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The Beginning of the End III
Covid: A Retrospective. A Fate is Sealed, the Final Act Performed.
What an experience this has been remembering the last days of my restaurant of nineteen years. Until now, writing these newsletters has been freeing and cathartic, but this series has felt much different. Three years ago, while so many restaurant owners were struggling to save their businesses, and learning to pivot and adapt, I left the game entirely and never second-guessed myself, turning all of my attention instead to Ireland. Getting here, I quickly learned, was only half the battle. Finding a way for us to remain was all that mattered and it consumed me, so I never really dealt with my feelings after losing Tastebuds, until now. The wounds it seems were surprisingly still fresh.
“You only grow by coming to the end of something and by beginning something else.”
― John Irving, The World According to Garp
I’ll be honest, I spent many nights these last couple of months curled up in the fetal position crying my eyes out. Other times I’d stare at my computer screen, my fists clenched, feeling too angry to type. And my God, the what if’s! Too many to mention. Wrecking my head and keeping me up many a night staring at the ceiling. Worst of all, God help me…all of this remembering, has me longing to open Tastebuds again, some way, somehow!
An amazing discovery helped me through this and most of you may already have known about this. If you read my newsletters using the Substack app (I’ll provide a link), you can click on the headphones at the top of the screen and a lovely voice will read the newsletter to you. For me it was transformative! As I listened, I saw myself as a character in a book that I was rooting for, one that I knew was going to be okay, because she was the one writing it! Kinda crazy!
Full Disclosure: The following journal entries have been modified slightly. No matter how much I have wanted to in the past, I have never made any edits when I’ve shared journal entries in a newsletter. Unfortunately, there was a lot of rambling and redundancy in these; the senseless babbling of a woman on the verge of losing something very near and dear to her I’m afraid. Understandably, a lot has been left out.
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April 21st, 2020
I woke today refreshed. I did not toss and turn, going over different scenarios trying to determine the fate and future of Tastebuds last night. I didn’t wake with itchy ears from stress or a stiff neck from fear. The end is near and the end is clear, finally.
Erin and I met with Father Mark yesterday at 2 pm. Prior to that, the universe revealed so many avenues and opportunities. Our SBA loan which I call about every morning only to hear the same tired message “Your loan application has a status of…SBA loan under review.” had suddenly been approved but said that more paperwork was required. My heart sank and I thought, ‘Damn! There goes my St. Michael’s donation.’ I thought it was just enough money to do take out only, UberEats, Greek Pasta and Salads only with just me and two cooks. I thought about going vegetarian at Tastebuds because I will never have faith in fish and chicken again. But more paperwork? How long could that take?
I picked up Erin who had just reached out to Joe Lardie (our brother-in-law and expert insurance consultant) and she told me the bad news; according to him, NOBODY is going to get ANY help from their insurance providers. NONE!
As we waited for our meeting with Father Mark, we got a phone call from Pete Joyce our Sysco rep. He was checking in to see how we are doing. I asked if he wanted to buy a restaurant really cheap! He couldn’t believe that we are closing. After a bit of chit-chat, he led us to some great ideas and contacts in the commercial bottling industry, Signature Sauces and the chef of Mr. Hero’s and he told us what it would take to get our sauces and salad dressings into Heinens. WHICH WE MUST PURSUE!
So, by the time we arrived at St. Michaels, we still had no idea what we planned to do. Father Mark showed us a very small and very disappointing kitchen and I was starting to think this was not going to work, but then the Balogs (Mary Ann and Randy) showed up- that wonderful couple that greets Ari and me at the back of the church every Sunday, so warmly and wonderfully. They run the community meals food program at St. Michael’s. They order from the Cleveland Food Bank and make up parcels for over 100 people, handing them out twice a week and before Covid, Mary Ann cooked a hot meal twice a month for 200 people in need as well. I can only see this need increasing.
They had just gotten a grant, after a long wait, for a three-door cooler and some stainless steel shelves. Mary Ann was giddy about it and I just thought to myself how many coolers and how many shelves I have and how much more they could do for the community with all of my equipment. I mean, wow! I never knew how the food we donated to the Food Bank got into the hands of those in need. I always left confused and wondering how it all worked. It is a massive building and they have countless trucks. Mary Ann told me everything and looking back, I realize I could have done so much more.
