“We have a sad news,” read the message posted to Facebook this past Saturday by Noodles Pho Me, a popular Lao-style pho restaurant in San Leandro — perhaps the only one of its kind in the Bay Area. “This is a gut wrenching decision we have to make. We have no choice but to close down as we’re not able to sustain our business.”
In these rocky, pandemic-depressed times for the restaurant industry, it was a familiar story: Noodles Pho Me could no longer afford pay its rent and wasn’t able to negotiate a new deal with its landlord, and so, very abruptly, it announced that Saturday was its last day of business. Co-owners Cindy and Tong Sengsourith spent Sunday scrambling to rent a U-Haul to put their kitchen equipment in storage, in hopes that they’d eventually be able to find a new home for the restaurant.
Then, just as quickly, there was a reversal: Tong Sengsourith tells Eater SF that just as they were getting ready to pack up the restaurant on Monday, the landlord offered a last-minute deal: Now, Noodles Pho Me will be able to stay in the space, with a reduced rent, at least through the end of the year.
It’s good news, then, for fans of the restaurant. Noodles Pho Me is back in business — it will reopen this Thursday for takeout and delivery.
If Noodles Pho Me wound up closing, it would have been a particularly great loss. Not only is the restaurant.a small, family-run business that’s much beloved in the San Leandro community, it’s also fairly unique: It’s one of the only restaurants in the Bay Area that specializes in Lao-style pho, characterized by its darker, more intensely flavored broth, with all of the herb and vegetable garnishes built into bowl. The menu includes a mix of Thai and Vietnamese influences, but at its core, it’s a Laotian restaurant — the only one in San Leandro — serving up traditional dishes like nam khao (rice ball salad) and other Lao noodle soups, like its coconut broth-based khao poon.
The restaurant was also known for offering all first-time customers a trio of broth samples, amuse bouche-style, so that they could have a taste before settling on their order — a nice little flourish they obviously haven’t been able to continue during the pandemic.
According to Sengsourith, business had been great prior to the pandemic, but since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s dipped by 65 to 70 percent, causing the restaurant to lay off staff and run its takeout operation with just a skeleton crew. “We teetered almost to the verge of bankruptcy,” Sengsourith says. And so, he explains, they haven’t been able to pay the restaurant’s full $5,500 rent, instead telling the landlord they’d only be able to pay what they could afford each month — sometimes $2,000, sometimes a little bit more.
This all came to a head last week, as the landlord issued an ultimatum: By the end of this year, the Sengsouriths would have to pay back the tens of thousands of dollars that they owed in back rent — a debt that would only continue to accumulate the longer they stayed at the restaurant. “If we stayed until December, it was going to be $33,000,” Sengsourith says.
It was at that point that the Sengsouriths chose to just walk away — a devastating decision, given how much they’ve poured into the restaurant since it first opened in 2016. But now, Sengsourith says, they’ve worked out an arrangement with the landlord: Their rent has now been retroactively set at $3,000 starting in April. They’ll continue to pay what they can each month, and while they’ll still have to pay back some back rent at the end of the year, it’ll be a more manageable amount — and if they choose to walk away at that point, the landlord will pay them for the improvements they’ve made on the space, knocking another chunk out of that debt.
Of course, that still leaves Noodles Pho Me with as many questions as answers. Will business pick up enough in the next few months in order for the shop to accumulate enough profit to pay back what will likely still be thousands of dollars in back rent in December? And what kind of rent will be realistic for the restaurant to pay moving forward after that, given there’s no end in sight to the pandemic?
Still, Sengsourith is hopeful. “With the affordable rent, we’re doing okay,” he says. “We’re surviving.”
Noodles Pho Me reopens on Thursday, August 18, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Wednesdays. Call in 510-850-5080 or order via one of the third-party delivery apps.