Sunday, May 31, 2020

Say good night, Gracie.

Charlie and Holly's 39 year old place in Cambridge.

About sixty percent of job losses during this pandemic have been in the food service industry which we think of as restaurants and bars but also includes corporate and institutional operations. All have been decimated by the virus. The magnitude of the losses and the economic toll for owners, operators, employees and suppliers cannot be overstated. Some observers of the debacle estimate that at least 25% of closed restaurants will not be able to reopen. Others say 50%. Either is a monumental number, one so large it seems unreal. It's like saying 102,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. That’s a just a number but if the toll were seen as a single cherished life lost 102,000 times it would be unbearable. Is unbearable.

More of the same.

On May 21 I read an article in the Boston Globe. The title was “Here are the Boston area restaurants that have permanently closed amid the coronavirus pandemic.” It listed seven well-regarded establishments that had been unable to weather their closures. The subheading of the article continued, “Cuchi Cuchi, Stella, and The Automatic are just a few of the restaurants that made the difficult decision to shutter for good.” In the text Coda, Restaurant Danté, Artú and Marano Gelato were also memorialized. Artú was 25 years old. Coda 13 years. Cuchi Cuchi 19 years. Danté 15 years. Stella 15 years. A relative newcomer The Automatic was opened in 2006 by Dave Cagle and iconic Cambridge chef and entrepreneur Chris Schlesinger. Chris is one of my food heroes. His East Coast Grill that opened in Cambridge’s Inman Square in 1985 and closed in 2016 may be my favorite restaurant of all time.

My sense is that we think that our favorite restaurants, cafés and watering holes will magically reappear, good as new. I don’t want to burst bubbles, but that isn’t happening and even if it does the new rules of engagement will make the already fraught business proposition of operating a restaurant impossible or close to it. The precarious nature of the restaurant business has been overstated. An efficient high-volume restaurant can print money. But most restaurants are neither high volume nor are they particularly well run. Their margin for error is thin and they haven’t socked money away for desperate times like these.

And, frankly, the idea that a restaurant can operated at 50% of capacity, the realistic effect of social distancing, is laughable. A full-service restaurant paying market rent in an urban setting, needs about 80 seats to break even. So, take that 80-seater and allow it 40 seats and you have a prescription for failure. The fixed costs and labor will eat it alive. Game, set, match.

The basement joint we owned for thirteen years. Still kicking after 31 years we hope.

The bar the neon margarita built. And the first place to serve Corona beer in New England.

Which leads us back to the May 21 article. The first thing I thought of when I read the piece was, “What are Charlie and Holly are doing with their restaurants and clubs in Cambridge?” The second was, “I wonder if Zuma Tex-Mex Grill, our old restaurant in Boston, will re-open?” I immediately fired off an email with the Globe article to my dear friend Charlie saying, “Don’t know if you saw this. I hope you’re hanging tough.” Then I did a search on Zuma and found that it has changed its name to Mezcala Tex-Mex but has been closed since March 19 due to the virus. Fingers crossed for Cody, Steve and the crew. 

In response to my email Charlie answered with this. Our messages have been edited for clarity, brevity and to protect the innocent.


I hope you, Peggy, and everybody you care about are well and able to stay safe.
Holly and I have been hunkered down at home since March 16, after we furloughed 100+ employees (some of whom have been with us for close to 40 years). Rather heart breaking to not be able to help our other “family”.

So, we are hanging tough, but by our fingernails. We might just have to hang it up. (See what I did there?) As you can tell, we are whiny and wallowing in self- pity, but thankful that we are healthy and have a home to be hanging out in.

Hope to chat sometime soonish.

Love and big virtual hugs, C

To which I replied:

Charlie or as Holly says Chuckles,

Yes, we are safe, healthy and not stir crazy. Yet. Other than not eating out very other meal it's been better than fine. Mostly we miss wood-fired pizza and a frosty pint of Take a Knee IPA at the Taos Tap Room.

I'm sad to hear that you had to furlough all those folks. It had to be wrenching for the most caring employers on the planet. It would be the wrong ending for your story to end this way, that you aren’t able to continue what you've built over 40 years and that you both love so much. Hanging tough, hanging by your fingernails or hanging ten don't be hang dog.  Make the puns stop! I know you'll prevail.  You always do. 

Always up for a chat.

I better hang up. See what I did?

Love back atcha,


As to the so-called stimulus payments to small businesses, the ones intended to keep workers employed, they don’t really work for tipped employees and do little to keep establishments afloat when there’s no income. It’s the fixed costs that bury a restaurant especially one operating in a high rent urban setting. Imagine a $4,000,000 a year NYC restaurant and bar where the rent, common area maintenance fees, utilities and insurance are 12% of last year’s sales. And there have been exactly no sales for three months. So, you’ve got a $40,000 a month nut and no dollars to cover it. How many months can you survive? And even if you do, you’ll have to operate at half capacity for the foreseeable future. “It’s homely,” as Charlie describes dire situations.

Then, of course, is the question of how we’re going to respond to these partial re-openings. Will we be drunken lemmings cheek by bikini by the pool in Lake of the Ozarks on Memorial Day weekend or like us, be afraid to get back on the horse? We haven’t eaten out or been in a social setting in ten weeks. We haven’t even ordered take out and don’t plan to. And we are richer for it. Thousands of dollars richer.


Blacks Crossing said...

What a heartfelt, beautiful piece of prose about one of your favorite subjects, Steve. Restaurants really have become a vital part of American life in the last 40 years or so, and it is more than sad that so many will probably not survive the pandemic. Your friends having to furlough 100+ employees is an emotional killer. Although some people who worked at restaurants are finding work in grocery stores and other food outlets, it, of course, is not the same. With luck, some are finding patrons who are "paying it forward" to keep them afloat. But I am happy your friends are keeping safe and doing well, and that you and Peggy also are. I can only imagine the luscious meals being churned out in your Ranchos kitchen. The Take a Knee IPA will come eventually.

Terry T. said...

Ditto what Daryl said. Very informative and sad blog Steve. I'm missing our simple occasional breakfast as well. It will all come one of these days but we do have to be careful in the interim. Hanging in there ... Terry T.