Many small restaurant owners have been feeling in crisis for a few years now. The truth is, before COVID-19 there was a chance your favorite neighborhood pub was not going to be there the next day. Because eateries function within such small profit margins it is hard for a small-single owned restaurant to provide competitive wages or benefits compared to larger chains, many operate on the verge of staying in operation without the impact of a pandemic. I know this from experience; my restaurant was one of them.
A year ago I was making the hard decision to close an award-winning and favored restaurant that I had only opened 16 months earlier. There had been too many days with not enough revenue to sustain a staff, and I was physically and mentally burnt out. This closure sent me into extreme debt and depression and I’ve spent the past year working my way back to mental health by staying in the industry I love and surrounding myself with folks who are equally passionate about providing great service and making quality food.
For the past few months and up until this weekend, I had been living in Los Angeles and working at Kismet, a popular, award-winning restaurant from Chefs Sarah Hymanson and Sarah Kramer. When I arrived to work the morning of Saturday, March 14 for service I felt optimistic, but uncertain about how busy we would be. A typical Saturday shift is a pretty constant eight hours of steady business. But this was the first weekend that folks were being advised to stay at home because of COVID-19.
We had been open for an hour and had zero customers. Eventually a few tables of two trickled in. Nothing compared to a regular weekend morning, when usually groups of brunchers would come flowing in, keeping me and my fellow line cook heads down and constantly moving for hours. Instead, we kept occupied by cleaning and sanitizing, and cleaning and sanitizing.
When Chef Hymanson arrived I watched her huddled in the corner of the kitchen with the sous chefs. They were brainstorming how to continue business, just not as usual. How could they turn a sit down menu into a take out one? I looked around the restaurant. The number of staff was double that of the customers in house. Nothing about this situation was looking profitable. For a dine-in only restaurant, when you don’t see people in seats, you immediately think, how am I going to pay my staff?
Four hours into my scheduled eight-hour shift I was sent home. As I was leaving I told Sarah that if she needed to call me off the next day to not feel bad and that I understood. “Thank you,” she said to me, “we’re just trying to figure out ways to make money.” I was called off from my shift. The day after that the restaurant closed for service for the foreseeable future. That was when it hit me, I don’t have a source of income.