all worked hard for. My business was growing, and just ‘poof’ overnight, it just ended.”

All of this is real.

And in this chaotic context came my misinformation. Which is why I took Sirisavath’s turn to Instagram with the hashtag #tenantslivesmatter as a cri de coeur.

He says he never got his landlord’s email. How irritating was it that an email, sent to a little-used address, was also directed to the wrong name?

The reality is hard. Everything feels raw and delicate. In these times, when operations are upended and restaurants all over the city are grasping for solutions, we need to step up. Restaurateurs are navigating challenges big and small all at once, and many won’t make it. One thing that doesn’t change is that they need us.

We can only hope that we diners are part of the equation that stays stable.

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