Amid the emergence of the Omicron variant, restaurants and businesses on Thayer Street face varying difficulties with supply chain issues and staffing. Despite uncertainty regarding the pandemic and increased costs due to supply shortages, shop owners said business has improved since 2020. They are hopeful that students returning to campus will increase business activity.
“I am very grateful that Chinatown on Thayer continues to be busy and the business has thankfully been going really well,” said Chinatown owner Mike Boutros. Boutros also owns Mike’s Calzones and is opening a new restaurant called Mighty Mike’s Pizza, The Herald previously reported. Both restaurants are also on Thayer Street
While Omicron has not had a significant impact on Boustros’s businesses, he has taken Rhode Island’s increasing cases into account when setting COVID-19 policies. His current policies include a mask requirement in the restaurants and a vaccine requirement for Chinatown staff. He also plans to increase indoor seating options soon.
Despite relative success with business, Boutros mentioned supply chain issues and trouble hiring. He has faced difficulties purchasing items such as paper goods, containers, Chinese sauces and spices — sometimes needing to pay double the pre-pandemic price. Boutros also noted “multiple issues with hiring,” especially for the fast-paced environment of the restaurant. “We have people apply, come in to train and never return or reply back,” he said.
Several restaurants and businesses on Thayer are also looking to hire new workers, including Kabob and Curry, Baja’s restaurants, bb.q Chicken + Soban Korean Eatery, Berk’s and Abu Yarub Al-Shami, as seen on signs in the storefronts.
Tiger Sugar, a bubble tea franchise, is currently under construction at 288 Thayer St., according to the shop’s Facebook page. A Bank of America Virtual Banking Center recently opened at 271 Thayer St.
Berk’s, a clothing and shoe store, has been able to remain open despite the pandemic, but it has faced staffing issues when students were gone, said owner Lauren Berk. “It’s not easy to get people to work right now,” she said.
Berk also mentioned supply shortages last fall due to production delays, though these have since improved. Business in 2021 was better than business in 2020 but has not yet recovered to 2019 levels, according to Berk. For 2022 so far, “it’s tough to say because January is notoriously a slow month,” she said.
For Aroma Joe’s, which opened last fall, as the Herald previously reported, business “hasn’t been affected as much as I anticipated,” said barista Miniya Greene ’24. The coffee shop has not faced supply chain issues, and indoor dining policies have remained the same, as most items from Aroma Joe’s are grab-and-go.
Greene also mentioned that it is still difficult to say how Omicron specifically has affected business since students have only recently returned to campus. Due to their large staff, Aroma Joe’s has not needed to close down when staff members were sick, but it is sometimes “difficult to find people to cover shifts,” Greene said.
Business for Ten One Tea House improved significantly in 2021 compared to 2020, said owner Jason Yu. After opening in July 2020, the bubble tea shop struggled with a boba shortage last year, which has now improved. But the shop is still “suffering from international shipping costs,” which have now tripled for their supplies imported from Taiwan. Despite increased costs, its bubble tea prices have stayed the same for customers throughout the pandemic according to Yu.
He also mentioned difficulties having a full staff last November and December, along with trouble hiring last summer at Ten One’s Boston location; both locations have seen improvement since then. The Providence location has only had one staff member test positive throughout the pandemic, after which Ten One paid for all staff to get tested immediately afterwards. Masks have always been mandatory inside the shop.
Regarding Thayer Street as a whole over the past two years, Boutros acknowledged the loss of customers and fewer night rushes, along with restricted hours and capacity.
But he is hopeful that businesses will continue to recover. “Thayer Street continues to be a highlight street of Rhode Island… and I hope going forward we can continue seeing all of our students and customers back in the restaurant,” Boutros said.
“I feel like Thayer Street is still Thayer Street,” Yu said.