On a recent Sunday night, J’s Noodles and Star Thai was mostly empty of customers. But the Federal Boulevard restaurant was alive with activity. Phones rang and a tablet beeped as pick-up orders poured in.
Lek Nuntanavooth whisked around a corner from the kitchen to record each new Country Pad Thai or Drunken Noodle plate for the kitchen. Flames rose from the big wok behind her husband, Prince, as he turned to eyeball the tickets she posted in the little window between them.
Their daughters, Pan, 6, and Pat, 4, were busy doing their jobs: keeping entertained. They had decorated a handful of balloons with hand-drawn faces. One of the inflated heads became a projectile. Pan smacked it with an empty soda bottle, beaming it across the inactive dining room as she and he sister erupted with giggles. Lek dodged the volley as she rushed to greet a customer waiting by the front door.
When Denver announced its citywide stay-at-home order to deal with the pandemic in March, Lek and Prince decided they would do away with dine-in service altogether. They couldn’t fit many customers in the small space anyway.
The dining room became second home for the girls. Clearing out the tables was supposed to be a short-term solution to keep the family safe and business moving. But the world is still uncertain.
“The customers ask us, ‘When are you planning to open up?'” Lek said. “I used to say, ‘When the school opens,’ but right now school opens and shuts down and reopens and closes. I said January 1st. And then, let’s see, we cannot open on January 1st right now because of the cases. And then we’re thinking when the vaccine comes out. Right now we have no idea.”
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise across Colorado, Denver has reacted with more restrictions. While Denver Public Schools’ youngest students are still learning in person, Pan’s first-grade class at Rocky Mountain Prep, a charter school, went back to online-only learning. Instead of dropping her off at school, just a block away, Lek now brings Pan into the restaurant at 8 a.m. The dining room is her classroom for a few hours while Prince drops Pat off at preschool and picks up the day’s groceries. Then, he swaps with Lek so she can fit in an hour of exercise before they illuminate their “open” sign. Pat joins them after preschool, just in time for the dinner shift.
Prince said he’s lucky he can keep his family together in the family restaurant. The recipes on his menu are easy to box up and send out the door for people eating at home. His customers are loyal.
He reckons his neighbors peddling pho up and down Federal are having a tougher time. Soup doesn’t travel as easily, and some Vietnamese restaurateurs were still leaning heavily on dine-in service when Denver recently dropped maximum capacity to 25 percent.
Prince said he knows business owners around him who have been shelling out cash for childcare while they try to make ends meet.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to do this for them,” he said about his children.
Still, it takes flexibility to balance all their responsibilities.
Prince and Lek were both born in Thailand. Prince moved with his family to Boulder when he was a kid, joining an aunt who was in the restaurant industry there. He said his mother was looking for “a better future” for her family.
In 2001, his parents opened their Star Thai restaurant in Lakewood. His mother was friendly with a woman named J, namesake and owner of the Federal Boulevard eatery. A few years later, J was looking to retire and worked with Prince’s parents to transfer her business into their hands.
Prince has been working as a chef there for years. It’s where he met Lek, after her friends brought her into the dining room with matchmaking ambitions in mind. The introduction worked. They married and, six years ago, Pan was born. Lek stayed home as a full-time mom until two years ago, when a chef at J’s quit and Prince needed help keeping up with business.
“The first day, I remember that it was busy,” Lek said. “It was so crazy for me to handle things. I didn’t know what to do first.”
But she learned to handle the lunch- and dinner-rush madness before long. They brought their girls into the space, seating them on a plastic picnic bench in the corner, to keep an eye on them while they worked nights. At first, their daughters demanded a lot of their attention while the couple cooked and took orders. But Pat and Pan got used to the new routine. Closing off the dining room as the pandemic grew actually made things easier for all of them. The girls gained new space to stretch their legs and play.
J’s was open seven days a week when Lek first started working there. They soon realized it was too much to handle while also caring for the girls. They decided to close Friday mornings, all day Monday and between 3 and 5:30 p.m. the rest of the week so they could find time to parent. Though there’s fewer dishes to be made now that dine-in service has stopped, they still fill a lot of their extra time getting ready for the next rush.
