For most restaurant owners around the world, navigating this global pandemic has been an unparalleled challenge. Joe Thottungal, chef and owner of both Thali and Coconut Lagoon in Ottawa, Ontario, has had to deal with renovating Coconut Lagoon after a devastating kitchen fire in addition to the typical challenges many local businesses are facing during this time. Since Coconut Lagoon’s opening in 2004 and Thali’s opening in 2018, this new landscape was an unprecedented challenge to navigate.
In early pandemic stages, Joe decided to close down Thali and keep only Coconut Lagoon open. Thali’s primary customers are the office workers in the area, and once people shifted to remote work it wasn’t profitable to remain open. Up until the fire on May 22nd Coconut Lagoon remained relatively busy, but circumstances forced the restaurant to close. The fire resulted in the job loss of all Coconut Lagoon staff, bringing Joe’s total staff from thirty to fourteen people. On June 1st Ontario entered phase two of their re-opening plan, and at that point, Joe decided to re-open Thali. Going from two restaurants to zero meant that no revenue was coming in for eight or so days, and so despite the smaller crowds, Joe was forced to get Thali running once again.
The actual adjustment to incorporate all required health and safety measures wasn’t difficult for Thali, as they already had extensive sanitization requirements in place. The restaurant saw a significant increase in takeout and delivery, but Joe thinks that this increase will only be temporary. People come to Thali and Coconut Lagoon for a Modern Indian cuisine experience, and that will remain unchanged.
“There’s uncertainty about dining in right now. People are nervous about the spread of germs, and will likely remain this way until there’s a vaccine.” He explains. “A lot of our regular customers are elderly people, and that part of the population is even more nervous than the average Canadian.”
Joe is thankful for the Ottawa locals, as they’ve played a huge role in keeping his restaurants afloat. He received overwhelming support from his community and empathizes with new small businesses that aren’t as established, as people are unwilling to try new things during uneasy times like these.
“The key to surviving this pandemic has been cutting costs. Even though our sales are down because people aren’t eating out as often, we’ve adapted and shifted to operate with less fixed costs.” Joe explains. “ We reduced our hours to save money on wages, and we’ve seen a cost reduction since people aren’t dining in.”
Joe remains hopeful that things will return to normal after the pandemic. He acknowledges that some businesses will not survive, but even post-pandemic people will still have the same needs as before.
“A restaurant is a place where people come to have a dining experience, and that will persist. As a restaurant you need people to come in and enjoy, that’s the why. People miss that, and even as you adapt you need to consider that underlying why.”
For more information on Thali, please visit https://thaliottawa.ca/.