When the pandemic interrupts your successful pop-up's graduation to full-time venue, just go with what you know.
By Parnass Savang as told to Lia Picard
Parnass Savang is chef and co-owner of Thai restaurant Talat Market in Atlanta. He grew up working in his parents’ Thai restaurant, Danthai, in Lawrenceville. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 2011, he staged at Pok Pok in Portland and Nahm in Bangkok. Before launching Talat Market, he worked in the kitchens of Staplehouse and Kimball House.
I launched Talat Market as a pop-up in the summer of 2017, and I convinced Rod Lassiter to join my little project. We didn’t know what to expect, but we got into it and we were doing Thai food that was very different from everyone, and people were liking it. All of a sudden, just two cooks who were working for other people were getting nominated as one of the 50 best restaurants in America by Bon Appetit.
We were super surprised, but eventually we outgrew the space. So we found a spot in the Summerhill neighborhood and decided to pull the trigger on that. We gave the news to the owner of the restaurant where we’d been cooking that we were leaving. Then the new restaurant took almost three years to build. In the meantime, we traveled around the East Coast doing collaborations with our friends in New York, Philadelphia, and Nashville. But when the restaurant was ready to be opened, there was a pandemic.
Opening a new restaurant in a pandemic meant waiting a long time to actually open. Construction was done, but then we couldn’t get our permits because the city was closed. It felt like there was a glass window right in front of the finish line. We couldn’t reach that, and it looked so close. That made me feel a little defeated—we couldn’t open, so we couldn’t make money to pay our bills and our loan. But once our contractor helped us out, we got our permits, and then we got to open, and that felt super good. It was amazing.
Since we weren’t opening the dining room, we didn’t have to hire as much staff, and we didn’t have to worry about labor costs that much. The week before this happened, we were actually interviewing a slew of people, and were getting ready to train 10 to 15 people to work at our restaurant. But once the pandemic hit, we couldn’t hire them. We had only the three people that have been with us since November, and that was sort of a relief. We didn’t have to pretend like we know what we’re doing—we could just be ourselves. And in a strange way, it was kind of a blessing for us, to learn our space and how to run a restaurant at a smaller scale.
If we had opened in a non-pandemic world, our original plan was to cook a 14-item menu, but we can’t do that now. So we looked at our pop-up menu. We’ve been doing this pop-up thing for three years, and we’ve developed some greatest hit dishes that we know are going to knock it out of the park. We put together the greatest hits like crispy pork belly and red curry for our first menu. We didn’t have to think as much, but we still knew it was going to taste good.
Offering a family-style meal is more cost-effective for us since we have a skeleton crew, and we just don’t want to work with uncertainty. By having pre-set dinners, we know how much product that we need to buy for that week or that day. That’s what saves us from having product go bad, which is money down the drain. Right now we can’t be frivolous. We’re very early in our restaurant life, and we’re trying to survive. We don’t want this thing to go down.
The response from customers has been surprisingly amazing. When we first opened, we’d do 50 dinners per night, and we’ve sold out almost every night. I think it’s because we are a new restaurant in Summerhill doing Thai food, and you can’t really find Thai in this area. Also, we’ve been generating a lot of buzz with our pop-ups for a while, and the anticipation of finally feeding at the restaurant is really high, because we’ve had so many delays. People were like, “When are you guys going to open? When are you guys going to open?” Yeah, now we’re open, and I can tell that people miss our food, and they want to take it home and eat it.
This is what we’ve been training for I guess. That’s what pop-ups are. We go to different restaurants, and work with different people, and change our menu theme, so we’ve been doing this pivoting thing for almost three years now, and it’s very familiar.
As for when we’re going to open the dining room, I’m going to serve takeout until we see a vaccine in the world. I just don’t feel comfortable serving people right now. I care about my staff and their well-being, and I care about my guests’ well-being. I don’t think it’s time, and I’m happy to still do takeout food.
Despite the pandemic, being open is very exciting. Even though Rod and I work 120 to 130 hours per week at the moment, we sit down and we reflect—even when we’re tired, even though we have a lot of responsibilities. At the end of the day, we still get to say that this is all ours, and we’re not using someone else’s space. It feels really good to be working for ourselves.