New York (CNN Business)For nearly a year, restaurant operators across the country have had to ask themselves a devastating question: Can we afford to stay open?
The pandemic turned the very things that make a restaurant hum — packed dining rooms, lingering meals with friends and family, face-to-face service from friendly staff — into liabilities. At best, restaurateurs have found ways to get by: Outdoor dining and takeout and delivery have helped many keep their doors open.
At worst, they’ve had to close their doors. As of December 1, 2020, over 110,000 eateries had closed either temporarily or permanently, according to the National Restaurant Association.
For the restaurateurs, the decision to walk away has been heartbreaking. CNN Business spoke with the owners of five restaurants about why they closed, how it felt to say goodbye and what’s been hardest about the experience.
The following interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Maribel Aurajo, co-owner of Caracas in New York City
Maribela Aurajo immigrated to the United States from Venezuela in 2001 with hopes of breaking into the film and television industry. By 2003, the plan had changed. That year, she and her ex-husband and current business partner Aristides Barrios opened a tiny, bustling arepa restaurant in the East Village. Eventually, Aurajo and Barrios operated three Caracas locations. The flagship East Village spot was a mainstay in the neighborhood until it closed late last year.
We fully shut down on March 13th. We reopened with PPP money and we were very hopeful that we were going to be able to get the business above water. But we weren’t able to. It’s not that we have big money supporting us, we’re just two people running this whole thing. And we just decided to pull the plug with heavy, heavy, heavy hearts.
We let our employees know a month in advance and we tried to relocate some of them to our Brooklyn location. We have people that have been working with us since literally week number three. It was heartbreaking. Tears, immediate tears and sadness, more than anything. They all wanted to try to tell [us], “Well, what about if we do this? What about we do that? Can we work for free and see if we can save it?” We were like, “Listen, it’s not worth it. We are already in a big hole, and we don’t want to put you guys in a bigger hole than you already are.”
Our landlord was very supportive too. It wasn’t like, “Oh, because of the landlord and the rent,” no, I wouldn’t say that at all. A lot of people left the city. We were located in the East Village, surrounded by NYU campuses everywhere, the students weren’t there, shops weren’t open.
I define myself as an extremely resilient person. I went through a hurricane, my restaurant in Rockaway got destroyed, a fire, my second restaurant in the East Village got destroyed, a divorce. I have always had so much enthusiasm, no matter what. And now I don’t really know what’s next.
We have seen generations of people going through the restaurant. Families that bring their kids and then their kids get married and bring their kids, almost like a destination and neighborhood restaurant, both in one.
It was actually really special to close and see [the outpouring of] letters and love and COVID hugs and kisses and direct messages, telling their stories like, “This is where I met my husband. This is where I met my wife.” I sent [my business partner] a text and I said I think we have done a pretty good job. So we should feel very proud.
I have been in the industry for almost two decades, and in New York for actually two decades. And I’ve seen how we take for granted the fascinating landscape of the city, and the fact that the small businesses are the fabric of that. I feel like we’re not advertising or pushing enough, campaigning enough not to lose that landscape.
Lin Sun, co-owner of Cafe Sunflower in Atlanta
Lin Sun and her husband Edward Sun opened Cafe Sunflower in Sandy Springs, Georgia, in 1994. They didn’t know whether a vegetarian cafe would be a success. But the restaurant took off, and was so popular that three years later they opened a second location in Buckhead. They closed the flagship location in the spring.
Around mid-March I said [to staff], “I think we’re going to stop operation. This way you can all go get unemployment,” which was probably the most difficult thing for me to do.
But then I had two cooks approach me. They said “maybe we can do to-go.” And I had to say yes. I asked one of the cashiers, “Are you willing to work every day, just the two cooks, you, and me, the four of us?” We did that for almost three weeks. Some of the days, we didn’t have enough income to cover their pay, not to mention I already cut my pay right away. I thought, “Okay, we’ll give it a try and just learn a little more information before we make things final.”
We closed, I believe, March 27th.
For me, it’s okay because I am older. After working almost 40 years in the restaurant, it’s time for me to rest. But what about my customers and my employees? I always felt I’m like a mother taking care of my employees like my kids.
My customers, they had been coming in for more than 25 years. I had some customers who got married in the restaurant. It’s hard to say, “There will be no more.” I don’t see them anymore. [The relationships] just severed without saying goodbye.
It was very sad. But then we were so busy. We donated a lot of the equipment, like the freezers we donated to a nursing home. We sold our tables and chairs. Then we have to put some things in storage. A lot of paperwork. Then calling the lending company, “Will you come and get your things?” There’s so much work to do.
You can’t really feel very much. It’s just cleaning up and getting the space and giving it back to the landlord. There’s not much time to grieve.
Gonzalo Guzman, chef and co-owner of Nopalito in San Francisco
Gonzalo Guzman and his partners opened the first Nopalito restaurant in 2009, and the second — which closed during the pandemic — in 2012, in part to help fulfill catering orders. Nopalito serves Mexican food in a fun, casual environment.
We lost a lot of catering that we had already scheduled for the summertime. We started looking at numbers and financially, we knew that we had to make a decision of keeping one place, if we wanted to be around, or keeping two, but with the chance of maybe not having one restaurant at all at the end. We decided to focus on the one we still have.
But then, the other side was all these immigrant [employees].
We used to have over 100 employees between both restaurants. [Now we have] between 25 and 30.
I try to do as much as I can with them because I know it’s hard, and I understand pretty well what it feels like not to have the help. As an immigrant [cooking] was just a job. [I started working at restaurants when] I was 15 years old. I just wanted to work, and I ended up in restaurants and it was something that just fell in love with little by little.
