October 13 – At the start of the pandemic, when the warrants closed dining rooms on the subway, owners of Thai House in southern Kansas City feared their 7-year-old restaurant would not survive.
âWe thought we should pack our bags and go live with my parents in Florida until it was all over. A year? A few months? We didn’t know,â said Doug Mufuka, owner with his wife, Penny. . “But we realized that people still had to eat. Not to dine there. So we put all our efforts to turn our operation into delivery only.”
Now, with the dining room reopening, Thai House sales have returned to pre-pandemic levels, but with a significant change – 70% of sales are takeout, up from 40% previously. And the Mufukas have grown with two more restaurants in Johnson County.
“It’s amazing. Opening two restaurants in the event of a pandemic,” said Penny Mufuka, beaming as she watched happy hour patrons enjoying the good weather on the patio of her new Bamboo Penny’s, now an outdoor spot. of choice to see and be seen at Leawood’s Park Place.
In mid-March 2020, the couple cut back on kitchen staff hours (while promising to make their inventory available, if needed, so workers can feed their families). They’ve moved on to a take-out-only operation with orange cones guiding customers through the maze of the parking lot and waiters routing orders to cars instead of tables. Within 10 days, sales were almost back to pre-pandemic levels.
“It just exploded. Thai food keeps well. We had to add a phone line and just started working with these new companies – DoorDash, Postmates – new to us and we wonder why we were paying them so much,” Doug Mufuka said. . “We joked that we had 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 that the rent be waived for six months while “we determine this pandemic,” he said.
âThe opportunities won’t be there forever. As 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 ones. independent operators, âMufuka said. “When the pandemic is over, they’re going to revert to known quantities instead of a small restaurant going from minor leagues to major leagues.”
While many existing restaurants requested breaks in their rent, the Mufukas continued to pay their owner Thai House. So when another Thai restaurant closed at his Overland Park property, he asked them to take it over. Now their KC Thai is operating on site.
But the challenges of the pandemic continue.
They still need workers for Bamboo Penny’s, so they’ve waited three months to add lunch and more weekday dinners. They scour websites daily for waiters and bartenders.
It took two months for the decanter orders to arrive, and they are still waiting for the West Elm ceramic planters ordered in the spring.
Their food distributor, Sysco, now only delivers once a week, compared to the previous âany day of the week on 24 hours’ notice,â said Doug Mufuka.
In a statement, Sysco said, âSysco regrets that we have had to delay or suspend service for a limited number of customers in various locations. This is mainly due to unprecedented labor shortages in the industry. We are actively recruiting delivery partners and warehouse associates. , and our goal is to restore service to our affected customers as soon as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience caused to our customers. We expect this to be a temporary situation. “
So after the weekly deliveries to Bamboo Penny’s, Doug piles some of the goods into his car and transports them to his other two locations. Then there’s the occasional grocery run when stocks are low throughout the week.
âSome of our customers see us at Price Chopper stocking up on eggs, cabbage and peanut butter,â said Penny Mufuka.