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The Beginning of the End Part II
Covid: A Retrospective. Easter 2020
In this series which I hope you are enjoying, we journey back three years to the Beginning of the End of Tastebuds Restaurant and Life as We Knew It before the Corona Virus spread throughout the globe claiming the lives and dreams of so many.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
In this newsletter, we pick up where we left off last, in Early April of 2020, a time when I was examining all of my options, crunching the numbers, and deciding what was next for Tastebuds. Realizing that I could not afford to do anything but work to try and save my restaurant, I decided to make the best of this government-mandated shutdown, to fix what was broken, re-paint, and strip and wax the floors. This physical labor freed my mind to think of ways to hang on and weather the storm and I was feeling very optimistic.
In the days that followed, however, information came from health experts, politicians, and the media like jabs out of nowhere, leaving me dazed and confused. Businesses were encouraged to allow employees to work remotely and restaurants would be slow to open and would have to limit capacity and practice social distancing. Our entire business model was in jeopardy. My passion was to offer a healthy alternative to the fast food so many of us are forced to eat on our lunch break while making it just as efficient and economical. Profiting on that passion took massive volume. How would we be able to sell 200-300 lunches a day, if our customers continued working from home and if they all came back, how could we safely distance everyone?
In a soul-crushing blow, I learned that the government loan funds we had urgently applied for had dried up, drained by corporations with millions of dollars in reserve and chain restaurants. It seemed our rescue boat quickly filled with people who had their own lifeboats, and people like me, who were treading water, were simply left to drown. I felt betrayed by my bank and I felt abandoned by my government. Insurance companies too had banded together to proclaim that any loss due to the Corona Virus is not covered. Seemingly overnight, the survival of my restaurant was no longer up to me. Tastebuds was slipping away from me and astonishingly, no one was coming to the rescue. All at once, I was losing a loved one, a dream, and a way of life and I was not unique.
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April 9th, 2020
So…I decided a couple of days ago that if we can’t go to Ireland for another year, we are going to start pretending that we are already there! Since the entire world is practicing social isolation, it’s not hard to pretend. We just needed one thing; a fireplace. I’ve got tea, beer, Kerrygold Butter, Irish Cheese, and plenty of pork and lamb!
Ari and I start each day learning Irish from an app on my phone called Nemo and we listen to Irish music or write or read during the day. Last night we built our first fire and we sat out on the deck enjoying wine and chocolate milk.
One of my biggest goals for Ireland was to write a one-woman show that I could return to Tastebuds in a few years and perform during summer stays in Cleveland. I figured I’d work out the kinks in Ireland on an audience of perfect strangers that may have low expectations of an American and could only be pleasantly surprised!
So I started writing my show. I researched a bit before I began and found some great surprises! It’s how Whoopi Goldberg got her start and Chaz Palminteri too, and for the same reason- they both wanted to be actors but couldn’t get any rolls. There is a very short list of one-woman shows which I was a little discouraged by, but then I remembered that my show will be dinner theater and while I have no confidence whatsoever in my acting ability…I have tremendous confidence in my cooking ability. I will also apply the same formula for success. The same person doing the same job at the same time every day. The story will not change- just like my menu! It will be perfected, and tweaked here and there, as directed by the audience.
I plan to write this in Goodfella’s form. My recent obsession with the film after taking Martin Scorsese’s MasterClass has me reading Wise Guy-the book that the screenplay was adapted from. Fucking GREAT! Henry Hill described mob life so beautifully and seductively- it’s not a stretch for me to sound like him when I describe the restaurant scene in Cleveland, in the ‘90s. In fact, it’s got a lot of the same characters!
I had a great day of writing today and was feeling like I’m on the verge of a very big thing here. I called Betsy Voinovich because I was feeling confident and creative and wanted to hear what she was up to and how the editing of her movie was going. I am so blessed to know incredibly talented and creative people and I’ve got Paul Michael to thank!
We talked for over an hour. I forgot that she had offered to read my screenplay (or maybe I just chickened out!) but I am excited to send it to her. Now that I’ve got other babies to be self-conscious and protective of!
She was in LA with Drew Carey just before the Corona Virus began to take its hold on us. She talked to him a couple of days ago and he was really upset that his favorite restaurant closed permanently. It was a diner called Swingers. They could not understand how a restaurant that was busy all of the time could go under so fast. I told her what I’d been telling everyone. We had $15k in the bank on March 15th and throughout the year we fluctuated between $15k & $25k. It’s a healthy amount to fall back on if things slow down. We never expected to stop completely. In 25 days of being closed, we dropped to $2600. If the SBA LOAN does not come soon, we will be bankrupt in just over a month without any source of income.
