Oct. 13—During the early days of the pandemic, when mandates shut down dining rooms across the metro,the owners of Thai House in south Kansas City feared their 7-year-old restaurant would not survive.
"We thought we would have to pack up our bags and go live with my parents in Florida until this was all over. A year? A couple of months? We didn't know," said Doug Mufuka, owner with his wife, Penny. "But we realized people still had to eat. Just not dine in. So we put all our efforts into turning our operation into carryout only."
Now, with the dining room reopened, Thai House's sales are back to pre-pandemic levels but with a significant change — 70% of sales are to-go orders, compared to 40% previously. And the Mufukas have expanded with two more restaurants in Johnson County.
"It's unbelievable. To open two restaurants in a pandemic," said Penny Mufuka, beaming as she kept an eye on happy hour customers savoring the nice patio weather at her new Bamboo Penny's, now a prime outdoor spot to see and be seen in Leawood's Park Place.
Back in mid-March 2020, the couple cut hours for kitchen staff (while promising to make their inventory available, if need be, so workers could feed their families). They pivoted to a to-go only operation with orange cones guiding customers through the parking lot maze, and servers ferrying orders to cars instead of tables. Within 10 days, sales were nearly back to pre-pandemic levels.
"It just blew up. Thai food keeps well. We had to add a phone line, and had just started working with these new companies — DoorDash, Postmates — new to us and wondering why we were paying them so much," Doug Mufuka said. "We joked that we would have to put our servers on roller skates to keep up."
In October 2020, they signed a lease for a former restaurant space in Park Place, asking for rent to be waived for six months while "we figure out this pandemic," he said.
"The opportunities are not going to be here forever. As extremely scary as this one was, Bamboo Penny's, to have the rooftop bar, the patio, places like this usually go to chains as opposed to us little independent operators," Mufuka said. "When the pandemic is over, they are going to go back to known quantities instead of a small restaurant moving up from the minor leagues to the big leagues."
While many existing restaurants asked for breaks in their rent, the Mufukas kept paying their Thai House landlord. So when another Thai restaurant closed in his Overland Park property, he asked them to take it over. Now their KC Thai operates in the spot.
But the pandemic challenges continue.
They still need workers for Bamboo Penny's so they waited three months to add lunch and more weeknight dinners. They scour websites daily looking for servers and bartenders.
It took two months for carafe orders to arrive, and they are still waiting on West Elm ceramic planters ordered in the spring.
Their food distributor, Sysco, now only delivers once a week, compared to the previous "any day of the week with 24-hours notice," Doug Mufuka said.
In a statement, Sysco said: "Sysco regrets that we have had to delay or pause service for a limited number of customers in various locations. This is mainly due to unprecedented labor shortages in the industry. We are aggressively recruiting delivery partners and warehouse associates, and our goal is to restore service to our impacted customers as soon as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused our customers. We expect this to be a temporary situation."
So after the once a week deliveries to Bamboo Penny's, Doug piles some of the goods in his car and hauls them to his other two locations. Then there is the occasional grocery store run when inventory runs low through the week.
"Some of our customers see us at Price Chopper loading up on eggs, cabbage and peanut butter," Penny Mufuka said.
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