The raw plywood boards got pulled from the windows. In the days prior, Omar Yeefoon’s restaurant looked like it was in storm-prep mode: The glass was protected, the doors were locked, and, inside, the stools and booths sparkled from sterilization.
He had already parted ways with his chef, faced a need for a kitchen overhaul and gazed into the madness of government loan red tape, abatements and unemployment checks. In short, every week has been more startling than the last for shop owners on one of the fastest changing streets in the city. This Friday, Shoals Sound and Service will give it another try: They will reopen, softly, as an all-vegan restaurant.
The bologna, a diamond of a bar sandwich with summer-bright pickles and peppers and neat layers of mortadella, is gone for now. Yeefoon's brought in The Corn Dog Guy: Chef Johnny Tran has taken over as executive chef in the Shoals kitchen.
Before the shutdown, the Deep Ellum bar dropped red plastic baskets of summer-bright corn arepas and seared cheeseburgers. Omar Yeefoon clacked the shaker, slid them across the polished wood bar (remember bars?). This month, like everyone else on Elm Street (and everywhere, really) he's been charged with redefining what it means to be a restaurant. Everyone's got questions. The answers are somewhere in between “there aren’t restaurants anymore” and “we’re opening at half of the capacity.” One problem has been the bar: How does he continue slinging cocktails in a tight space, customers shoudler-to-shoulder on stools? The answer is just a panicky-loud "I don't know" right now.
So, Yeefoon's vanquished the bar counter for now, ditched meat and built a soft landing for his staff to come back to work. He reports that he has been able to give everyone a raise and worked out a way to continue paying a livable wage. It doesn't mean that Yeefoon is 100% comfortable.
“It’s one thing to open a brand-new vegan restaurant, but it’s quite the gamble to take a non-vegan restaurant vegan. It’s going to be interesting,” he says with nervous laughter.
Why do this? Why remove a perfect mortadella sandwich?
“I can explain it from a business standpoint," he says. "The sandwich was a such a loss leader. When it comes to brass tacks, it didn’t really make a whole lot of sense.”
Rapid-fire changes to reopening guidelines have been just the first chapter in this era of revolution. What will happen next? What will change? Last week, one of Yeefoon’s staff members was part of the group detained on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge during the protests for Black Lives Matter.
When it comes to the revolution that followed the murder of George Floyd, Omar Yeefoon sees more unity than anything else. The plywood that boarded up his glass windows was a small price to pay — seeing the generation of young people around him marching forward was a hopeful sight.
“They need to keep going,” says Yeefoon regarding the protests, “they have to outlast the violence and destruction.”
At the moment, he’s reaching out to bartenders to plan his soft opening. The kitchen’s been flipped upside down: He's tasting a new barbecue jackfruit sandwich and has a shiitake mushroom ceviche in the works. He's eyeing Friday evening to open his doors. It’ll be announced in more detail on social media.
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Is he feeling comfortable yet? “Still gambling. Getting there, though.” he says.
Soft-opening or not, don’t expect a return to the old ways going forward at Shoals. It won’t just be a kitchen redux and spatially distanced seating.
“The coronavirus itself has exposed immense inequities. Systematic things that were wrong in this country,” he says. “It’s going to be the Napster for the restaurant industry — everything’s going to change.”
Shoals Sound & Service, 2614 Elm St., Suite 110 (Deep Ellum).