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Wednesday evening, Tenko Ramen co-owner Jennifer Dobbertin admitted she was exhausted dealing with changes in the business wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel like I’m in a really, really bad season of The Apprentice, like a hell version,” she said.
In July 2017, Dobbertin opened the popular ramen restaurant in the Pearl Food Hall with business partner and chef Quealy Watson. Neither owner could have anticipated the current reversal of fortune visited upon San Antonio.
Within two days of the mayor’s March 18 shutdown orders for restaurant dining rooms, Dobbertin engineered a quick pivot to online ordering and curbside pickup. A week later, she incorporated groceries into Tenko’s offerings, hoping at least to break even. What she did not expect was to attract attention from NPR for her punning grocery item descriptions.
“Life’s a bleach.” “We can squash this faster if we shelter in place” for zucchini. “Get a head of the curve by helping flatten it,” for a head of garlic, and for Kewpie brand mayonnaise, “The only spread we should be encouraging right now.”
Perhaps most telling, for 550-sheet toilet paper rolls she wrote “who could’ve predicted the day you’d be buying toilet paper online from a ramen shop?”
Indeed. It’s nearly impossible to predict what the future of the San Antonio restaurant sector will look like, but Dobbertin and other entrepreneurs are relying on creativity, innovation, web savvy, and persistence to make adjustments on the fly as conditions change almost daily.
Tenko, a small business with 22 employees, first suffered the ambiguity of bans on large gatherings, stifling its dine-in business in the Pearl Food Hall. All restaurant dining rooms were then closed by order of the City, followed by strict social distancing rules, and most recently, a requirement that cloth masks be worn in any situation where close contact is possible.
With Watson traveling in Asia as the outbreak hit San Antonio, Dobbertin first laid off all but five employees. She took on bookkeeping duties and payroll, as well as supplying the grocery and managing a new online ordering system. One employee has been hired back, but Dobbertin estimates revenue is maintaining at between one-fifth and one-quarter of pre-coronavirus income.
“We’re doing in sales in one week what we used to do in one really good Saturday,” she said. “We are gradually increasing our revenue,” she said, but the business model is not sustainable. “It’s not a ton of business, but I was hoping it would just be an incentive to order ramen if [customers] knew that they could also get eggs.”
(The description for eggs reads, “I can’t wait for this to all boil over.”)
Watson, who runs the kitchen, said of her savvy in turning the business around on her own, “I am definitely proud of Jen.” He was on a March 3-21 family trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, then self-quarantined for 14 days. Being unable to help Dobbertin with the transition was frustrating, he said, but he’s not surprised by her managing the so-far successful turnaround of the business, even as other restaurants have shuttered.
“She viewed it as a personal challenge to be like, ‘I’m gonna make this work and prove to everybody that I can succeed where other people haven’t.’ That’s just the kind of the person she is,” Watson said.
Estimating she now works more than 60 hours per week, Dobbertin said her days are consumed with all the tasks required to keep Tenko in business. “Every day is just survival. I’m in total survival mode.”
Reflecting on the hard pivots she’s had to make in response to the coronavirus pandemic, she viewed it as part of a much longer arc. “I got to Tenko through hustle and grind, and I feel like … I’ve come full circle.”
Asked if she’s ever been so creative before, Dobbertin said, “you know, I’ve always been poor. So yes.”
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She and Watson will need their creativity not only to keep Tenko Ramen afloat but to stay on track with plans for two new projects. A “soft launch” for family and friends is already underway for We Both Love Soup, which has adopted a delivery model for the moment, and Best Quality Daughter, a new Asian-themed restaurant, is still on track to open as soon as December.
How much of the new adaptations Tenko has adopted become permanent features of these new projects remains to be seen. Dobbertin imagines a rigorous takeout program, dining room tables spaced for social distancing, even altering construction for a walk-up order window.
Taken together, the innovations might amount to a sea change in the philosophy of dining out. “What we’ve done is really quickly, completely rethink how we approach what dining is, as a consumer experience from here on for the foreseeable future.”
However, her personal, deeper philosophy of cooking for people still holds. She describes people working in the restaurant industry as “caregivers and caretakers,” and said, “I always see food as – not to sound totally cheesy, but – the universal love language. It’s something that people do for each other in every corner of the globe as a sign of ‘I want to care for you. I want to feed you.’”