What Happens Now?
The Quiet Woman has been closed 161 days out of the past 352, almost half a year. We reopened on February 3 for the fourth time in eleven months and are NOT closing again, no matter what. The past year for the QW has been a whirlwind of starts, stops, frustration, tears, tragedy, despair, resilience, kindness and generosity all connected by a sense of community and camaraderie among guests, everyone I work with at the QW and complete strangers who simply wanted to help. We have all been touched by loss this past year large and small, but my industry has been decimated. More than 110,000 restaurants across the US have been closed with over 2.5 million jobs lost and many of them will not be back.
This is The Quiet Woman's journey, my journey, through the devastation of the past year.
What Happens Now ?
March 8 - May 19, 2020
I read Gabrielle Hamilton's piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine April 23, 2020 and felt a kinship to the unspoken question that reverberated throughout - What Happens Now? The next day I revisited it again, listening to her haunting words on a podcast as she described the idea, evolution, success, struggle and ultimate Covid dismantling of her flagship restaurant Prune. I was standing in my own restaurant, The Quiet Woman, in Corona del Mar, California, 2800 miles and worlds away from Prune and New York City but feeling strangely the same.
I was sanding the always beaten-up trim on the limestone cocktail tables preparing to repaint them. In the scratches and chips of the curved molding I could hear the clink of the things that made those scrapes: stacks of silver bangles, the back and forth of watch bracelets, the clunk of purses with little metal feet, the heavy fobs of exquisite cars and the scrape of belt buckles as people bent far across the tables in an almost comically pointless endeavor to continue discussions as the band began their second set. I heard all of those sounds like punctuation marks in the steady din of animated conversation, the daily background noise of a busy restaurant, echoes of a taken for granted past.
I wasn't prone on the floor in painter's coveralls plumbing the dark depths behind the line retrieving errant items as Gabrielle was, but the same sort of thing plays out in every restaurant that's headed by an entrepreneur still tied to the day to day running of their place. You do a lot of things you could pay someone else to do but in the end you do them yourself. Sometimes it's the money, but more often it's that it has to be done exactly the way you have it in your head and you know (after a few trips down this road) that it will take more time to explain to someone exactly what you want then it will take to do it yourself. Someone will assure you they know "exactly" what you want, only to finish and you look at them like they are Sarah Cooper with the disinfectant bottle, because they clearly had no clue, or you're just too damn busy to pay attention and the job is done and you spend the next year or two or five looking away whenever your glance falls on the "thing" whatever it is, because it's not exactly right and it will always be a glaring error to you, absolutely unnoticeable to anyone else.
This morning though, sanding in the silence of empty tables simply gave me comfort - just to be doing something normal that I had done many times before - so I could pretend for a moment that things were normal, find reassurance in a familiar routine, and push the unanswered and unanswerable question to the back of the closet, hidden in the winter clothes for awhile. What Happens Now?
Wednesday, March 8, 2020 I was at LAX catching a flight to St Thomas, a ferry to Tortola and a short sail to St John for a brief family holiday followed by a month sequestered away hoping to make a dent on the book I keep promising myself to write. The snippet of morning news I allow myself while onboard the boat, also named The Quiet Woman, got darker daily and the Covid buzz kept getting louder and louder and ultimately impossible to ignore. I finally plugged all the way back in on Saturday, March 14 and realized that a) Corona virus was real, b) the holiday was over, c) Quiet Woman the restaurant had to close, d) Quiet Woman the boat had to get back to her slip in Tortola and e) we had to get back to the States. I closed the restaurant on Sunday, March 15 by phone, instructed all the employees to file for unemployment as furloughed due to Covid-19 and made plans to get home. The boat pulled into her slip the day before the BVI borders slammed shut and we arrived home to an almost empty LAX on March 18. Nine years earlier I had made this trip in reverse the week after 9/11 and it felt a lot like that.
I sent the following to the QW crew by text and email the next day:
To My Quiet Woman Family,
I flew back to the States on Wednesday, March 18 and walked out of LAX into an
unrecognizable and forever changed world.