I could have talked to the Balogs all day, but we agreed to meet at Tastebuds soon and we let them get back to their important work. Father Mark then took me and Erin on a behind the scenes tour of the church, from the garage all the way up to the choir loft where he had been playing lots of guitar in his isolation! We had an amazing peak into the incredibly meaningful, deeply spiritual but seemingly lonely life of a church pastor and his overwhelming responsibilities. Pretty incredible and kinda funny to see a basement laundry room with priest vestments drying on a clothesline along side boxer shorts!
He showed us meeting rooms for Alcoholics Anonymous and marriage counseling and I thought how cozy our couches and how useful our bookshelves would be in those rooms. There was a play room for children and I realized that they could also put Ari’s toy box, books, even his bounce house and basketball hoop to good use! I’ve been going to this church for 3 years and I had no idea how much they did for the community, again, I could have done more.
Erin and I left there feeling the Holy Spirit, undoubtedly. We knew exactly what we were going to do and didn’t even have to discuss it. We felt lifted from our burden and instead inspired and delighted to just give it all away, all for a greater purpose. Oddly enough, I read through my journal last night spanning the four months of hell building Tastebuds. I have a couple of thoughts documented stating that I didn’t get into the restaurant business to get rich. I was driven by the desire to be generous, and to be able to help people. Wow! And so it ends as it began.
Also, the journal is filled with evidence of how evil the building owner was, how uncaring, crude, and rude, and how much he lied to me. After saying he would pay his fair share of the build-out, he made me pay for the entire thing. I’ve got bills for the removal of all of the radiators and the installation of HVAC systems in both the restaurant and the loft which he said he’d pay for. He abused me mentally and financially and his contractors threatened me and my restaurant equipment suppliers physically when we found out that they had never gotten permits and insisted they get them. I’m sure as hell he will threaten to sue me if I walk away from my lease, so I need to consider that.
So we are meeting the Balogs, Father Mark and the woman spearheading the whole project, Mary Pat Ellert, tomorrow at Tastebuds at 1:30.
Darkness came over me tonight. This massive tidal wave is towering over my head and it’s going to crash. I almost let it, but I say one more day. I will let myself go tomorrow night. I will cry my eyes out tomorrow.
I watched the YouTube video on our website 4 times tonight, like an old man watching reels of his college football games. “Glory Days, well they’ll pass you by, Glory Days, in the blink of a young girl’s eyes.”
The reality is- restaurants will never be the same. It could take years until we can enjoy dining out like we used to. This makes me very anxious to get my nose to the grindstone and get this book done. The fact that I was already writing about the restaurant business as if it were already a thing of the past is eerie. I have to make it as a writer. I now have no restaurant job to fall back on. Isn’t that something? Wow!
I am blessed. I had a 19-year run. That’s a really really amazing accomplishment. It’s crazy that my gut told me to get out a year ago. If my landlord was a decent person and we had our occupancy permit, I might have sold. Erin and I need to keep Tastebuds, but start bottling sauces and salad dressings. People will need lots of help making their food at home taste good. We could produce a Greek Pasta Meal Kit!
April 23rd, 2022
IT IS DONE. The fate of Tastebuds is sealed and it humbles me. It brings me to my knees, seriously, I am grateful for the 19 years we’ve had, grateful for the opportunity to give it all away for a greater good, a higher purpose, grateful for everyone who ever walked through that door, either to work, dine, sell or deliver.
There is nothing that connects you to your community in a more meaningful way than to feed its people. Tastebuds will continue to serve the community, the community of St. Michael the Archangel. We just continue to discover surprising connections to the parish. One of my greatest mentors, Fayelou McDonald attended grade school there and Oscar (my chef) came in today to collect his things and told us that he knew Father Mark from his missionary work back when he was in El Salvador. That’s just incredible to me!
I’m not gonna lie. This is ripping my heart out. I cannot believe this sudden and tragic end. Of course, I worry that my landlord will come after me and try to sue me, but really, that would just be a waste of time and money, besides I gave him the opportunity to take a turn key restaurant in exchange for letting me out of my lease and he declined rather coldly, saying he has no interest in owning a restaurant. It’s over. The party is over, for everyone and everything. He would be better off renting this space to anyone but a restaurant and after re-reading my journal from 2003, ‘The Building of Tastebuds” and what he put me through, I’m sure I would have a countersuit that could recoup some of my money. I hope he just lets me walk without too much trouble.
