In February, the coronavirus wasn't exactly on Jessie Aron's mind. At the time, only a few cases had been reported in the Pacific Northwest.
Truth be told, the mysterious illness didn't consume her thoughts back then mainly because she was a little preoccupied preparing to launch her first, five-years-in-the-making, brick-and-mortar restaurant, Malka. The chef and co-owner stressed over the menu, the décor and the vibe. She wanted it to reflect a similar sense of "chaos and comfort" that her former venture, food trailer Carte Blanche, was known for.
Malka is situated in a small house on Southeast Division Street—only six blocks from the home she grew up in. The space features mismatched chairs, colorful Persian rugs, and floral wallpaper Aron designed herself. She recalls the glee she felt when she could finally showcase the antique plates and bowls she'd been collecting from thrift stores and estate sales for customers to eat off of.
But as the pandemic swept the country, the decorative place settings were packed away and replaced with cardboard to-go boxes. And Malka had not even been open a full month.
"That was the moment I was like, 'Oh, wow, this is going to be the long haul,'" Aron says. "It was a moment of sadness and adjustment, where I sort of realized that I had to set aside my original vision and just adapt."
Launching a yearslong dream in the middle of a global health emergency was anything but ideal, but Aron is scrappy. Instead of shuttering for good (a thought that did cross her mind) or closing until what felt like normal arrived (it hasn't), she relied on her previous experience running the food cart and started slinging orders.
"It was like I was in intense, adrenaline emergency mode," says Aron. "We were new and we had just started to win over customers. Then I started to see the fear in myself and in my staff. I remember the feeling of not knowing what to do at all, and wanting someone to just tell me what to do. I felt like a kid."
Aron still craves guidance—from the government, mostly—but the generosity of Malka's customer base is what has kept it afloat. A regular who wished to remain anonymous came to Aron with an idea to give the restaurant $250 to make meals for people in need. That proposal had a domino effect, morphing into a "vessel of kindness" for patrons to buy food for strangers.
There are no plans to reopen Malka's dining room anytime soon. So long as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, Aron says the restaurant cannot safely serve customers indoors, and she will fulfill takeout orders indefinitely.
"There's a chance that we won't survive," she says. "Am I optimistic? Yes. I am cautiously optimistic. Terrified? Yes. Confident? Probably not. We are trying our best, and we are still here."
UPDATE: Malka will continue takeout during the most recent set of restrictions. Aron says she is worried about how all of this will affect the entire industry.