Four days after Omar Yeefoon finally opened his doors again, after weeks of pandemic ups and downs and boarded-up windows during police brutality protests, he closed his dining room one more time. He’d already opened with a skeleton crew, reduced seating to meet the state's mandates and implemented a new, all-vegan menu.
“It was pretty contained,” he says. “The reality is that some people just don’t really have a taste for distancing once you’ve told them they can go out to the bar.”
A few customers, he tells us, accosted him with statements such as, “Why don’t you take that stupid mask off?” in conversations after reopening the dining room. Ultimately, the decision to close the dining room was about the spike in coronavirus cases that scorched through Dallas recently.
He had a number in his head: If it hits this X-number — he imagined a ridiculously high number around 1,000 cases — he’d have to immediately close the doors to dine-in. Dallas County crested over 1,100 cases per day in mid-July.
So, it’s the kitchen staff and Yeefoon for now. They’ve flipped the old model, and the Shoals owner knows, for sure, that his old model is just not coming back. Shoals, as it was, with pre-pandemic mortadella sandwiches and bar seating shoulder-to-shoulder and no delivery, won’t return.
Smoked jackfruit, seared-to-a-crust seitan with a remarkable smoked prosciutto-meets-bacon flavor, from Dallas’ BE-Hive make up the meat-free Cubano sandwich. It’s the star now: It’s created new patrons, folks who return every day.
“This is a Latin-American restaurant. The food just happens to be all vegan. That’s really what I want to open to people," Yeefoon says.
Before COVID-19, Shoals' sales were made up of, roughly, 80% alcohol and 20% foodstuffs. Since stepping into the realm of vegan, he’s at 95% food sales and about 5% booze. The times, they are a-changed.
“This is how it is for the uncertain future," Yeefoon says. "When the time comes, we fold the dining room service into what we’re doing now; as opposed to redirecting and refolding what we’re doing now into the old business model.”
The crispy tempeh — a tofu-like cake that fries nicely — po’ boy is another eye-opener of a sandwich. All the sensations are there: It has an earth-shattering crunch, even after a car ride, a crackling, pickle relish from aji chiles and tender lemon slices.
The arepas, blistered with sunspots from the intensely hot griddle, bookend several great sandwiches — grilled shiitake mushrooms or plantains or pineapple with fresh cilantro, feta and jackfruit smoked with applewood.
The ability to pay staff and keep the lights churning is a good day for restaurant owners right now. Yeefoon’s plan is working for now. It’s sustainable for now.
“I know it’s a new and novel idea,” Yeefoon says. He’s referring to the change to vegan, sure. Mostly he’s talking about the adaptation that needs to be done to survive.
“The community has got to stay together.”
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