“Usually, by the time I wash all the dishes and prep for the nighttime, it’s about 4:30. They eat lunch, and then I play with them for a little bit. About 15 minutes. That’s all,” Prince said. “Sometimes I get lucky and I get to take a nap.”
While Lek and Prince are always happy to field a busy night, a dinner rush means the girls may need to wait for their own meals.
“When the last order finishes, I can cook for them,” Lek said. “Sometimes they have dinner at 9 o’clock.”
Pan and Pat are young enough that making forts out of restaurant supply boxes and watching cartoons can distract them for hours, but Prince said they still get bored. He’s looking forward to a day when they can go back to school in earnest.
“Hopefully it’s back to normal soon,” he said. “They still prefer to go to school to see friends.”
Many of the customers who appear in their doorway each night have come to know the family. They ask Lek how she and the girls are doing. Lek commiserates with the parents who stop in about the latest school restrictions.
Lek said Pan is still catching up on kindergarten, on the stuff she and her classmates missed out on when things suddenly went virtual. Though a laptop allows face time with Pan’s teachers and classmates, Lek worries her daughter’s education will continue to lag. But she said she finds comfort in the fact that her customers are dealing with the same concerns.
“I talk to parents, the customers, about these things,” she said. They tell her: “Yeah, everyone is left behind.”
J’s Noodles is surviving with the whole family in tow, but 2020 may change the way they live forever.
Prince and Lek both say they love their location along Federal. Thousands of motorists passing each day makes it fertile ground for new business, but recent changes on the boulevard have impacted their bottom line.
The Colorado Department of Transportation recently finished a new median that has made it difficult for drivers to get to the restaurant. The little shopping center between Kentucky Avenue and Ford Place did not receive a cut-through with a turn lane, so anyone driving north is forced to make a u-turn to get to it.
There was also an uptick in gun violence along Federal over the summer that resulted in a greater police presence. Now, on Sunday nights, the strip by J’s Noodles is limited to one lane of traffic in both directions as the city attempts to curb street racing and large groups from gathering.
Prince said the Sunday closures and the new median have put a 30 percent dent in his revenue.
“It’s hurting us more than COVID,” he said.
But pandemic shutdowns and the resulting recession whittle away at what’s left. Lek, who studied accounting in college, sees the economics of the moment playing out in an unfavorable way.
“The lockdowns still affect us,” she said. “People lose jobs, no money to spend. Who’s going to buy your food?”
Slow days are a little scarier than they were nine months ago, but Prince said the family is still able to meet their financial obligations. He and neighboring business owners tried to lobby their landlord for a break on rent back in the spring, but they were unsuccessful. It’s one reason he’s starting to think about moving on.
“I think before COVID, we wanted to keep doing this as long as we can. At least 20 years or so,” he said. “We see how they did not want to work with us during COVID, so we don’t see any future with them.”
But it’s not just the landlord. In the same way Lek has trouble answering customers who want to know when dine-in will resume, both she and Prince have a hard time imagining anything beyond the next pandemic milestone.
“It’s hard for me to think about the future,” Lek said.
“The picture’s just so faded right now,” Prince added.
Still, they do ruminate on new possibilities. Working for so long without customers inside has helped them imagine a business model that permanently excludes dine-in service. Lek wants to explore “ghost kitchens,” a restaurant setup that forgoes dining rooms and generates all sales from delivery outlets like GrubHub or DoorDash. Prince has wondered about downsizing or consolidating with his parents’ restaurant in Lakewood.
Before the pandemic, they were working to hire extra help so they could spend more time with the girls. Now, a new way of doing business might be the only way.
“It’s a lot of hard work. It’s good money, but it’s hard work, a lot of long hours,” Prince said. “It’s like our second home here.”
“It’s maybe the first home here,” Lek interjected. “We go home and sleep and come back here.”