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The dining room of Thompson Italian felt different through the weekend of March 13. The bar was packed and reservations were kept, but Katherine Thompson was attempting to disinfect every touchable surface she could think of.
The Thompson Italian co-owner and pastry chef is a self-described news junkie and had been keeping a watchful eye on the evolving outbreak of COVID-19 in New York City. She and her husband, co-owner and lead chef Gabe Thompson, were well aware of the restaurants shuttering their doors in the Big Apple.
Just under five years ago, the couple left the city and the Michelin-starred restaurants they served to raise their children in Northern Virginia (Katherine is an Arlington native). In August 2019, they re-entered the restaurant scene by setting up shop in Falls Church with Thompson Italian.
It quickly became a local favorite, landing on Northern Virginia Magazine’s 50 Best Restaurants. “The menu reads like a lot of other Italian spots but tastes more exciting,” wrote The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema. Earlier this year, Katherine was named a 2020 James Beard Award Semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
The Thompsons wanted the restaurant to be a community gathering place, where most tables would be reserved for walk-in guests, and everyone could enjoy fresh, handmade pasta. Now it sits quiet. After what Katherine referred to as an incredibly busy weekend through March 13, the restaurant made the tough decision to close amidst the outbreak.
Forty-five members of the staff were laid off, and the restaurant went dark for nearly two and a half weeks. We caught up with Gabe and Katherine Thompson just a few days after they have reopened for takeout services. Highlights from our conversation are below.
When you started to get news of the outbreak, what were your next steps and how did you react?
KT: I was paying attention to everything. Because Gabe and I lived in New York for so long and had restaurants in New York, every time I would hear about a restaurant closing, I would pretty much just melt down in tears. And it was like that for several days in a row, and then as the news got more dire, it sort of dawned on us that this is going to be our reality too. It’s not just a New York thing; this is an everywhere thing. And the last weekend we were open, we were so busy. I was frantically running around with sanitizer wipes wiping down every table, handle, you name it. And yet I was also just so concerned, because we were so busy and there were so many people, and even though we were trying to be extra careful, it wasn’t going to make a difference. But it also kind of felt like a last hurrah. It felt like everyone was thinking that this was their last chance to go out, and everybody was ordering more drinks than they normally would, so it was jovial in that sense, but then Sunday the news got very dire. That’s when we decided to take out half of our tables. And then that night, we got tons of cancellations, and essentially our business disappeared for that evening. It was that day that we realized this is it, and that Monday we were going to try to launch to-go and carryout with our full menu. I was staring down an order of to-go containers that was like, thousands of dollars, and I thought, “I just can’t do this.” We had never done it before. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it. I became overwhelmingly concerned about our staff. We were making new decisions every half hour at this point, and my gut reaction just said, “We need to shut this thing down.”
What was closing the restaurant like for you and how have you been since?
GT: I don’t think we were aware of how bad it was going to be. The days clicked on and we went through a Saturday before we closed. The news just kept getting more crazy, more ominous. I don’t think we knew on Saturday that we were going to close, and then by Sunday evening, right before service, we announced that we were going to. There were a few things that worried me the most, obviously our staff and our managers, and them not having jobs. Then, of course, being worried about our own livelihood and our business, and how were we going to survive.
KT: I’m so glad we did, because it gave us time to rethink things. I don’t think we would’ve been able to transition to the full menu without a ton of staff, which defeated the purposes. But the hardest part was letting go of our staff. Most of our staff had been with us since we opened, and I mean it just sucks. We laid off 45 people in one day. It was just crazy. I worried about everything before we opened our restaurant. “What if a blizzard comes? What if there’s a hurricane? What if there’s a terrorist attack? What if there’s a recession?” You name it. But I never thought of a pandemic. It wasn’t in my vocabulary. When we hired our team, never in my mind would I have thought we would have to let them go. That was not in my mindset.
What do you miss most about the restaurant being open?
GT: I think it’s the companionship. Just being around all of the different people that we used to see and talk to every single day. Our staff is now four people, and we used to have over 45. Just being around all of those folks, being a part of their lives and them being a part of our lives, I think I miss that the most.
KT: I think it’s the combination of seeing our staff and seeing our guests, and honestly being able to have contact with them. You know, being able to hug them and shake hands and just that human interaction means so much. It just seems so mind-boggling that we can’t do that. I’m looking so forward to that. It was just so much fun to see them walk through the door, and it’s just not the same.
What keeps you hopeful at this time?
KT: I want to say the combination of having our kids around, their willingness to adapt and their optimism; it’s their future. They’re the ones that are going to remember this for the rest of their lives so we have to make the best of it for them. But then also, in a weird way, watching New York City. I mean all of the news from New York City is so dire and frightening, but we have so many friends there and they’re sticking it out. New York is just such a resilient, wonderful community, and I am anxious and I look forward to the day that they see the other side. Right now it gives me hope that hopefully, sooner rather than later, we’re going to get some good news from there.
GT: It was a blessing in disguise with the family, because the best thing about [having those two and a half weeks being closed] was being able to spend time with my kids. A couple weeks before that, everything was crazy at the restaurant. I was spending a lot of time at work and not seeing them, so it’s been nice to be home. But the uncertainty of it all is the ominous cloud.
What would you want to say to your local supporters?
KT: The neighborhood community support has been beyond overwhelming. I grew up here. I know a lot of people here, and so many of those people have been supportive since day one. But so many people that are new to us, just from having opened the restaurant, the outpouring and generosity is unbelievable. We set up a GoFundMe for our staff that got laid off and we got people writing checks in the mail of people that we don’t know. [The restaurant’s goal is $50,000, and as of publication over $11,000 has been raised.] It really is remarkable. We’re really lucky. I think in this area, there is so much support for local businesses, and it just makes all the difference in the world. It’s especially great, because my fear is that the chains are the only one that will make it out of this because they’re the only ones with the financial support to recover, and for the small mom and pop restaurants it’s going to be a lot more difficult. So it’s just incredible that there are people out there that want to support. I keep saying to Gabe, we have to keep the ship afloat. This isn’t the time to make money, this is a time to survive. And it’s so obvious just within the first few days of doing this that Falls Church and the surrounding neighborhoods, they want us to survive, which just means the world to us.
Thompson Italian is now offering takeout through Toast with a limited menu, Wednesday through Sunday. Guests can find a la carte items for kids and adults, including homemade pasta dishes, orders of freshly baked focaccia and some of Katherine’s well-known desserts. Plus, for those who want to enjoy the restaurant’s goods day after day, orders of handmade pasta, sauces and more (with cooking instructions included!) can be picked up too. Items range in price from $7 to $24.