Papaya: a bold restaurant opening during tough times

Published by
Richa Thakur

You may have missed it during the COVID-19 closure of restaurant dining, but Sammamish Village has a new establishment: Papaya Viet Restaurant. Located behind Metropolitan Market and tucked between Zeeks Pizza and Tanoor, Papaya serves Vietnamese cuisine in an upscale dining room, showcasing a clean and simple ambiance that is defined by its warm and earthy decor. In normal times, this would be ideal for cozy, family dining.

The owners of Papaya shelved grand opening plans due to COVID-19. But even without a flashy start, any new restaurant in Sammamish is something to talk about, and some buzz on social media gave Sammamish residents the hint to try it out.

Initially slated to open late last year, Papaya’s opening was delayed due to weather and the holiday season. Then the pandemic struck, and some of the staff members who had travelled internationally for the Lunar New Year got stuck overseas, and their return was delayed. To add to the woes, a final inspection scheduled for mid-March was postponed due to the closure of City Hall operations in response to COVID-19. Also, furniture could not be delivered on time because the furniture manufacturer closed its factory.

These are tough times for established businesses, let alone new ones trying to make ends meet. Being a new business that had not yet opened, Papaya did not qualify for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. A decision had to be made and the entire team debated it.  

Looking at their adjacent businesses at the Sammamish Village gave Papaya’s staff assurance that they could survive on a takeout model, and they decided they could not leave their ‘tucked in-between’ shop stall closed. Family and team members served as additional motivation to make the bold decision to open.

“I cannot have them just not having a job,” said Jacqueline Nguyen, owner of Papaya, who described her employees as a primary motivation to open despite a tough business environment.

Papaya’s upscale dining room has a clean and simple ambiance.

With a goal to share Vietnamese culture through food and custom decorations at the restaurant, you may sometimes find Vietnamese music playing in the backdrop.

Besides the classic dishes that are well known such as pho, noodle salad bowl, banh mi (sandwiches) Papaya’s menu also includes dishes that represent many Vietnam regions, from meat plates to soups, mostly savory. Spicy Hue noodle soup is from the central part of the country, while free-range chicken pho with skin-on hails from the north and prawns pineapple soup on rice comes from the south. The restaurant hopes to add stone pot rice and Vietnamese crepes to the menu when dining operations get more normal.

Running a mostly takeout operation is a very different challenge when compared to serving customers at tables. The restaurant had to scale down the menu and staffing to adapt.

Papaya officially opened during the first week of June. Nguyen said that first week was hard since Papaya had no prominent signage nor grand opening celebrations. During their second week, things got better as some offices started to reopen. Sammamish residents began taking notice of the new kid on the block and began spreading the word. Now, more than one month in, business has been picking up and Nguyen credits technology and social media as keys to their success so far.

With King County currently in Phase 2 of the state’s Safe Start plan, Papaya is now allowed to open on-site dining at 50 percent capacity indoors. The restaurant also quickly installed outdoor furniture to expand their seating options and match the preferences of Sammamish residents.

Nguyen and her team acknowledge that they will have to keep learning and improvising in order to survive. They also want to continue adapting their menu to the local palate.

As someone who used to plan for 5 years in advance, Nguyen admits to being slightly unnerved with the week-by-week approach, and not knowing what to expect. Owning a business is about numbers, and those numbers are difficult to compare and hard to predict in times like this.

Nguyen did say that a single, happy customer can brighten up her day. She shared that one customer told her after dining in that “I can guarantee you guys are going to do well.”

To her, that compliment was worth more than the price of that meal. It gave her and her staff hope, and something to look forward to.

Papaya Viet Restaurant is located at 22610 SE 4th St #402, Sammamish, WA 98074. To make an order for takeout, please call (425) 270-3084.

Richa Thakur

Richa Thakur, a Sammamish resident for 15+ years, is a business writer for the Sammamish Independent. She works at Microsoft and loves to paint, garden and read in her free time.

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