On New Year’s Eve, Billy Mettawiparee had little to celebrate.
He roamed Greenmount Avenue’s Thai Restaurant, a family business since the early 80s, and began to disconnect appliances. The “cleanup”, as he called it, was more than a matter of wiping down countertops; it was calling old customers, removing walls of Zagat ratings, awards and friendly newspaper clippings — packing up 43 years spent serving the Waverly neighborhood.
The restaurant closed on Dec. 30. Unlike other notable Baltimore eateries, Thai Restaurant did not shutter before year’s end due to pandemic-era losses or dwindling foot traffic. In September, the property’s new landlord told Mettawiparee he needed to leave 3316 Greenmount Ave. by Dec. 31.
They plan to open a Pizza and Halal spot in the restaurant’s place, said Anjum Zeeshan, a family member of the landlord, who bought the property on May 18.
The Thai Restaurant owners told few about the 90-day notice delivered to the eatery on Sept. 29, said Nat Mettawiparee, Billy’s son.
The decision had came after a messy agreement, where Thai Restaurant was placed on a month-to-month lease. Then, the eatery’s rent began to rise. Starting in June, the restaurant was put on a payment schedule, where rent was increased from $500, a deal made during the pandemic, to $1,000. Rent rose again, from September through November, to $2,000, and finally $3,000 thereafter, according to documents.
“They just wanted to stay in business as long as they could,” Nat said. “Until we had to be out, he [Billy] didn’t want to have to tell customers about the situation.”
Many discovered the news over social media, writing that the closure was “crushing”, the loss of a first date and family celebration spot. Irene Casarez, who purchased takeout during the restaurant’s last day in service, was shocked.
“The neighborhood won’t be the same,” she wrote in a comment on Instagram.
Odette Ramos, a councilwoman representing the 14th District, treated her staffers to a lunch at Thai Restaurant on Friday before Christmas, only a few days prior to its closing. Shocked by Billy’s announcement, Ramos promised to help the business find a new home.
She referred to the eatery as “some of the best Thai food in Baltimore”, a place where community members could gather with familiar faces and feast on authentic Thai flavors without needless pageantry or frills.
“During COVID-19, they were one of our mainstays … it made us feel like we were grounded,” she said. “They’re a part of our community just like any other family member.”
Ramos told The Banner she is also interested in discussing filing a version of a languishing General Assembly bill to keep landlords from evicting residential tenants without “just cause,” but for commercial tenants like the restaurant.
Both she and Diana Emerson, executive director of the Waverly Main Street organization, a nonprofit supporting businesses in the area, say the restaurant’s departure underscores the need to expand the rights of commercial tenants.
Last year, they helped small businesses in the Pigtown neighborhood find long-term properties. With the number of property owners holding onto vacant spaces until “the market is right”, the goal for businesses, Emerson said, is to purchase their own spot.
“We hate to see any of our long-standing businesses lose their home,” she said.
Emerson said watching a business vacate their premises after four decades is rare — but such turnover is common for newer small businesses.
Small-business owners are taking on older properties, some of which have been damaged by prior tenants. Then they invest their money to improve the space and bring in customers, she said.
But “a tenant could be pushed out at any time,” Emerson said. “It affects all of our small businesses that property owners have the upper hand in commercial leases.”
Other legislation proposed in the city in 2023 has sought to expand the penalties for negligent commercial property owners. In the year ahead, more may appear at the state level to address the concerns of small businesses.
Both Billy and his wife Soy believe the closure is a temporary setback. They hope to find another spot in Waverly before money becomes an issue.
Nat said Tuesday they have finished packing what remains of the business. The kitchen’s red and white tiles have been scrubbed, and a dining room once filled with wooden chairs and Thai paintings sits hollow.
But Billy says it’s only for now.
“We are going to try to put it back together, the way it was 43 years ago,” he said.