TAMPA — From two family restaurants in a strip mall near the University of South Florida, they watched as protestors gathered. They hoped the demonstrations would stay peaceful.
Then the small business owners locked their doors and went home.
But that night two years ago, protests in the name of George Floyd — killed by a Minneapolis police officer who pinned him down with his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes — turned destructive. At least 40 Tampa businesses, from mom-and-pops to chain stores, were vandalized and many were looted. Police car windows were shattered and tires punctured.
Among those businesses were two restaurants in that Fowler Avenue shopping center — Saigon Bay, a favorite in the university community for Vietnamese pho and noodle bowls, and Jai Ho Royale Indian Cuisine, with its popular lunch buffet.
Saigon Bay was badly damaged when the Champs Sports store next door was set afire and gutted by flames. Jai Ho would not survive the one-two punch of the pandemic shut-down followed by the ripple effects of that night.
“We don’t know when we can rebuild,” Saigon Bay owner Thanh Son said as he stood outside his damaged business. “We have no idea at all.”
In the two years since, former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in Floyd’s murder and sentenced to more than 22 years in prison. In Tampa, dozens of people charged with burglary, rioting, theft and other counts made their way through the court system — including Terrance Lee Hester Jr., then 21, sentenced to five years in federal prison after prosecutors said a video showed him tossing a flaming cloth through a broken window into Champs.
And at last, this year, Saigon Bay and Jai Ho have reopened.
Son and his family had taken over Saigon Bay four years earlier after running a restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, for 15 years. He was working at the restaurant that night.
“You saw the crowd coming,” his wife Savy Lam said then.
Police were on the scene and things seemed under control. Son locked up and went home. But later, they got a call from the owner of a neighboring jewelry store who said he could see on his security cameras that their restaurant was on fire.
They returned to devastation: The charred remains of Champs and their own badly damaged business. Prosecutors would later say the total loss at the plaza was an estimated $1.25 million.
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“I feel bad that they would do that,” Son, 52, said recently. “We were very upset about it.” He understood the people protesting, but not the destruction. “Protest, but don’t do damage to property, to anybody else,” he said.
From the rubble, Lam rescued the Buddha statues that had greeted their customers.
On Facebook, people reached out: “I am so sorry that you were caught in the crossfire. Love this place so much. Excellent food. I hope that you can slowly recover. So much love.”
Yvonne Bayoff, who works at nearby Moffitt Cancer Center, frequented the restaurant with friends and co-workers. Devastated by the news, she gave $100 to a GoFundMe effort.
“They’re a family-run business,” she said. “Absolutely I would donate to that.”
The months that followed were tough, Son said. But diehard customers and strangers rallied. The GoFundMe, which had a goal of $80,000, raised nearly $96,000.
“We were so glad so many people came together and donated to them,” said Bayoff. “They’re a very, very nice family.”
The insurance money came in, too. Son found a spot he liked in a different strip mall not far away in suburban Temple Terrace east of the university on N 56th St. In February, at last, they opened.
“We were very worried. We didn’t know if we’d have customers or not,” said Son. “But two weeks after the grand opening, oh my god, you can’t stop working.”
Smaller and brighter, the new Saigon Bay has six workers and much of the original menu.
“I love this location more than the other location,” Son said. “We are doing fine over here. A little bit busier than when we were at Fowler. All the old customers are coming here.”
Bayoff looks forward to her first meal there. “My coworkers and friends have already been,” she said. “We were waiting for it.”
When she goes, she’ll be greeted by a lucky rescued Buddha.
“We are happy now,” Son said.
Jai Ho Royale Indian Cuisine
For Jai Ho Royale Indian Cuisine, first it was COVID, then the protest.
The pandemic shutdown had the restaurant furloughing employees. Still on shaky ground as bills piled up, Jai Ho had only been reopened a day when the protests started.
“We could see from right outside the plaza large crowds gathering,” said Roopa Bommidi, 38, who ran the family-owned restaurant with her husband Venkata “Raman” Mosuganti, 41. Some businesses boarded up. They decided to close Jai Ho for the night.
Bommidi said she fully supports demonstrations and protests. “Honestly, we never thought people would go to the extent where they would destroy things,” she said.
A friend called that night. “Roopa,” she said. “Turn the TV on. The plaza’s on fire.” With their baby son Dhruv Noah, they rushed to the scene.
Jai Ho escaped structural and fire damage, but a back entrance storage area had been broken into and equipment stolen, she said. With electricity off in the plaza because of the fire, the food inside was lost, she said.
“It was a mess,” Bommidi said. “It was a bad, bad mess.”
They managed to reopen for a few months. But because of the condition of the plaza under repair, Bommidi said, people assumed no one was open. Finally, they lost their lease.
“Twelve years of my life,” she said. “Everything.”
It would turn out that opportunity was just across Fowler Avenue.
There, the old 113-acre University Mall property is currently morphing into an ambitious multi-story, urban neighborhood development and innovation community called RITHM@Uptown.
Christopher Bowen, chief development strategist at RD Management there, said people in his organization were caught up in the story of what happened to a longtime family restaurant that was part of the community.
“They weren’t out, but they were on the ropes, like any good Rocky movie,” he said. “They kept trying to get up and that’s when a bunch of us reached out to them and said ‘How can we keep you going?’”
The family was offered not one but two spaces at the mall’s upstairs food court with a workable rent structure.
“We had to let go of one restaurant, and now God has blessed us with two,” Bommidi said.
“We can sort of look at this like a tech start-up,” said Bowen. “Let’s see if we can incubate you and get you back to viability.”
Jai Ho’s Indian Kitchen, with butter chicken and biryani rice on the menu, and Jai Ho’s Arabian Grill, serving falafel and skewer platters, had a recent soft opening.
Because the old mall is still transforming, people still don’t know Jai Ho is there, Bommidi said. They’re mostly serving mall employees, though old customers have found them.
“Business will pick up again,” she said.
And recently, she stopped in the new Saigon Bay to wish her former neighbors well.