It’s Not Time: Tsunami Not Ready for Flood of Dine-in Customers 

Tsunami has a freshly painted floor, but it will be a while before the iconic Cooper-Young restaurant rings with the sound of footsteps from hungry customers.

Owner Ben Smith isn’t ready to open. He still is doing curbside takeout and delivery, but that’s it for now. He’s not ready to open the dining room.
click to enlarge Ben Smith at the 2019 Memphis Food & Wine Festival at Memphis Botanic Garden - MICHAEL DONAHUE
  • Michael Donahue
  • Ben Smith at the 2019 Memphis Food & Wine Festival at Memphis Botanic Garden

“We’re being really cautious about opening,” Smith says. “We’ve noticed a significant downturn in business since all the restaurants opened, however, so that’s some concern to us. We’re getting a lot of calls: ‘When are you guys going to open?’ We see the sort of opinion shifting with people ready to get out. People are feeling more optimistic and comfortable about coming out in public spaces. But my No. 1 priority is making sure my staff is comfortable and safe. Their comfort level is more important.”

But, he says, “I’m feeling more pressure from people to open now. And that’s a new development. Until recently people have been very supportive: ‘We’ll be there when you reopen. Do the right thing. Be safe.’”

Now people are saying, “When are you going to open?”

Smith has come up with a tentative opening date, but it’s not set in stone. “We’re cautiously optimistic we will open sometime in June. It’s subject to change. To me, it just makes no sense to open under the protocol they’ve put forth. We have to set up our dining room now with six-foot spacing. It’s not too bad, but as far as the tables being six feet apart, that’s good in theory. But with traffic, as people move through the place, they have to go between those tables and that breaks the six feet of space. In actuality, they should have 12 feet of space if you’ re going to keep six feet of distancing between actual bodies. That seems unreasonable.”

Smith has heard differing scenarios from people who already have opened their restaurants. “Both ends of the spectrum. People who want to present everything’s fine and nothing happened, to the other extreme of people wearing masks and berating people who aren’t. Again, this whole situation, this whole crisis has put the restaurant industry into a position of having to police not only ourselves and our staff, but our clientele. That’s a really uncomfortable position to be in.”

He’s heard other unpleasant stories from restaurateurs. “People berating servers for not being able to sit at the bar. … There’s no clear-cut policy or message or guidance from anywhere that gives us any sort of power to enforce that protocol. And, again, the onus of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the operator. My God, with everything else that’s going on, some of us are feeling a little overwhelmed about this new responsibility of having to police our clientele. It’s a new level of responsibility and stress for us.”

Smith and his workers discuss this situation with “shifts and changes” at their daily staff meeting. They’ve tweaked ideas as they’ve gone along. “I’d rather err on the side of safety and caution than open back up again. And it’s brutal. It’s really difficult. We’ve shifted into this new business model, and my staff has done a tremendous job of adjusting and getting used to that and making it happen. And to have to go back to our ‘normal’ service, there’s going to be a lot of new learning curves there for all of us. And I just don’t feel like our game plan is strong enough now to reopen.”

Some people don’t want to go to newly opened restaurants because of the restrictions, Smith says. “That’s a whole other concern for us. How many people now have the mindset of, ‘I don’t want to go out and eat if I have to wear a mask, if I have to follow strict protocol and guidelines? I can eat at home. And I can get takeout and eat it at home.’”

Their business will be impacted if “a significant factor” of their demographic thinks that way or if they don’t want to eat out as frequently.

But, Smith says, “I think we’re going to eventually get back into a mindset that it’s okay to go out and eat again.”

And he’s getting ready for that day. “We did some painting. We took out all the furniture and painted the floors.”
click to enlarge Tsunami's floor got a fresh coat of paint during the shutdown.
  • Tsunami's floor got a fresh coat of paint during the shutdown.

His wife Colleen did the floors, which were “much overdue for a paint job,” Smith says. They now are painted “kind of a black. They were kind of a mismatch of colors before. That was a holdover from the last restaurant here. I always loved the floors. It had that nice, authentic, distressed look about them.”

And, he says, “We’ve done a lot of cleaning and reorganizing and shuffling stuff around and purging. We thought it was a good opportunity. We had the floors steam cleaned.”

But for now, Smith says, “I don’t think I’m ready to put my wait staff in that position of having to tell people, ‘No, we can’t shake hands. We can’t hug. I know I haven’t seen you in a long time.’

“I think history will look back at this time and this will be the point at which we realize hand-shaking was not a good idea. Just like gentlemen don’t tip their hats anymore when they’re around women. It’s so arcane and weird.”

People will say, “I can’t believe there was a time when people shook hands when they met.”

“I think the tradition of shaking a hand will morph into some other type of greeting. We’ll go back to tipping hats. Tipping masks. I don’t know.”


Tsunami is at 928 Cooper Street; (901) 274-2556.

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