By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Dec 20, 2021 at 9:02 AM

If you’re a fan of Thum, the Lao restaurant at Crossroads Collective, 2238 N. Farwell Ave., you may have noticed that the restaurant has gone dark. 

The restaurant, which opened in June of 2020 (during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic), quickly developed a following, offering some of the best Lao fare in the city.

But after an 18-month run, the restaurant officially closed its doors on Nov. 24, just before Thanksgiving.

A tough decision

Chef and owner Darleen Vanmanivong, who launched the business as a pop-up at the food hall, but hoped to eventually transition the concept to a brick and mortar location, says the decision has been difficult to discuss, as it marks a bittersweet milestone for a business she very much hoped to take to the next level.

Darleen Vanmanivong of Thum
Chef Darleen Vanmanivong of Thum

“We loved sharing our food with Milwaukee,” says Vanmanivong, “When I came into this after working for many years in the industry, I’ll admit I was a bit jaded. But, our customers have been some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and so supportive of our small business. And, even though we opened during the pandemic, people were willing to embrace us and try something new. Even more, they were curious and willing to learn about Lao food, even if they’d never tried it before.” 

But it wasn’t a lack of support for Vanmanivong’s delicious Lao fare that prompted the closing; in fact, Vanmanivong says that the restaurant was regularly selling out before closing. Rather, it was a combination of circumstance and ongoing hardships, many brought on by the ups and downs of the ongoing pandemic.

The struggle began in May of 2021 as the world began to reopen more fully after months of partial or full closures. Vanmanivong says that, as diner confidence began to return, she lost her core of full-time kitchen staff, most of which chose to leave their posts to take higher paying jobs at larger venues. 

Vanmanivong says they were able to band-aid the problem by hiring a few part-time people; but without experienced full-time cooks, she and her husband Alex Beck found themselves in the position of having to work 12-hour shifts six days a week. As time moved forward, she also encountered new challenges: from rising food costs and shortages to supply chain issues that impacted their ability to obtain items like take-out packaging.

Vanmanivong says she made it work, but when she broke a rib in early November, she says things got exceedingly more difficult.

“I kept working,” she says. “But I was in pain. And after two weeks of trying to keep up with the pace – and not being able to rest and allow my body to heal – I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

“There’s a certain level of self care that needs to be maintained… for anyone, in any profession. Working with an injury was really eye opening for me, and I realized that we were compromising on so many fronts. Every aspect of the business was being impacted, whether it was by food costs or supply chain issues.”

She says that her and her husband took a long, hard look at their situation.

“We took a big look at the goals we had when we opened,” she says, “And we realized that it was impossible to deliver the level of food that I set out to deliver. At the same time, I realized that my food is so important to me. It’s more than what I do every day. It’s part of who I am.”

Vanmanivong says that, while she didn’t want to lose the momentum she’d gained in the 18 months they’d been open. But she says she also saw the writing on the wall.

“We didn’t want to keep going to the point where closing the business would be a purely emotional decision,” she says. “Ending while we still had positive feelings toward the business would better allow us to move forward in a stronger position and make better decisions in the long run.”

Vanmanivong says she’s grateful that she was able to open Thum during the pandemic, as it provided her with a wealth of experiences that helped her to reshape her vision for the future.

“While I have a long resume of work at finer dining establishments, fast casual dining isn’t something I’ve ever done. It definitely rounded out my experiences, and it has given me a clearer vision for what I ultimately want to do.

“Going in, my goal was to develop a following so that I could open a white tablecloth fine dining restaurant. That made the most sense, considering my background. But, this experience has changed my vision, and the idea of fine dining has been balanced by a desire to make Lao food accessible to everyone.”

Vanmanivong says she’s not certain of what the future holds at this point.

“Ultimately, I still want to open my own restaurant,” she says. “I don’t know if that will happen a year from now or ten years from now. But I will always find a way to feed people.”

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.