Thamee got national acclaim for its Burmese food. Now it wants to become a model for racial justice.
When some of her neighbors addressed the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Washington by hiding their windows behind plywood, Simone Jacobson, the co-owner of Thamee on H Street NE, took a different tack. Boarded-up windows, she says, “send the wrong message: ‘We are afraid.’ ” On the contrary, “We are in support of protest.”
To drive home her point, Jacobson commissioned a friend, the renowned Nigerian artist Aniekan Udofia, to paint an outsize periwinkle fist on the facade of her restaurant, a small Burmese retreat. “I didn’t want people to think we were silent or closed. We needed to take a stand about who we are” — guests in a primarily black community, she says. Moreover, “Joy is in short supply now. We wanted to lift people up.”
Udofia’s monumental fist is surrounded by red hearts and banana leaves, the latter the suggestion of Jocelyn Law-Yone, Jacobson’s mother, business partner and the executive chef at Thamee, whose names translates from Burmese to “daughter.” A result of what Jacobson calls the Moment, the mural is a beacon in a city that needs more signs of hope and part of a radical transformation for Thamee, whose lengthy list of honors includes being recognized by Food & Wine as one of the country’s 10 best new restaurants. What began as a mother-daughter celebration of immigrant food last year has, thanks to a pandemic and racial reckoning, evolved into a business that continues to feed people while also raising the profile of marginalized groups.
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Thamee, which last seated diners March 15, will continue to serve as takeout its popular Sunday morning breakfast tacos (courtesy of the Tex-Mex pop-up La Tejana) and Sunday night Burmese fried chicken dinners, and to prepare free and low-cost meals for the community, most recently for World Central Kitchen and the Power of 10 Initiative, the relief program to aid independent restaurants. But Thamee is also expanding the notion of hospitality and redefining what a restaurant can be in 2020. Pantry? Check. CSA-style bags and meal kits? Like some of its competitors, Thamee is incorporating those new tools of survival.
In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the widespread protests that have followed, Thamee is going further. Now, everything the restaurant does will be in support of promoting and investing in “Black and brown makers, farmers, entrepreneurs and others who share our collective vision of racial justice, radical hospitality, and equitable food systems,” reads Thamee’s vision, an early draft of which Jacobson shared with The Washington Post.
Jacobson, whose pre-pandemic restaurant employed workers who spoke nine languages, including sign, isn’t wasting any time putting words into action. Ahead of the official pivot at Thamee on July 17, she’s inviting a select group of black food writers, bloggers and industry members to preview some of what she and her team have been up to since the coronavirus upended dining. They’ll have first dibs on picking up the forthcoming Black Farm Bag. Everything in it will be curated by Dreaming Out Loud, a Washington nonprofit group created in 2008 to promote equity and dignity in the food community.
“Charity begins at home,” says Jacobson, 36. Her new business mantra underscores the adage: “We Got Us.” Specifically, “We will no longer depend on predominantly white institutions who do not serve us,” according to the draft outlining Thamee’s new game plan. “Instead, we will work to determine our own success and financial futures.” Pantry vendors, for instance, must be people of color.
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Ask Jacobson for the elevator version of her résumé and settle in for a ride approximating the lift to the top of Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Born in Arizona to a Jewish lawyer and a mother from Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma), she grew up dancing and making holiday visits to Washington, where her parents met, she had relatives and Jacobson eventually graduated from Emerson Preparatory School. At 17, she was a makeup artist and bridal consultant at the chic Andre Chreky salon, where she got an early lesson in the care and feeding of Washington egos. While at the University of Maryland, she studied in France, where she taught English, and then relocated to San Francisco, where she taught French to preschoolers. Back in Washington, she worked for multiple nonprofit organizations, including an international arts program, managed two artists, wrote grants, organized events for Busboys and Poets, and did time as a manager or server in restaurants as diverse as El Centro and Compass Rose.
“She wears a lot of hats,” says fellow restaurateur Ivan Iricanin, the creator of the Balkan-themed Ambar brand and a friend for over a dozen years. “I don’t even know if she sleeps.” If he has a criticism of Jacobson, it’s her tendency to make things happen now and deal with money matters later. “She’s too fast,” he says with a laugh. Her big strength is her charm. “She’s a great storyteller,” he says. “The best PR person I’ve ever met.”
By far her biggest challenge, she says, was launching Thamee, which had no built-in audience and whose Burmese customs were questioned. Early customers wanted to know why, for instance, Thamee didn’t offer knives or chopsticks. “We eat with a spoon and fork,” Jacobson let them know.
The time and sweat paid off, with an armful of awards. Eater DC anointed Thamee 2019’s restaurant of the year, Thrillist featured it as one of a dozen best new restaurants nationally, and I flagged it in the Top 10 list of my last fall dining guide.
