July 15, 2020 By Asha MacKay
For Dawa Bhuti of Dawa’s restaurant in Sunnyside, the only way to get through dark times is with a sunny attitude.
Bhuti is co-owner of the restaurant along with her uncle and father. Located on the border of Sunnyside and Woodside at 51-18 Skillman Avenue, Dawa’s has made itself at home straddling both neighborhoods for the past 5 1/2 years.
The restaurant is a neighborhood favorite for residents who seek Himalayan and New American fare.
Bhuti’s family made the difficult decision to close the eatery–even for takeout–when COVID-19 was at its peak. The decision was influenced by their desire to protect at-risk family members from the virus.
“Closing our restaurant for a month and a half was emotionally very tough,” reads a sign now posted in the restaurant’s window.
Bhuti told the Queens Post that she felt like she was letting her customers down while it was closed. “The food that we serve here is warm and hearty, good for people who are sick,” she says.
Dawa’s reopened for takeout in May after receiving a PPP loan. Despite issues with her landlord over rent and profit-zapping surcharges on delivery apps, the restaurant pulled through and is now experimenting with outdoor dining.
Bhuti bought palm trees and furniture to stage the outdoor seating area, which she built on top of parking spaces right in front of her property. She put together the space herself where diners now sit.
But her outdoor seating was not embraced by everyone. One woman came by to reprimand her for taking away parking spaces in an area where spots are already hard to find.
“She said, ‘It’s not your private property,’” Bhuti recalls. “I told her…I need community support and she told me no, no the community is not with you.”
Bhuti ignored the woman and the outdoor space has been welcomed by most.
The process of re-opening hasn’t been straight forward, she said, since many of her employees have elected not to come back to work—preferring to be on unemployment.
Bhuti’s current wait staff are all volunteers and friends who want to help keep the business afloat.
For her part, Bhuti has offered up the unused space inside of the restaurant for local artists and artisans to showcase their wares. Her goal is to support fellow small businesses like her own and utilize the empty space in a positive way.
Thick clay bowls, incense holders and postcards are on display for purchase inside the restaurant, as long as shoppers adhere to CDC guidelines. All of the proceeds from a sale go to the artists.
Bhuti says that all of her diners have been respectful of social distancing rules and wear their masks when interacting with wait staff.
She said that she is confident that her workers and customers are not in danger of contracting COVID. Bhuti said she wipes down everything after each use, paying attention to the corners of chairs and places where people tend to touch.
Bhuti adds that the outdoor dining has increased Dawa’s profits and, more importantly, morale. “It’s nice to see our regulars again,” she says.
Some of them stick it out even in the rain, and Dawa is there to hand out umbrellas.
“I’m a bit of a control freak, and I can’t control this,” she says of the unpredictable weather as of late. “But I know the sun is going to come back out again.”