Opinion: I’m closing my restaurant thanks to Covid-19, but it won’t be goodbye

Torri Donley

Despite never having missed a payment before April of this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic shook New York City to its core, this gut punch has made us feel disposable. I was told I had to handover my keys as the city went into lockdown in mid-March, but as a […]

Despite never having missed a payment before April of this year, when the Covid-19 pandemic shook New York City to its core, this gut punch has made us feel disposable. I was told I had to handover my keys as the city went into lockdown in mid-March, but as a forever optimist, I had hoped to receive a lease adjustment or even just a small amount of empathy from the powers that be, in the months that followed that would reflect what was happening to our business, to our industry and to our city. But hope can’t keep our doors open.

I opened my business, west~bourne, because I had a wild vision for what a restaurant could be: zero-waste, mission-driven and vegetable-forward, with an unapologetic focus on the well-being of our team and of our neighbors. It ended up taking 18 months to execute that vision — between finding the right location, building it out and being constantly at odds with our landlord, we opened months behind schedule on January 10, 2018.

Nevertheless, the process of bringing west~bourne to life was electrifying, and equal parts terrifying and energizing. Becoming responsible for the livelihoods of 30 incredible people, who took a chance on a pioneering project, was one of the most profound learning experiences of my life, and there is never a moment I feel anything less than privileged to be an entrepreneur.

What most people don’t know, however, is that in the months leading up to our opening, my husband and I separated. I never thought it was possible to experience such bright, inspiring highs alongside such deeply painful, rock-you-to-your-core lows. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed, but the drive of west~bourne pushed me forward. It was my lighthouse. It was the beacon that guided me through what I now know was rightful optimism about my marriage. We reconciled, learning through our separation that life is about give and take. I’ve come to realize that as humans, we will always face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to how we envision our lives, but if we can somehow meet in the middle, then we can make it through and find a silver lining. Opening west~bourne on one of the bleakest, coldest days I can remember, with my husband shoveling snow, was a transformative moment of almost reckless hope. I didn’t think it could get harder than that season. Until now.

inside of the west~bourne restaurant
On March 15, in a blink, the pandemic turned our gem into a lemon. Our core philosophies, the very reasons I opened it, became the reasons we had to shut down. Our small nooks and communal seating were designed to bring our neighbors closer together. Our cooking space is cramped, to encourage our team to collaborate. We don’t have a garden, or enough street frontage to justify an outdoor dining investment. We’ve done everything we can do to try to stay afloat amid ever-changing government regulations — everything from selling products to launching a virtual greenmarket — but it’s not enough. While we may have drawn the short straw with a tight space and challenging location, across the country, many landlords are refusing to accept how far the tide has turned and are thus driving restaurants like ours to close by not providing enough — or the right kind — of support. This is a harsh new reality with an uncertain duration, and restaurant owners are bearing the brunt of it. But navigating this crisis requires give and take.

Let me be clear: our situation is not unique. Restaurants are universally facing a simple and stark equation: our income has been cut by 75%, but most of our operating costs, including our rent, remain the same. And, there’s no end of the tunnel in sight.

Covid's next casualty: American restaurants

What’s worse is that we are being held to personal guarantees meant to protect our landlords and banks, meaning that if our businesses cannot pay rent, we must become personally responsible for those mounting financial obligations each month. It’s a debilitating cost that puts our families at immense risk as an unjust backstop for a once in a lifetime pandemic that we didn’t cause. What’s more, isn’t that what security deposits are for? Personal guarantees on commercial leases — which should be made illegal — is just one example of decades-old, government-sanctioned, landlord-centric policy that is now forcing restaurants across the country to close their doors.

No one understands the need to abide by governmental guidelines more than restaurant owners. Our operations have always been rooted in a preeminent concern for health and safety, now and always, in order to protect both our guests and our employees. The problem is that five months into this crisis, we are still waiting for aid, a recovery plan, or any structural support from our government. The 11 million restaurant workers nationwide

have been urgently calling for help since March. Each moment that these calls go unanswered, communities lose their vital and vibrant hubs, our food system buckles under increasing strain, and millions of Americans are laid off without the prospect of finding another job. As restaurateurs, we live to take care of others, but when will we be taken care of?

The comeback is always better than the setback, they say. So, when I close the doors on Sullivan Street, it won’t be goodbye. A part of my soul remains there, after experiencing so many of my life’s milestones within these walls. I will miss the smell of mushreubens flying off the pass, the click click click of tickets rolling in, the sweat of working the dish pit during a busy service, the magnetism of our team in sync during our pre-shift meditation, our beloved guests who found a home with us, and the pride of sharing my firstborn son with our west~bourne family. west~bourne has always believed in people first, mission always, and that’s what pushes me forward now. I won’t stop fighting until we save restaurants. I only ask that our government, at all levels, meets us in the middle.

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