So, I’ve been here all day and I’m going to spend the night here tonight. It is so fucking sad. I am on the verge of a breakdown. I know it’s coming, I just can’t afford to do it now. I’ve got to make so many decisions. I’ve got 19 years and 7100 square feet worth of furnishings, equipment, artwork, books, memorabilia, stock, decorations, sports gear, and toys to sort. It’s pretty clear that I need to keep my house at this point. I don’t think I could handle losing both my house and my restaurant in the same year.
Thank God Erin’s got both feet in Tastebuds at the moment. I could not navigate these tumultuous waters on my own. She was here today with Rick and the kids. We were all going through everything, deciding what we needed to keep. The movers are coming tomorrow as well as News Chanel 5. Ron Reagan is going to interview Erin, me, and Father Mark.
I’ve got to catch up on bills and banking. I’ve got to hire movers again for all of the stuff that I want to keep. I’ve got to get a piano mover to get this Steinway to Erin’s house. I’m gonna go play that one last time.
It’s like every restaurant in America is skidding on black ice, some heading right on into a massive pile-up, some cars have gotten away with a few scratches while others are destroyed. People are hurt or trapped, but there is nobody coming to the rescue. No tow trucks, no ambulance, we are all just left there to figure it out.
Because it’s dark and cold and I’m not gonna die in a broken down car. Plus, everyone knows that another storm imminent and no plow or salt can melt this ice.
I built this place. Everything that you see. This wasn’t some failed restaurant that I took over. I certainly didn’t want to sell my baby to the vultures that came to inquire, offering me pennies on the dollar.
To simply disappear, to not get a chance to thank everyone that ever stepped inside this door is criminal. From the men and women that built it, to the staff that built it up, and all of the beautiful customers that supported us and the lovely farmers and food purveyors that helped me to have the freshest food in town.
Tastebuds was bustling and vivacious and overnight it became listless, brain dead. To let it remain comatose and to provide it with life support would rack up bills that insurance companies refuse to cover requiring a bank loan that would likely not be forgiven, because that would be contingent on bringing back employees to make less than what they are making on unemployment because of our short hours. So we became organ donors. We pulled the plug and donated all of its working parts to someone who desperately needed them.
So, that’s what we did and it feels so goddamn right.
Erin and I have been pulled back to faith, putting our trust in God’s hands.
When Father Mark finished our meeting, and we had just told him and the Balogs that we were donating everything, he blessed us. Erin and I felt an energy, a presence. Father Mark would say it was the Holy Spirit that took my breath away and with it, the hefty weight of my sadness and anxiety, suddenly I felt lighter and oddly hopeful.
April 25th, 2020
Tastebuds is empty except for a trucks worth of items that will be moved here to my house on Tuesday. I need to stay home tomorrow. I need a day off from this emotional rollercoaster and this backbreaking and heartbreaking work.
Tastebuds Restaurant seizes to exist. I mean, I can hardly wrap my head around this. It’s like that person that you hear that just dropped dead unexpectedly, but you just saw them yesterday and they were healthy as a horse and busy making all kinds of plans for the future.
Friday, May 1st, 2020
Woke up this morning and did my usual routine; brewed coffee, showered, made toast, and sat at my desk checking messages and emails. I glanced at the day’s top news stories, quickly peeked at social media and called my bank’s automated service, and recorded the balances of my checking and savings accounts in my planner.
Today was different. I remembered that Erin had canceled our AT&T account. Sure enough, a quick call to Tastebuds confirmed that our phone number for the last 19 years “has been disconnected and is no longer in service.” I can only imagine what customers will feel hearing that. Pain, shock and disbelief are what I felt and I knew to expect it.
Why did the restaurant have to look so goddamn good yesterday?
Erin dismantled Tastebuds from the office, calling and ending business relationships with all of our purveyors, services, utilities, and support. I dismantled the rest. Physically removing everything either to the dumpster or to my Subaru. I wiped down walls and emptied the remaining coolers- the walk-in cooler and the residential refrigerator in the Loft. I emptied out the bathroom and kitchen cabinets and I swept and mopped.
