#WCW: Toli Moli, a Sweets Gem at Union Market

Toli Moli, meaning “a little of this and a little of that,” has grown from a pop-up shop last year on Georgia Avenue to a sweets gem inside Union Market.

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Farrah Skeiky/Dim Sum Media
Sandwiched between an empanada stall and a Scandinavian food stand,Toli Moli lures food lovers in with what it calls “the best dessert you’ve never had," the falooda. Toli Moli, a phrase used in Myanmar meaning “a little of this and a little of that,” has since grown from a pop-up shop last year on Georgia Avenue to a stand open six days a week inside Union Market. Along with falooda, the food stall offers some other Burmese fare, including noodle dishes and a salad made of tea leaves.

“Food is, I think, the most powerful way to spread culture and connect people. It’s the ultimate connector, like breaking bread with people,” Toli Moli co-owner Simone Jacobson said.

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Farrah Skeiky/Dim Sum Media (Simone Jacobson pictured on the left with the pinstripe apron and bright smile.)
Jacobson and her mother, who grew up in the Burmese city of Rangoon, had always wanted to start a business together with their “get rich slow” ideas. Initially, they had wanted to find a way to bring the U.S. to Myanmar (formerly Burma). But instead, they ended up bringing Burma to America.
The Burmese dessert drink involves layers of textures and flavors, with fruit jellies, basil seeds, vermicelli noodles, rosewater syrup and more. When I found out about this sweet treat, I was reminded of somewhat similar Indonesian drinks, cendol or es teler. And with just one bite, I was taken back to my grandmother’s porch in Jakarta.

After her involvement in the IlluminAsia Festival for the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries reopening, I caught up with Jacobson to talk about the D.C. food community, traditions vs. authenticity, and what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

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B. On Top: What do you like about the D.C. food community?
nWhat I love about the D.C. food community is that there is so much opportunity. Just more and more spaces and openness from businesses, to developers, real estate agents--everybody. I don’t know if that’s so original to D.C., but it does seem to me to be particularly strong here and interconnected. We have this wonderful, vibrant network. And informally, I’m very connected to a lot of the women of color business owners in D.C., specifically women in food. I am very motivated and very grateful for the inspiration of knowing these women personally and being able to say hey, today was really hard, or these catastrophes happened and having somebody to understand that...it’s invaluable.

nB. On Top: How have you seen Toli Moli grow?
nIt's something that’s a slow build. We believe so strongly in the power of our food to connect and to educate, that we’re willing to be patient. I think that’s always a guiding force for us: How do we bring people together and share our culture with them in a way that’s not alienating? That doesn’t make people feel like they need to be some kind of scholar or expert? At Toli Moli you can just drink the drink, have fun and enjoy our foods and in doing so you'll understand a little bit more about where we come from. The Burmese food movement is also growing in general.

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B. On Top: How can the D.C. food scene improve?
nThe idea of “criticizing by creating” is the idea I would like to see more people commit to. If you go on Yelp you see lots of noise. If you go on any local blog, you see lots of noise. Some of it is positive but a lot of it is negative. And we can say, “Oh, blame it on the internet and anonymity,” but the reality is most people...there’s a quote I saw recently and it’s like “the people who say that it cannot be done should not interfere with the people doing the work.” That is something that is really important. I’d like to see more people who say that an event was wack because there weren’t enough women on the panel, like OK, great--make one. Yes, let’s be critical, but let’s take action. Let’s create something that we want to see. The people who are in business, they’re just doing the work. They just show up and do the work. There’s no secret to it.

nB. On Top: What advice do you have for others looking to follow a similar path?
nShonda Rhimes was talking about being a television writer. And she was talking about, if you can think of anything else that you would rather do besides being a television writer, go do that....and for me, I think it’s exactly the same. If you can think of anything else you’d rather do than work in food, you should go do that. Because from a business perspective the margins are low, the hours are long and you’re consumed by it 24/7. But the rewards are great. But the sacrifices are also pretty incredible. I think there are lots of ways of getting involved in the food industry without owning a food business. We don’t necessarily need everyone who’s interested in food to open a restaurant. As an entrepreneur, you have to learn very fast and without too much direction, things you never thought of. I never thought of where to buy a certain sticker or cup or T-shirt, you know, just so much stuff. And then try to market it: Do you hire someone? Do you do it yourself? When do you sleep? How do you not feel guilty when you take a break? Just so many different things. But I find that I’m stronger and better and happier because I have this incredible network that just continues to grow. And it’s not hard to find.

nCatch Toli Moli at Union Market from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.

nThis interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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