Immigrant Restaurants’ Pandemic Woes Eased by Unique Partnership

YAYLA BISTRO’S HEAD CHEF Mutlu Pasori (left) shows the crowd how he lays the eggplant in its container, creating the base of the Turkish take on the “Greek lasagna” known as Moussaka during the last Open Kitchen D.C. event on March 15. (Photo: News-Press)

Open Kitchen D.C.’s gathering at Yayla Bistro back in March was just supposed to bring attention to another discrete treat buried within the region’s immigrant-owned restaurant scene, but it became one last gasp of normal life before the coronavirus pandemic hollowed out dining rooms across the nation.

Founder Mary Johns scrambled to fill seats at Yayla’s discussion and cooking demonstration that originally had all 32 spots booked nearly a month and a half in advance before the World Health Organization announced Covid-19 as a global threat to public health on March 11. Suddenly, half of her RSVPs vanished, and she turned to social media influencer Andy Tran (@novafoodking on Instagram for the curious) to try and rally interest in an event that the bistro located on N. Westmoreland Street in Arlington was also banking on.

“When I spoke to Yayla about doing the event, only six people had confirmed they were still interested in the event going through. Yayla made it clear that they would do it for six people. They wanted to do it no matter what,” Johns told the News-Press in March, explaining how the bistro wasn’t spared from the drop in business all restaurants felt following the WHO’s declaration.

An event that appeared to be flailing in mid-air days earlier stuck a surprise landing by the afternoon on March 15. Tran helped recruit younger foodies to fill a large center table and snap pics of falafel and Chef’s Cigars while couples and friends put their concerns on hold for the two hours to enjoy some different cuisine.

The three Pasori brothers behind Yayla made sure to entertain the packed house.

Business-minded Zaza, the eldest, briefed the attendees on their Turkish background and shared how serious the bistro’s made-from-scratch mentality is when it comes to a few 18-ingredient recipes.

And middle brother Mutlu, the self-trained head chef, showed off how they make the eggplant and ground beef “lasagna” in Moussaka, while his assistant Mehmet kept the mood light by seasoning the dish like Salt Bae (trust me, it’s worth the Google search).

Stomachs were full, spirits were high and wallets were a bit lighter by the night’s end — just as Johns had planned — but Yayla then had to re-enter an unfortunate reality.

State-advised capacity limits for restaurants were implemented to slow the spread of coronavirus that hadn’t begun to be relaxed until the end of May.

“All we have to do is take care of our business…and be clean and be ready for it,” Mutlu told the News-Press in March, adding that an in-house delivery service joined its pre-existing agreement with GrubHub. At the time, he remained optimistic that news of the pandemic was only a temporary hindrance to business as usual.

But the world is still waiting on “normal” to make its return.

THE BRAVE ONES who did show up didn’t seem to care as much about the threat of coronavirus as they did finding the perfect angle to snap pics of Yayla Bistro’s dishes. (Photo: News-Press)

Dung Phan, the general manager of all Pho 75 locations throughout the Washington, D.C. area, including one in Falls Church, told the News-Press in April that business had been terrible. A single restaurant typically brought in $50,000 a month. That number plummeted to less than $10,000 as Covid-19 cases and fears began to spike, forcing each establishment to lay off 13 of its usual 16-person staff.

Though Phan did say that Pho 75 wasn’t specifically hard hit because it serves Asian cuisine, which national news reports indicated was a problem in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic announcement. Phan mentioned that his neighbors run Italian, Thai and Latino restaurants, and all were experiencing the same pinch as Pho 75.

April and May was a brutal stretch for the immigrant-owned restaurants that Johns highlights with her events. She connected with the Feed the Fight effort and had the food spots she partnered with (along with some new ones) help provide 2,000 meals to medical workers in the area.

That helped stave off the worst possible outcome for these establishments who, now in Virginia’s Phase 2 reopening plan, have more flexibility with their dining options. But Johns said that she hasn’t felt there is a rush to eat indoors based on what she’s seen on social media or detected in her conversations with restaurant owners. Outdoor eating, such as a rescheduled — and sold out — event at Fava Pot in Falls Church that’s shooting for August, is another story.

Navigating the March event at Yayla and the past three months as a whole definitely has a different vibe compared to how other Open Kitchen demos have gone down.

A former corporate event planner for the tourism industry and philanthropists, Johns always had an interest in international food. She met people from all over the world when she first moved to D.C. as a 20-something, and to overcome the language barrier, she’d share a home cooked meal with them.

But Johns didn’t just want to eat her hosts’ food; she wanted to learn how to cook it herself. That curiosity was well-received, and it created a bond that she seeks to replicate in her business. She just has to scope out these places that have peeling paint or are in a shady strip mall since her clientele might not be brave enough to visit them on their own.

To Johns, the perfect match is an owner that enjoys engaging their customers and wants to share a bit of themselves with their guests. She found that last spring when she did a trial run at Hawwi, an Ethiopian restaurant based in Old Town Alexandria, who were drawn to Johns’ earnest mission of highlighting immigrant-owned restaurants in the area that got little publicity.

“People come to me all the time and try to convince me to do things with them and usually I say ‘no,’” Hawwi’s owners told Johns, according to Johns’ recollection. “But what you’re doing is trying to help people like myself — trying to help immigrants — and I want to help you because you’re trying to help people like me.”

Johns soon outlined a template where she would set up a public event during non-peak hours to boost business and work as free marketing for the restaurant as well.

Each restaurant’s best offerings provide a unique glimpse into its culture. At Hawwi, that meant a traditional coffee ceremony where the owner roasted green coffee beans from her husband’s native part of Ethiopia. For others, such as a January event at Dolan Uyghur Restaurant near Cleveland Park in D.C., the owner had one of their employees play Uyghur music since it’s customary during meals. And for Yayla, the brothers shared their Turkish tea to go with baklava for guests to conclude the event.

Johns doesn’t claim to be a pioneer in elevating food establishments run by immigrants, which has become a business model done in other major cities. But she does say her format — which is often mislabeled as a “cooking class” — does distinguish itself from the pack because the cooking component is done in conjunction with owners enlightening attendees about themselves and their traditions.

And it’s a formula that applies to more than just filling sleepy periods at restaurants. Johns intends to dabble in Saturday brunches, plus add more corporate events during the week, such as some she’s already done with realtors and nonprofits.

She has faith once the pandemic passes that she’ll be able to pick business back up, despite the mission never being about raking in the dough. The stars of the show are the owners, their hospitality and, yes, their food.

This company is an extension of Johns’ dream: wanting to take the homeyness of those meals she shared in her early D.C. years to a broader audience. Zaza told the crowd on that Sunday that “This is our house. We didn’t want to [make it feel like] a commercial establishment,” might be proof enough she’s living it. Now Johns and the restaurant owners are just waiting for the world to welcome themselves back into those homes.