The last week has taken a toll on my body that has made me dependent on Motrin 600’s and wine. I will begin weening myself off of them tomorrow, well, one of them at least! Today I am wearing support stockings and trying to keep my legs elevated, but I have to clear at least one area of this house which is now cluttered with everything from the restaurant that I cannot yet part with. I plan to make an exercise area where I can do some stretches for my poor back, neck and legs. I wish there was something I could do for my head and heart, some exercise to relieve the pain.
How could a man have written All About Eve? How could he know women so completely? I’ve seen it so many times but it had special significance for me tonight. Margo Chandler’s character played by the incomparable Bette Davis says something like, “She’s so young and so feminine and so helpless. So many things I wish I was for Bill. It’s a funny business a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster. You forget you need them again when you go back to being a women.” This is helpful to me right now. I no longer want to be the battle-ax chef and restauranteur. I’d like to soften up a bit!
Strangely, today was absolutely wonderful. Every time Ari called me into another room to see the legos he built or the magic marker picture he did on canvas, it was a pleasure to stop what I was doing to check out his stuff. There is nothing more important going on right now. It’s amazing!
The last month and a half have been mentally challenging, probably one of the toughest periods in my life. I made decisions that will effect thousands of people and I had to base those decisions on quick moving and often conflicting reports and information about an enemy invasion that we cannot see or control. Ho Lee Fuck! No wonder I feel amazing today! I am no longer in the game, I’m not even on the bench, I left the ballpark with no intention of coming back.
The final decision was made. The Chanel 5 News story has aired. I have left the landlord a voicemail. As Gabriel Hamilton so beautifully described, I took this opportunity to quietly walk out of the back door of a building that’s on fire, and has been for some time.
So it is time for me to be woman and mother and also writer. It’s time to lose the bad ass, foul mouthed, tough, powerful persona that running a restaurant for 19 years has given me. I’d like to soften up and quiet down. I’d like to be more feminine, less bossy, less efficient and rigid.
Today was excellent! I hope to have more of this. More patience with Ari, more time for myself. More delicious meals like tonights Delmonico steak with horseradish sauce, baked potato and green beans followed by a movie. I can rest finally, because I believe 100% that we made the right decision. There was no benefit at all to staying open. We would have worked very hard and gained only more debt.
What a crazy twist of fate!
Only I, could find a way to feel guilty about donating an entire restaurant! Yep! It was overwhelming to say the least to see all of the equipment, furnishings and kitchenware filling half a gymnasium and all of the various rooms surrounding it. All I could think was, “How are they going to be able to make this work and where are they gonna get the money?” Also, they had been generating income by renting out the gymnasium for basketball tournaments and now, there would be no way.
While I stayed in touch with Father Mark after moving to Ireland, I always hesitated to ask about the parish hall, especially after the devastating loss of Mary Ann Balog, who died sadly in April 2021 after contracting Covid. I had always worried that I had burdened them with the insurmountable task of finding a way to make my donation count. I could tell though, that he felt obligated to give me updates and while he always sounded hopeful, telling me ‘things were moving along,’ he sometimes sounded disappointed that he didn’t have better news.
That all changed this year! The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland at long last secured grants and approved a loan and St. Michael’s received the money needed to build out the space and then some! Father Mark gave me a virtual tour just last week using the camera on his phone during our last chat and I could not believe my eyes!
The renovation of the parish hall is nearly complete and has a brand new facade, lots of new windows and a beautifully resurfaced parking lot. In addition to the food pantry and reception hall, they’ve built a senior center and a community arts center. When I saw the commercial kitchen’s newly installed hood system and several of my old coolers, which I had forgotten were brand spanking new when we closed, I gushed with pride and joy!
When I asked how they could have done the renovations with all of the furnishing and equipment in the way, he walked outside and showed me the giant storage pods that they rented, filled, then moved over to the rectory parking lot. I cannot tell you what a relief and honor it was to see this new and exciting development, washing away all of my doubt and despair. Seeing the resurgence of the soul of Tastebuds healed my wounds and lifted my spirits. Very soon it will be adding once again to the health and happiness of the people of Cleveland, in an even more impactful and long lasting way, and I could not have wished for anything more!
Thank You For Being Here My Friends!