Jacobson attributes any success she has had as an entrepreneur to relationships — “collaboration over competition,” she says. But she says she still has to fight for even a “side seat” at the table. On a May conference call with industry veterans to discuss rent and other issues, she was the only female representative, and had to ask to participate.
The activist practices what she preaches. Her main investors are all people of color, as are all but one of her 13 employees. Looking for the perfect wine to go with your Burmese fried chicken? If beverage director Richard Sterling or sommelier Erica Christian isn’t around, assistant beverage director Danielle Moreno can steer you to, say, a rosé made by a black vintner. Sterling is Jamaican American, Christian identifies as a queer black woman, and Moreno refers to herself as Filipina American with Mexican heritage.
In Jacobson’s restaurant, which she and her mother co-own with Eric Wang, she’s banned “hey, guys” as a greeting. This is not about being politically correct, says Jacobson. “This is about making people feel safe and comfortable.” No one on staff makes less than $17.50 an hour, a detail made possible by a flat 30 percent added to the base price of whatever the restaurant sells. Gratuities are history. The #Flat30 initiative, effective July 17, also supports health care, professional development and, after a year of service, profit-sharing. The goal, says Jacobson, is “a livable wage.”
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The mangosteen doesn’t fall far from the tree. Jacobson says her biggest inspiration is her mother, who has worked in restaurants, including the former Blackie’s House of Beef in Washington and as a travel agent; an office manager at ABC News; a children’s clothing designer; an English and art history teacher at Duke Ellington School of the Arts; and, before Thamee, the proprietor of a falooda and dumpling stall in Union Market, Toli Moli. The latter’s Anglo-Indian name means “a little of this and a little of that.”
The weekly rotating meal kits, created by Law-Yone, are like edible postcards from a country whose cuisine draws heavily from nearby China, India and Thailand. Her initial “Burma Boxes” come with two entrees, apportioned for two or four ($78 and $150, respectively): tandoori chicken with Burmese herbed rice and parathas, and mohinga, the catfish noodle curry considered to be the national dish of Myanmar. Thamee does much of the work for the recipient of a Burma Box — the paratha dough is rolled out and the catfish comes as a mash in a racy marinade — but not so much that the home cook can’t appreciate the time and labor involved in getting a taste of Myanmar on the table. “I try to keep it close to what it is [in Myanmar] and make it approachable” at the same time, says Law-Yone, who goes by JoJo. Mission (thoughtfully) accomplished. Who doesn’t love a recipe card sheathed in easy-to-clean plastic?
The Black Farm Bags involve an initial commitment of four weeks. Customers who can afford to do so will be encouraged to pay it forward with a Reparations Bag, which includes the same seasonal contents plus the donation of another bag. Dreaming Out Loud distributes the Reparations Bags to those in need, at about a dozen sites around Washington. To start, the partners are looking to sell 100 Black Farm Bags a week.
While the fantasy is to offer exclusively things grown by people of color, the reality is “black farmers are 2 percent of all farmers” in the country, probably less in the wake of the coronavirus, says Zachari Curtis, operations director for Dreaming Out Loud. The former mushroom grower says historical inequities, starting with slavery and the inability of black people to own land, held them back from successful farming for generations. (If you get a peach in your bag, says Curtis, it’s from a white grower. Peaches take land and time, and most black farmers are starting from scratch.) For now, customers can expect at least one ingredient in their bags to be sourced from a black farm.
Pantry staples, everything curated from black and brown sources, are sold in an online marketplace but can be added to meal and other purchases at Thamee. Current notions include a chai kit from Kolkata Chai and java from Nguyen Coffee Supply — both out of Brooklyn, both owned by Asian Americans — and sumac and za’atar from Washington’s Z&Z.
There are no plans to reopen for in-house dining, only aspirations when it’s safe for all involved, says Jacobson. Besides, “our brand of hospitality does not work at six feet, and our financial model cannot survive at 50 percent capacity.” Pickled tea leaf salad staged atop digital reproductions of old Burmese textiles will have to wait. But it’s full speed ahead for equality for marginalized communities.
The Moment is here. And Jacobson is doing everything in her power to see that her brothers and sisters in the industry have an equal shot at success. It’s a big job, but she has had lots of practice.
Just ask her muse. “Simone is always trying to save the world,” says her mother.
Thamee, 1320 H St. NE, 202-750-6529. thamee.com. Beginning July 17, preordered Black Farm Bags ($19.50 for small/$39 for large) and Burma Boxes can be picked up 4 to 7 p.m. Friday and noon to 3 p.m. Saturday. Open for takeout Sunday for La Tejana breakfast tacos, coffee and drinks 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and for Burmese chicken, fish and tofu entrees from 4 to 7 p.m.
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