A well-known Burmese bodega called Toli Moli decided to close down its storefront at Union Station this month, giving customers a few days notice to come in and buy the last of their items before completely closing.
Many food businesses are not able to generate enough revenue to continue operating out of Union Market.
At times, even the most popular food stands end up having to leave the market before making it one year. But Union Market is designed to be a place where business owners can get their restaurants off the ground and make a name for themselves.
Co-Founder Eric Wang said the decision to shut down the snack shop comes with many emotions but knew in the end it was the right thing to do.
The growth here was sort of just stagnant.
“It’s sad to leave here but the growth here was sort of just stagnant,” Wang said. “As a business owner, you have to ask yourself, do I continue this hoping it will get better or do I walk away now while I haven’t lost any money?”
The owners of Toli Moli also decided to focus on their sister restaurant, Thamee on H Street NE, which brings in more income. The restaurant does serve a few of the food specialities from the original bodega, including Mohinga and Falooda, but items such as rice wine and Hoisin Sauce, exclusive to the Union Market location, will no longer be available for purchase.
Toli Moli customer Ayanna Lewis said she’s always enjoyed having access to the Asian ingredients and food that she can’t find anywhere else.
“I’m really bummed the bodega is closed now because this is where I would come to get Asian seasonings when I wanted to make authentic dishes, and I haven’t found another place in the area like it,” Lewis said.
Even though the food stand had rave reviews and loyal customers, it wasn’t enough to keep them in business. But Wang said that doesn’t come as a surprise as food businesses in Union Market don’t stay for a long period of time.
To get a space inside the market center, most eateries go through Edens — a commercial real estate agency. Because renting a space inside Union Market is competitive, the company helps aid food vendors by hosting a business plan competition called Launch Pad. The winner is awarded a space in the market for six to 12 months.
Nearby resident Alyse Nance said every time she visits Union Market, she’s noticed a new place has popped up and another has left.
“I’ve learned not to get too attached to some of the food shops that I really enjoy just because it seems like none of these places stay for long,” Nance said. “It seems like they just use the area to get noticed before relocating to a new area.”
The popular attraction was designed to serve as an incubator allowing up to 40 regional and international vendors to launch their ideas into scalable businesses. Some of the more prominent food shops such as Harvey’s Market and Gorsha Ethiopian Eatery bring in higher income, giving them the opportunity to stay put.
Wang said he’s still thankful to have had the opportunity to work out of Union Market and has learned so much about the business.
“Who we are is not changing, our business is changing,” Wang said. “That change, though it might be bittersweet, you quickly realize that it’s actually a good thing because that means we’re evolving.”