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Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant points to customers as reason for pandemic success

Drew Goretzka | Spartan Newsroom | October 20, 2021

The dining room of Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant looks a bit different than it did a year and a half ago.

What was once a restaurant filled with bustling tables and a line out the door is now filled with childrens’ toys and the sound of Nickelodeon playing on the television.

That doesn’t mean the establishment has budged from its place as a sturdy fixture of the Lansing food scene.

Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant’s offering of Burmese and Thai dishes is a unique sight in Lansing, and it’s many citizens’ go-to place for such food. The parking lot is alive with customers picking up takeout orders, and posting about Naing’s dishes is regularly a hit in Facebook groups like “Lansing Foodies.”

Married owners Moe Israel and Mi Thanda had big plans for their business before the pandemic. They purchased the strip mall that houses their restaurant in September 2019, when the building was put up for auction because of unpaid property taxes.

Their plans were halted when they were forced to close down for four months in March 2020, following Michigan’s COVID-19 lockdown.

However, Israel and Thanda had a secret weapon to combat the virus— a loyal customer base that was ready to support them.

“The one thing, you know, all my customers, they help me,” Israel said.

Throughout the next year and a half, customers stepped up to help the couple navigate the trials and tribulations of being both landlords and restaurateurs in the midst of a pandemic.

Owner Moe Israel poses in front of his menu, which is currently only available throughout takeout. The focus on serving traditional, home-style food consistently has made Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant a local favorite in south Lansing. / Photo by Drew Goretzka | Spartan Newsroom

Some of his customers were there as soon as they closed, Israel said, helping the couple navigate the Paycheck Protection Program loan process to continue paying their employees. The restaurant now has four employees, including two from before the pandemic.

Later on, the couple began to be charged exorbitant charges for water due to a faulty meter. Israel and Thanda had a hard time communicating with the Lansing Board of Water and Light due to a language barrier. A customer, who is also a Michigan State University professor, stepped in.

“Me and my wife cannot speak English very good …. The (water) office, they talk too much,” Israel said. “My customer’s a professor. She helped me out.”

Other customers supported the business by simply consistently ordering food when the restaurant reopened for takeout in July 2020.

Lansing business owner John Addis is a longtime customer of Naing Myanmar Family Restaurant, and said he saw regularly ordering takeout as a way to help a restaurant he loved afloat.

“We tried to do takeout throughout COVID for most of our favorite restaurants,” Addis said. “They were definitely one of them.”

As for the strip mall, Israel and Thanda are taking it slow. The couple spent the pandemic replacing heating and cooling systems and the building’s roof.

They have one tenant, a furniture wholesaler, but say they have other potential businesses interested.

“Step by step,” Thanda said. “We don’t have a lot of money to do one time.”

Israel and Thanda are still only doing takeout. Thanda said that her children were the main motivation behind waiting to restart dine-in service.

“I have two kids not get vaccine yet,” Thanda said. “I don’t have parent here, nobody here. So I had to take care of the kids first.”

Israel said that he doesn’t mind takeout, though. He said profits are about the same as before the pandemic. They have had to mark prices up by about 20% due to an increase in ingredient prices, but he said this hasn’t stopped his regular customers from coming in.

“Our target (is for) my customer not to be one time, right?” Israel said. “We’ve made a good quality food. … He must come back again. It’s our target.”