Julie Truong has learned to go with the flow at DD Mau.
Julie Truong feels fortunate. Though things haven't exactly been easy, business at her Maryland Heights restaurant, DD Mau (11982 Dorsett Road, Maryland Heights; 314-942-2300)
, has been relatively steady since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the St. Louis area last March. Granted, she's had to make some serious adjustments, like closing her dining room, but because she was already set up as a takeout-friendly fast-casual spot, she didn't have to completely rethink the restaurant's business model. Plus, her loyal customers may not be lining up for lunch like they used to, but they are making a point to grab takeout from her on a regular basis. Still, there is one professional loss she mourns more than anything.
"I miss seeing my customers," Truong says. "Before this, I was always out talking to my customers, so I miss seeing their faces. Now, I get excited just seeing them coming in to pick up to-go food because I miss them so much. I know them. I know their lives. Three years in, you gain such a relationship with people."
Navigating pandemic-related challenges was not how Truong thought she would have been celebrating DD Mau's three-year anniversary. A former fashion industry professional, Truong left a successful career to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant that honored her Vietnamese heritage — and thanks to hard work and a natural knack for cooking, she's been living that dream. Thankfully, the coronavirus hasn't taken that away.
"The good thing for us is that our food is still good as takeout," Truong says. "It's almost the same — not the pho because people want to sit down and have that — but it's been much easier for us than it has been for sit-down restaurants who have had to get very creative because their restaurant is built as much on atmosphere as the food. For us, the lunch rush just isn't there anymore and business just isn't the same, but on the other hand, we've gained new customers from people on delivery platforms looking for food around them. Fortunately, it's balanced out."
Truong knows she is lucky compared to her fellow hospitality professionals. As a fast-casual restaurant, she's been able to operate with little change in her business model. Still, she can't help but wonder what the future will look like in the face of long-term changes to the industry and whether it will ever return to the way it was before the pandemic. She lives in a state of uncertainty and has learned to become comfortable in going with the flow — and yet, she'd do it all over again.
"I'm very happy that I made the decision to do the restaurant thing," Truong says. "I love connecting with my customers, even the way I have to do so now. Giving awesome food to the community and and relationship building is my number one thing. This is one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life to be independent and do what I feel is right."
Truong took a break from the line to share her thoughts on the state of the restaurant industry, the importance of supporting the places you love and how, especially right now, a little kindness goes a long way.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
We will all get through this TOGETHER! Supporting small local business is very important right now; this is the time we need you all the most to stay afloat. On the other hand, supporting chains are good, too! We just need to support the food we love so it doesn’t go away.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before COVID-19?
I miss seeing everyone’s beautiful faces and catching up with everyone during lunch and dinner rushes.
What do you miss least?
What I won’t miss is the increase of delivery problems we receive! Sometimes the food doesn’t make it to where it belongs.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Being in the restaurant business, there’s no choice to work from home, so going to work every day helps me maintain a sense of normalcy.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I’ve been eating everything under the sun, but currently, I’m obsessed with plantain crisps from Trader Joe’s. When I order out, I always order Chinese food (I’ve been sampling Chinese food throughout St. Louis) or Kickin’ Crab. When it’s a home-cooked meal kind of night, I’ll make ribeye and lobster — two of my favorite things.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Masks! I have a pack everywhere I go. Chips. I need chips everywhere I am too, most importantly in my car. I’m always running around, so having a nice snack in my car is crucial. Nespresso pods — everyone needs coffee.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
I would pick my fiancé (Andrew) so he can take care of me, Gordon Ramsay so I can learn so much from him (plus I hope he will cook all my meals), and Celine Dion so she can sing for me.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
I will immediately book a flight to Las Vegas and go to the Wynn casino buffet. Soon after that, I will make my way to Hawaii to eat more.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people feel comfortable returning to normal activity levels?
I feel like people will continue to be cautious of the space and surroundings when dining in at restaurants. I feel like it will take about another year in order to get back to normal within the hospitality industry. To-go orders will still be very important to the business.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Just seeing people supporting everyone. Acts of kindness are all around and it’s so important right now.
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