Some local restaurant owners say they have an inherent advantage: their experiences of chaos and turmoil in the places they left behind.
Here in Washington and its environs, you can find Afghans, Yemenis, Vietnamese, Cubans, Burmese, Ethiopians and Eritreans who defied the most daunting odds to achieve success before anyone had heard of covid-19.
Oveysi’s story is representative.
His father was an officer in Iran’s air force under the shah. Following the 1979 revolution, Oveysi was thrown into prison, where he was set to be executed. He managed to break out, fleeing to neighboring Turkey. He managed to bring the rest of the family out later. They eventually arrived in the United States in 1994 and made their home in Annandale.
“My dad went from being a respected military officer to a Dunkin’ Donuts delivery guy,” Oveysi said.
Diners at the family’s perpetually packed 52-seat restaurant wouldn’t have guessed any of it. The Oveysis became well-integrated Americans, turning out some of the best kebabs west of Isfahan.
But everything changed in March. When the coronavirus struck, Oveysi ordered six months’ worth of sanitizing supplies, masks and gloves. Others in the business chided him for overreacting.
“We had a family meeting and asked ourselves how are we going deal with this,” he said, “We’re going to follow the science and the experts and make informed decisions.”
The family viewed suspending operations and waiting for the storm to pass as a recipe for destruction. So they focused on expanding takeout and deliveries and looked for new opportunities.
Sales are down more than 65 percent, but Oveysi has compensated, in part, with an unexpected surge in business for his food truck, Saffron Gourmet. An avid social media user, he regularly posts images from his truck’s adventures in the greater Washington area. Several local homeowners’ associations took notice and asked him to bring the food truck to their complexes. Now he has bookings every day.
Oveysi doesn’t expect business to return to normal for the next 36 months. Still, his enthusiasm hasn’t slowed. It remains his secret ingredient.
Gabriela Febres and Ali Arellano, the Venezuelan-born co-owners of Arepa Zone, share similar instincts. Their popular fast-casual lunch spot, which opened in late 2017, quickly became something of a cultural hub. The welcoming staff, TVs permanently tuned to Spanish-language soccer and communal tables made for as inviting a restaurant as you could find downtown.
Then the pandemic hit.
When other restaurants shuttered their doors, Arepa Zone immediately pivoted to doing home deliveries of prepared ingredients of their signature dishes. With this money they began partnering with fellow restaurateur José Andrés’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen’s program to feed underserved communities, earning $10 per meal, which Febres calls a “huge lifeline.”
Febres and Arellano have lived in the United Statesfor years but remain closely connected to developments in their homeland. Most of their employees are recent arrivals from Venezuela.
“If Venezuelans have anything, it’s the ability to adapt. How do you do it? There’s really no other way. It’s survival mode,” Febres said. “The situation back home accidentally prepared us all for this,” she said.
Enrique Limardo, the executive chef and co-owner of Seven Reasons and Immigrant Food, a fast-casual restaurant celebrating immigrant contributions to eating in this country, is also from Venezuela. In addition to offering takeaway meals that include signature cocktails, Limardo and his partners have responded by partially converting their highly acclaimed restaurant into an incubator, offering their staff the use of the kitchen to do pop-up projects to test their own restaurant concepts.
“Crime waves stopped people from going out at night,” he says, recalling his professional beginnings back in Caracas. “The collapse in oil prices drove so many restaurants out of business. Economic conditions meant fewer and fewer people could afford fine dining.”
He says he learned to “to juggle, shift, modify,” which meant improvising by finding substitutes for ingredients that suddenly disappeared from markets, and how to shake up work assignments among the staff to respond to changing demands — but also make them more versatile team members. These adaptive skills are now coming in handy during the pandemic.
We may not always notice how much immigrants contribute to the vibrancy of American food culture, but the current crisis should remind everyone of precisely that. I have no doubt that our food production and distribution would be far worse off right now without their hard work and their entrepreneurial skills.
Like millions of other immigrants, Oveysi, Limardo and Febres worked hard to carve out a place for themselves in this society — and they aren’t about to let it go. Those core American values of ingenuity and resilience are now best exemplified by the immigrants who continue to help us stay fed in these dire times.