While everyone was cooped up in their homes during the pandemic, a number of new restauranteurs were crammed inside their kitchens making food to-go.
Theresa Hoang, owner of Viet-Thai Taste, was eager to share her Thai- and Vietnamese-inspired dishes to the people of Newton when she opened her doors in August 2020. She knew local folks may not be as familiar with dishes like pho, fresh spring rolls, pad thai and bánh mì. But she’d win them over.
Opening in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t easy, especially when she and her staff were trying to find their rhythm early on. It helped that Hoang crafted her menu to appeal to Newton’s more Midwestern palates: recipes were basic yet flavorful and served in a homestyle way — just how she likes it.
“It’s my own style, my own tastes,” Hoang told Newton News last year.
Ever since Viet-Thai Taste opened, Hoang has constantly shifted her menu with new dishes. Recently, Hoang even teased sushi. While it allows her to be more flexible with her offerings, the changes in food also give opportunities for customers to try new things inside the 208 S. Second Ave. W. restaurant.
Viet-Thai Taste operates out of an old county garage building, which was purchased and remodeled by Goldfinch Growth, Inc. The local real estate developer pitched its idea of transforming the old, relatively unused building into a bar or restaurant to the Jasper County Board of Supervisors in 2018.
Bryan Friedman and Natalie Umsted of Goldfinch Growth said the property’s downtown location, access to parking and unique sense of place would make it an idea building for this type of use. The old county garage was originally built in 1915 and initially used as part of a public safety complex.
In 2018, Goldfinch Growth said the proposed restaurant, bar or pub would seat an estimated 50 to 75 guests, plus an additional outdoor capacity. Goldfinch Growth had also considered retail or office use for the building. Umsted said the once tax exempt building would be paying property tax if transformed.
The real estate developer would use economic development tools for historic preservation of the building, ultimately retrofitting the entryways and windows and using historically appropriate replacements instead. They would also maintain many of the well-preserved features such as the brickwork.
On the other end of town, the former FNNB Bank location on First Avenue East would be altered into a Northern Lights Pizza. Although still equipped with the ATMs and pick-up window, much of the building’s interior has been outfitted with a pizza conveyor oven and a fully loaded kitchen.
Jeremy Smith and Marty Maynes, who now operate the pizzeria, were originally recruited as investors of Northern Lights Pizza. After falling out with past leadership, the investors were thrust into their new roles as business owners. They admitted to knowing nothing about pizza making.
Maynes was about the only one with any kind of pizza parlor experience. When he was teenager he remembered delivering pizzas for a short time, but that’s about it. He never had to form the dough with a confident spinning toss, smear the sauce in a circular pattern or generously dabble pies the toppings.
Northern Lights Pizza opened in Newton the week after Thanksgiving to a “much bigger rush” than the new owners planned on. To put it lightly, it didn’t go well. They were told about 80% of Northern Lights Pizza’s sales were delivery, while the remaining is walk-in.
On the first day, it was the exact opposite.
“There was no ‘grand opening’ — I put a two-by-two sign out there that said: ‘NOW OPEN.’ And the next day we broke the all-time sales record for the company,” Smith said. “We weren’t ready.”
Maynes added, “It took us a couple weeks to figure out what to do. Jeremy and I have owned a bunch of businesses and we know how business operates and what kind of the basic ‘dos’ and ‘dont’s’ (are). I know a ‘don’t’ is when you screw up somebody’s order you don’t ignore it. You fix it.”
It took about five to six weeks to really get the right personnel and figure out a workable system. Since then, Maynes and Smith suggested Northern Lights Pizza staff have upped their game and hope customers who had poor experiences in the past will give them a second chance.
“I try to make it a point to call the customers who have had a bad experience.” Maynes said. “…We literally had a couple customers call in who I now consider friends of mine because I’ve talked to them on the phone once or twice a week — never met ‘em in person but they both had complaints.
Smith and Maynes are determined to provide better experiences and are excited to have Northern Lights Pizza contribute to the Newton community.
“I feel confident that the experience somebody might have got Dec. 1 versus the experience they’re going to get Feb. 1 is night and day,” Smith said. “… I know with all the confidence in my heart that we have a good team now and we know what we’re doing.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org