The QW closed on Monday, March 16 along with almost every other restaurant in California at the direction of Governor Newsom and no one has even the vaguest idea of when the Corona virus catastrophe we are all in will be resolved, curve flattened or contained to the degree that we can envision reopening and resuming our lives. In the meantime, every one of you who is a part of the QW, who has given so much to the QW, who relies on the QW to earn a living - to pay rent, buy groceries, put gas in your car, pay your health insurance - from one day to the next you all suddenly have no income.
All of you should, if you haven't already, file for unemployment. The delay period has been waived and you should receive checks within two weeks. That is not much comfort considering the amount of money that check will be for. The UK just closed all pubs and are offering all employees $2900 a month for the next 3 months - we can only hope our US administration follows suit - and soon!
I have fixed a lot of disasters, found a way out of a number of crises and sometimes have been able to give back to the many people who have given so much to the QW when in need, but this calamity is like nothing ever before and there is no "fix". Although I am working on getting a Take Out program up and running, that business will not generate enough income even with the most optimistic of expectations to do more than put a very small dent into the ongoing monthly fixed expenses the QW faces.
I have spoken to all of our vendors and they have assured me that product and delivery is fully available, except for toilet paper which is being rationed at the rate it was previously purchased, the hoarding of which deserves its own explanation someday. I can offer food boxes to anyone who needs that, particularly for some items that are in short supply in the stores like eggs, some proteins, produce, tortillas and we will also have a soup rotation. I can hardly believe we are having this discussion right now. I'm thinking of you all and hope that you and your families are healthy. We'll get through this. LAC
I said that, "We'll get through this", with assurance because everyone needed assurance but it was empty bravado. I had no clue what was coming. I organized a deep restaurant cleaning, packed up the food in the walk-in and what wouldn't last in the freezer for donation and trash, collected some wine and went home to wait. Corona del Mar, Newport Beach, Orange County, California and much of the US was shutting down. We were watching Governor Cuomo's updates on the horrors in New York and Governor Newsom's updates on California's efforts to avoid New York's fate.
Texting occasionally with the QW staff, How are you? Is everyone healthy? Are you collecting unemployment? Keep in touch. I never asked anyone if they were coming back. Coming back was too far away and I made the mostly correct assumption that almost everyone would come back. Designing and building protective partitions, switching from linen to glass top tables, finding fabric to go under those glass tops, removing butcher block in favor of stainless, replacing the entire back kitchen, debating building a patio for outside dining, disinfecting fifty-five years of experiences, grit and grime and oh yes, figuring out how to pay for all of that along with the weight of the approximately $90,000 of past due invoices sitting on my desk screaming at me while trying not to think about the ongoing rent, insurance, utility bills that would soon be piling up. Applying for EIDL and PPP and being smacked upside the head with the realization that just because you have done over 3 million dollars a year of business with Wells Fargo for decades does not mean you are a valued customer and no they are definitely not going to help you get a PPP loan and if you had known that it is better to be in debt with the bank you do business with because they will always protect their own interests first then maybe you would have taken out a loan but it's too late now, and drawing plans for sidewalk seating and patio seating and doing a bit of take-out business, well yeah - all that.
The QW was not opening anytime soon but it would open again at some point, wouldn't it? We needed to be ready so I embarked on a plan. I'm big on plans. I believe you can get through almost anything as long as there is a plan, however difficult, daunting or unpleasant that plan might be. Thing is, Covid-19 isn't really big on plans except the obvious one - to destroy and forever change the world we thought we knew. Will the QW reopen? Surely it will. Will the QW survive? I don't know. Those who shake their head in disbelief at that, at the idea that a successful, busy neighborhood restaurant that has been a fixture in the fabric of generations of lives for over a half century might not be able to rise from the ashes of Covid-19 don't understand the knife edge that all independent restaurants even institutions like mine, live on. I don't have the luxury of avoidance. I have only one path and that is to keep moving forward though my eternally optimistic outlook is increasingly shaded with grey and in danger of being overwhelmed almost every day.
We reopened for take-out five nights a week.
We averaged $70,000 a week before Covid-19.
We are hoping to reach $10,000 a week so we can pay rent.
We didn't make it.
What Happens Now ?
May 19 - July 24 will post Wednesday, March 10