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After the unrest, these restaurateurs rebuilt, and stand in solidarity

The past weeks have brought a swirl of emotions for restaurateurs who are processing personal losses while each still reaffirming their support for the protests and Black Lives Matter movement.

Sofia Deleon, owner and chef, in front of her boarded up restaurant, El Merkury in Philadelphia. Her restaurant was damaged by vandalism over the past week.
Sofia Deleon, owner and chef, in front of her boarded up restaurant, El Merkury in Philadelphia. Her restaurant was damaged by vandalism over the past week.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The chicken Chettinad is simmering once again in coconut milk and spice at Thanal Indian Tavern. Its kitchen has been rebooted, the shattered glass of its broken doors swept away after being ransacked by looters two weeks ago.

Guatemalan pupusas are roasting once more on the griddle in the dim light at El Merkury, where the usually bright storefront windows are now boarded over. Chef-owner Sofia Deleon won’t let that deter her from cooking 200 meals a day for health-care workers and others in need, fueled by a World Central Kitchen initiative that’s kept her Chestnut Street restaurant alive throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

The air has also cleared at Big G’s Chicken Shack at 52nd and Locust, where the terrifying haze of tear gas shot from a passing SWAT Team suddenly choked the air inside its busy kitchen on May 31. At its takeout window last week, customers ordered peach pies to go, hot cups of limas and rice, and an irresistible platter of smothered chicken, string beans, and mashed potatoes in gravy, delicious proof that the nurturing power of food has survived the unrest that has shaken this city following the killing of George Floyd and remains, along with growing justice movement itself, an undaunted beacon of hope.

“I’m proud to be the chef at a black-owned restaurant,” said Anthony Roane, who recounted Big G’s picnic table corner being protected from looters by a civilian guard of neighborhood friends before the sudden barrage of police tear gas sent panicked customers running. “We’re not going anywhere.”

And what of the Marathon Grill at 16th and Sansom, whose insides were ripped out and set ablaze in the street as a rioter’s bonfire on the night of May 30? It’s going to be a while before the chicken Caesar salads and matzo ball soup are flowing again at this Center City institution.

“A couple months, at least," said Cary Borish, who co-owns Marathon with his mother and brother and was set to reopen for takeout last week for the first time since the citywide shutdown. He nonetheless remains a staunch supporter of the protest’s wider call for racial justice. "We’re going to reopen and come back stronger ... and this movement is going to make Philadelphia better.”

With these restaurateurs’ fortitude already tested by the challenges of the pandemic, their determination to also rebound from the vandalism that spun off from a weekend of rage surrounding the early protests only accentuates the value Philly’s beloved neighborhood restaurants hold. Especially now as their communities also rally to revive them.

A devoted customer and neighbor of Thanal’s in Logan Square immediately launched a GoFundMe page that brought donations adding up to $6,000 before co-owner Hari Haran Karmegam paused the campaign when he fired up his kitchen again last week. El Merkury drew immediate support, too, as strangers joined customers and friends in sending Deleon unrequested Venmo donations ranging from $5 to $400.

Borish, meanwhile, approached the remnants of his damaged restaurant the following Sunday morning fearing the worst, the anguish of his mother Sheryl’s voice on the phone still in his head from the night before. Instead, he witnessed “one of the most meaningful moments of my life.”

Hundreds of people had already shown up early with brooms and dustpans to scrub the restaurant clean.

“My daughter and I literally wept as we went from despair to heartfelt gratitude,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking about rebuilding at that moment. But it was already in the minds of hundreds of people in my community.”

The impulse of the public to leap in to help revive restaurants shows just how essential these businesses are to the rhythm and well-being of city life. That’s true of an institution like Marathon that had been open seven days a week serving up to 500 meals a day for 28 years prior to COVID-19, as well as a relative newcomer like Thanal, which opened in 2018 as a leader in a new wave of South Indian kitchens.

“It gives a neighborhood a sense of pride to have a place like Thanal,” said Vlad Litvak, the restaurant’s GoFundMe advocate, who loves the chicken tikka tacos and craft beer so much he’d hoped to hold his office Christmas party there.

The weeks since the vandalism have brought a swirl of complicated emotions for these restaurateurs who are processing personal losses while each still reaffirming their support for the protests and Black Lives Matter movement.

“I was already closed for two months since March because of the pandemic,” says Thanal’s Karmegam, 30, a native of Tamil Nadu who had reopened only three weeks ago to begin the restaurant’s recovery with takeout. “As a small business, we were already struggling. So there’s a lot of mixed feelings: I’m scared I will lose my business. I don’t want to let this go away.”

It’s a thought echoed by Deleon, 30, who came from Guatemala 13 years ago to attend college, then opened her fast-casual concept two years ago featuring Central American favorites like pupusas, tostadas and churros.

“I’m a brown person and I support Black Lives Matter 100%. We should fight against police brutality in all forms,” she says. “But I cried a little bit when I saw [the damage] when I first came to my store because this is my everything. ... I’m happy to see [the movement] back on track with peaceful protests.”

For Borish, 50, whose family owns three Marathons and who is separately a partner in Martha, Pizza Shackamaxon, and the Lunar Inn, the turmoil has prompted challenging self-reflection.

“It’s been a combination of feeling tremendous sadness and also asking myself: What has been my contribution to all of this as a white male? How have I been complicit in this society that has been oppressive and racist? How are we going to create lasting change?” said Borish, who had attended a rally with his family earlier on Saturday before the riot erupted. “When I look at the big picture and the change that is needed, it’s a price that we all need to sacrifice. We all need to make sacrifice to support change for more equity in our society.”

Yet even that notion, he acknowledges, comes from the white privilege of knowing his well-insured, established business can absorb the blow: “My heart goes out to those small businesses that were destroyed that don’t have the insurance and whose life savings have been wiped out.”

Karmegam and his partner, Mohan Devarajalu, were in just such a tenuous situation, having received ominous early signals from their insurer, Erie Insurance, that their claim for about $30,000 in damage might not qualify for reimbursement. Erie, however, came through with more positive news Friday: Thanal’s losses will be covered. And it’s going to be an essential boost. The restaurant’s weekly earnings through takeout of about $10,000 are a small fraction of what the restaurant earned pre-COVID.

“So now I have to pay my rent and pay my people and I’m doing the delivery myself free for orders above $50,” says Karmegam. “This pandemic really threw me off. Oh my god, what am I going to do? I’m used to pushing myself, but, you know: what will happen next?”

The gestures of Litvak and others, however, have reminded Karmegam of his calling to share his love of South Indian flavors and hospitality: “It’s the only business I know, what I studied for, and why I came here. This is the only thing I can do in my life.”

His pride as an independent small businessman has made him reluctant to accept donations, which explains why he eventually asked the GoFundMe page to close: “I’m so concerned already about people going through this pandemic who have no jobs. This is not a good idea to ask for money. It feels wrong to me.”

And so Thanal has fired up its kitchen again to do the best it can at takeout speed, delivering aromatic biryanis, tangy gobi Manchurian, ghee-glistened tadka lentils, and the Chicken 65 crackling with curry leaves and chile. Plans to add outdoor dining soon and drinks to go will also help — once he restocks his cleaned-out bar shelves.

In the meantime, Karmegam is mindful that his restaurant, as well as the others damaged during the unrest, have served as stages for an impactful moment in American history.

“I hope and believe this protest will change so many things for the positive, and I’ll remember it for all my life,” says Karmegam. “Even though looters came and broke this place and I’ve been hurt, the pain is only temporary. I have confidence I can survive. Because if you give people food they will come.”