Ploi Pirapokin was happily surprised when she showed up for dinner at two-month-old Noka Ramen in Oakland and saw her server wearing a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers costume. She happened to catch the staff on the first day they decided to wear the costumes to work, a goofy way the team hoped to bring in more customers on Fridays.
Cartoon, a manager and partner at the restaurant who declined to share their legal name, said the idea was to bring some fun to the restaurant. But little did Pirapokin or Cartoon know that actual heroics would be needed on October 14. As told through a now-viral Twitter thread by Pirapokin, who goes by @ppirapokin on the social media site, a man attacked a woman who ran inside the restaurant and the staff — in their colorful regalia — battled the attacker out of the restaurant.
While the story has gained national attention as a tale of everyday heroes rising up to save the day, it’s also another example of restaurant workers putting their physical safety and well-being on the line in order to protect customers — a situation that seems to be increasingly common since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps due to the ever-increasing expectations put on service staff during the pandemic, when workers sometimes suffered violent outbursts from customers unwilling to adhere to mask mandates, it seems the idea that restaurant workers should protect their customers has expanded, even distorted.
Pirapokin says the whole experience has been surreal. The creative writing professor at the Writers Program, a UCLA extension, has never had a tweet gain so much attention, let alone for something that happened to materialize at the nexus of her Thai identity, love of ramen, and unofficial membership in the BTS army. “In some ways, I’m enjoying the way it’s touched so many people and brought together so many walks of life,” Pirapokin says. “We can share a hope in community, and the kind of community we want to be now that restaurants are open again.”
She says she appreciates people recognizing this as a heroic anomaly — a story of people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing — but she doesn’t want to sensationalize the experience any more than her tweets already have, if unintentionally. “I think it’s only natural people have been curious about details, but I’ve also seen a lot of voices in there saying, ‘Hey, these are normal people donning costumes.’ Highlighting that in the conversation, rather than focusing on what I would call the viral-ness, has been heartwarming,” Pirapokin says.
Cartoon similarly acknowledged the seriousness of the incident. “We had to ensure the safety of our customers, and our staff and the whole restaurant,” Cartoon says. The staff didn’t want harm to come to anyone and were thankful there was no weapon involved. “We didn’t talk to each other, we just thought, ‘What is the first step?’ There’s no plan for this kind of thing,” Cartoon says.
Now the manager says she’s thinking about what safety protocols the staff could have had in place and whether they would have helped. Cartoon is talking to the team about hosting scenario-based training from the police to better prepare for any future incidents. “Are there other ways we can deal with this?” she wonders. “In the Bay it gets crazy, especially after COVID. What do we do if someone overtakes the staff? Steals belongings? Should we follow them or not?”
Sadly, these are legitimate questions for workers in the service industry these days; foodservice industry magazine Total Food Service writes owners and managers should consider themselves responsible for consumer safety, recommending tips like evaluating what activities on the job have the highest likelihood of threat and developing an employee assistance program to support workers involved in violence. ABC 7 reports the Oakland Police Department detained the attacker, who they believe was experiencing a mental health crisis.
At one point the attacker began to shout anti-Asian slurs, which Cartoon says was in stark contrast to the idea of wearing the costumes in the first place. The former Farmhouse Thai staff member said the staff decided to wear the costumes and serve Power Ranger-themed drinks to promote Asian culture and bridge cultural gaps, one act in the Bay Area service industry’s resistance to AAPI hate crimes. Pirapokin says she doesn’t think Noka Ramen was targeted because it’s a ramen restaurant; she says she feels the attacker could have easily burst into a different business. Regardless, Pirapokin’s family still lives in Thailand, whereas she is a visa holder, and she says she feels a kind of protection over the staff at Noka Ramen, all of whom are Thai. “Just to make it in this country, opening a restaurant is difficult for anyone, let alone in this time,” Pirapokin says. “You work so hard to open the door for people to learn more about food, to understand Thai culture, Thai ethos. These people are on the same journey that I’ve been through.”
It’s lucky the staff remained safe during the incident, but indeed it’s one more example of restaurant workers’ health and wellness being put in danger. One gesture that could help support workers, Pirapokin says, is simply venturing out to show up for their neighborhood restaurants more often. “Pay attention to the efforts that go into the architecture of a restaurant: the food, of course, but also the decor, the costumes,” Pirapokin says. “When we just do takeout, we miss that experience with the crowd, the servers, the cook.”