A lot of them call me all the time, crying, asking for a day or two just to pay their bills at least. That’s been the hardest part for me.
We put together a grocery box that we were offering to all of our employees that used to work with us. They could come every week and grab a box of food.
When we closed the restaurant, my partners wrote a letter for the [employees’] landlords so they didn’t get kicked out of their places.
A lot of [former or current employees and friends] don’t even know how to use a computer. Some of them don’t have a computer so I carry my computer with me. A lot of them don’t know how to write, believe it or not. Just even applying for a passport because they want to go back to Mexico or to South America because they just can’t be here because they don’t have the money. I could go on and on.
[When we closed the restaurant] I couldn’t really even think about it. I just wanted to be working.
But those moments that I thought about it — you realize that all this hard work, all these 21 years of hard work, working two jobs and going from restaurant to restaurant to learn and make my way up, felt like they were going to garbage. A lot of things came in my head, like tough times that I went through to be a successful chef. And now basically you’re not successful anymore in that way because it closed.
Brooke Williamson, chef and co-owner of Playa Provisions in Los Angeles
Brooke Williamson worked as an executive chef, competed on (and won) “Top Chef,” and opened a number of restaurants along with her husband Nick Roberts. Over the course of the year, they had to say goodbye to all but one — Playa Provisions, a 7,000-square-foot spot with four restaurant concepts: a whiskey bar, an ice cream shop, a casual breakfast and lunch spot and a seafood restaurant.
My husband and I in March owned four restaurants. And right now we are currently down to owning and operating one restaurant in Playa del Rey called Playa Provisions.
One of our bars in Playa del Rey was a small gastro pub. The space was very tight. The vibe of the whole place was really at its best when we were completely full and hopping. We knew that even once we were allowed to do indoor seating, it would be limited capacity. And with no anticipation of when things might really change, it just didn’t feel like the right move to renew our lease in August. So we just basically closed the doors.
Our restaurant in Redondo Beach, also very bar-driven, [was] not very conducive to takeout and delivery. My husband and I, we couldn’t focus on doing another outdoor patio. So that restaurant is currently in escrow to just change hands.
The restaurant in Playa Vista, the fast casual Hawaiian spot, was already set up to do takeout and delivery. We actually served all of our food in to-go ware and did a lot of work with third-party pickup and delivery orders. But it’s in an area that is largely driven by people sitting in offices. When all of those offices closed, there weren’t people ordering their normal takeout and delivery lunches to their offices anymore, which was a huge part of our business.
Closing each individual restaurant was its own moment of devastation, or months of devastation. There was a lot of limbo in there. Can we make this work? Can we recover from this? We had to think as business people. But there are so many emotions that are attached to that. Specifically when having to announce each individual closure to the public, to our patrons, to our customers who had been so loyal for so many years. It’s really just sad.
Playa Provisions is currently open and operating. I would definitely not say that we’re making ends meet. We’re just sort of making our payroll and keeping our doors open. We have invested so much money in dividers and building an entire outdoor patio. There’s multiple thousands of dollars that have gone into making our restaurants safe. There has been absolutely no government aid in all of the equipment that we supplied to our staff, any of the safeguards that we put into place.
There was no way to prepare for what happened this year. There’s no way to prepare for mass restaurant closures. Generally, there is a bit of responsibility that you can claim over the failure or success of a restaurant, whether it be poor business decisions or what have you. This was something that we had zero control over. For a lot of us, failure is not an option. But in this case, it so saddens me to say, that for a lot of people it is the only option.
Joanne Saget and Anthony Cunningham, owners of Kafe Louverture in New York City
After spending years in the fashion industry, Joanne Saget and her husband Anthony Cunningham in 2015 opened Kafe Louverture, a restaurant that served Haitian delicacies in Brooklyn. Because of the pandemic, the couple did not renew their lease in Brooklyn in June, and instead opened up a new location in North Carolina. They have started a GoFundMe campaign to help finance the new endeavor.
JOANNE SAGET: As we were home during the pandemic, we were doing all the calculations. We weren’t operating, we didn’t really have a staff. And as we were doing the numbers, it just kept adding up, adding up and we’re like, “Well, where are we going to get all this money to continue operating?” And we just didn’t have enough savings to continue because we didn’t know how long we were going to be out.
Instead of renewing our lease, we decided that the only way to survive is to go somewhere else. Because we already knew that the rent would be cheaper and that we would just have to start over. We packed everything up and then we moved to North Carolina. We were able to find a store. [We had to] find the architect, try to get permits and stuff like that. And once that started happening, we started running out of money, and that’s where the fundraiser came in. Right now we don’t know when we can open back up.
ANTHONY CUNNINGHAM: It was a hard decision to close the cafe, because the cafe was very popular. Our customers became like family, so it was a very hard decision.
That’s what I really miss. Waking up, going to the shop, talking to all the customers.
We [were] a community. A place of community where people can come talk about different social issues. We were constantly going back and forth to Haiti, bringing products from local farmers.
We carried coffee from Haiti. We carried hot sauce, peanut butter. We brought cacao, which is the chocolate from Haiti. [The suppliers are] waiting for us to reopen so we can bring stuff back for them, so they can start bringing in revenue.
We have to survive. And we have to keep the dream going. You can’t give up. If you give up, you’re just going to die. So you have to keep on going. It’s not easy, but we’re not ready to give up yet.
The person that got us [the Brooklyn location], he was actually the first person that we knew who died from Covid. His name was Lloyd Porter. He would say, “keep it moving, keep it moving.” Now we have to keep it moving.
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