The Rangoon Tea House is rightly an institution in Yangon. It opened in 2014 on the busiest drag in downtown Yangon, serving spruced-up street-food inspired by the entire region. From Burmese tea and traditional dishes to Indian dosas and Chinese dim sum, it covers all bases and is always humming from daybreak to long-beyond sunset. I caught up with the owners, Izzy and Htet, a couple of weeks ago at their beautiful new flagship restaurant in Golden Valley, the smartest part of town.
Guys, what a treat to catch up in person after such a long time, particularly over a cup of my beloved Cho Pawt tea. You guys have had one hell of a ride since I last saw you both. Firstly COVID, which as we all know was a nightmare for anybody in hospitality, but then the military coup which must have been totally devastating for you, both professionally and personally. Let’s start with COVID. Presumably you had to close?
H: Yes we did – we had to close for 2 and a half months during that first lockdown in April 2020, but we pivoted and did whatever we could to keep our kitchen going and our customers eating our food! We launched a home-delivery service, RTH Express, so most of our menu was available to order from home. We continued sending out our Taco Kits, and opened for takeaway as soon as we were able to. We even bottled our tea, and sent it out with instructions on how to prepare it at home.
That’s so great – lockdown wouldn’t have been so bad with a morning dose of RTH tea. Didn’t you brew a special lockdown beer too, to keep people going through the afternoon as well?!
I: Yes! We teamed up with a local craft beer company, Burbrit, and created three craft beers. The “Lockdown IPA” was a bit of a sell-out actually.
Gosh you guys are so industrious. You’re always doing something new! Didn’t you go into craft gin at one point too?
I: Yup, we had a few different flavours, which we sold as part of another of our restaurants, Nam Su – a Shan Tea House.
Oh yes, I loved that place. (For the benefit of our readers, Shan food is a particularly fresh, delicious part of Burmese Cuisine, and Izzy and Htet made a whole restaurant concept around those flavours). So hang on, you have Rangoon Tea House and Nam Su. And don’t you have a noodle restaurant too?
H: We did – Mr Wok. We wanted to cater to a wider market, so Mr Wok was a fast-food, noodle box concept. We also had a village-style Burmese food lunch spot called Buthee. It was a lower price point to Rangoon Tea House. We actually had few more operations too – a wine and tapas bar called Dirty Crickets, a Beer Garden, a desert company called Naked Desserts and a catering compnay – but about 6 weeks ago we had a huge strategic rethink and have simplified massively. We have gone from 18 branches across all the 8 businesses, down to just this one (the extraordinary flagship Rangoon Tea House that we’re sitting in now).
Wow – that’s a huge change. How are you feeling now?
H: Relieved, in some ways. We had so much going on, and for the first time in a long time we feel like we’ve got a bit of headspace back. Since the coup, the economy has completely tanked, and we’ve had to respond to the environment. A lot of our customers left the country, as anybody who had an option abroad took it, and we’ve had to drastically rethink things.
It’s so sad, and must have been such a stressful time?
I: Yes it’s been hard. It’s obviously disappointing having to close something which you have put so much love and hard graft into, but it’s also just been a logistical nightmare dealing with the day-to-day hurdles at the moment. The electricity is off for hours and hours every day, which means huge generator bills. We’ve luckily been shielded from all of the crazy currency problems, as the large majority of our produce is local, but cashflow has been a constant challenge for months.
H: It’s been a really tiring time, but it does feel like things are starting to pick up slightly. Our customers are trickling home, and a bit of the old buzz is back. We’ve started holding Jazz nights, and are launching a Whiskey bar upstairs soon. We also host a Sunday market showcasing local products and giving great local sustainable businesses a bit of a platform. We’ve all got to work together to keep things going.
That’s so great, and very admirable. That’s a huge part of what you do isn’t it – supporting the wider community?
I: We try to help out wherever we can. Over the past two years, so many people who usually live pay-check to pay-check have lost their jobs and are really struggling. We joined up with a local humanitarian group last year and over a few months donated over 100,000 meals to families in need in Yangon. We raised money and joined up with volunteers and suppliers to raise the 750ks (30p) needed for each meal, which was then cooked by our kitchen team and distributed around town.
100,000 – that’s huge. You must be so proud of that. You should also be incredibly proud of this beautiful flagship restaurant. Let’s talk a bit about that. How did it come about?
H: We had wanted a location in this part of town for a while. This is where most of our customers live, so it makes much more commercial sense to be here. There is also more space up here, so we could create something really special.
Special is the right word! This place is awesome. (For context, we are sitting in a vast 10,000 square foot, breezy building set across two floors, with a huge teak staircase leading up to the mezzanine above. It feels rustic and contemporary, and inimitably Burmese). It must have been a real labour of love?
H: Yeah it was – construction alone took 12 months, but loads more time went into the planning. Sustainability was a big focus for us. We used 20 tonnes of recycled teak and over 10,000 recycled bricks to build it, and all of the furniture has been repurposed from elsewhere. Lots of it is actually our personal furniture from home! We want it to feel homely and welcoming.
Well you’ve certainly nailed that part. This must be one of the nicest places to hang out in Yangon. I really hope that the upward curve carries on for you guys and that happier times are on their way back. You really deserve it.
I: Thanks for popping in! Are you going to stay for lunch?
100%! Need to get my Mohinga fix!