I told her that I was writing this one-woman show to perform as a much-needed fundraiser for Tastebuds. She agreed with me that customers would definitely support it, even if I was terrible at it! We also agreed that people will be hungry for what’s real. She said Drew described his hopes to come out of the Corona Virus experience like a tree that has been shaken to the point, that all that remains is true and essential- NO…I’m not doing it justice. What he said was more beautiful and poetic!
I cannot believe my luck! I told Betsy that I wanted to turn the loft into something like the Actors’ Gym which she took me to in Tremont in the early ‘90s- Bourbon Barrel Street Restaurant now. She said the guy who created that theater is still very active in stage production and has helped her with projects she’s been working on as well as her movie. She said she would love to introduce us at a lunch! I said, “Wow! Is he in Cleveland?” and she said he lives in Tremont and he has a newspaper called The Treemonster!
April 10th, 2020
Erin came over for a much-needed visit. Ari got to play with his cousins for the first time in our Tremont home. My wonderful sister scattered Easter eggs filled with candy in the backyard before we knew she was here! Ari went crazy and had a blast gathering them. She brought me an Easter basket for him which I asked for her help with. There will never be a moment it seems, that I will be separated from Ari until this virus is out of our lives.
Today was horrific, over 2,000 US citizens died today- that brings the total to 18,586 in America and over 100,000 worldwide. New York City is digging mass graves. If I hadn’t seen a picture I would not have believed it. It’s been 28 days of self-isolation and like everyone, I’m in a sad state.
The last two days have been great with Ari. Sitting outside warming ourselves by our new fire pit, staring at the sky, and having Ari look for the big dipper was pretty damn cool. We made a rule that no devices could ever come outside on our deck. We sang a little, talked a little, listened to the wind, and snuggled.
I had a surge of creative energy come over me and my pen could barely keep up with my thoughts and my ideas for my one-woman show and my 2nd screenplay. I couldn’t sleep last night, ideas just kept coming. I ran into the kitchen, grabbed a clipboard, index cards, and a pen, then set them all up next to the bed so I wouldn’t have to keep getting up! I thought of a title for my show at 4am, “Updo’s and Evening Gowns!” I fucking love it!
Today I made the mistake of opening myself up to TV and social media and I accomplished nothing. My spirit was squashed. Perhaps a little bit of Good Friday got into me as well. I was looking so forward to taking Ari to the ‘Stations of the Cross’ and Palm Sunday Mass and teaching him about ‘The Passion of Christ’ which is what really, really pulls me back to Church. The story of Jesus and my undying wish that I could really really believe that he was the Son of God, or that God exists even- as religion portrays Him.
I know I believe in something. I know God exists. Ari’s Baptism will be canceled for sure and that’s sad. So, one more Easter with him thinking it’s about the bunny and candy. He’s six, he’ll survive!
Can’t quite rise above the fear and depression today. Perhaps because it is Easter and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do and the clouds have been threatening rain all day. Ari was not feeling anything but excitement and sugar rushes! He has been super creative all day. His Easter basket was filled with more tows than candy so he helped himself to a steady stream of cereal, airheads, Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Eggs, and spoonfuls of granulated sugar! Wow! He cut boxes, dixie cups, and paper to make trucks and cars from his Easter basket, custom and deluxe! He made tracks and an arena out of cardboard and when he grew tired of that, he jumped on every single piece of furniture we own that has a spring!
I needed a nap at 5 pm. He woke me up dashingly dressed in Easter clothes that were hanging in the closet that I had bought before the pandemic. I saw no point in even dressing today, but I’m glad that he did!
April 14th, 2020
WE FLEW A KITE!!! Just our luck, it was probably the windiest day Cleveland has ever seen! Seriously, I could not believe how much fun Ari and I had. It will be one of those positive things to look back on and say, “If it weren’t for Corona Virus, we would never have done that!” Just like Scrabble, which we played for the first time today- not nearly as much fun and Ari only lasted about 20 minutes, but still, not something we would have done normally!
April 15th, 2020
I am uttering words like bankruptcy and eviction. Words that would have never applied to me or Tastebuds. I’ve been building credit since I was 18 years old- when I insisted Sears give me a credit card and had a $4000 purchase riding on it to give them the incentive. I was buying furniture for my first apartment at 939 Jefferson, in Tremont, in 1989! I have built and maintained impeccable credit my whole life and that’s why I could do things like buy a multi-family house at 23, open a business at 30, and lease a Porsche at 40!
Well, it’s been awesome, I had a really great run, but now, the time has come to kiss it all goodbye. The restaurant had $15,000 in our account 30 days ago and we now have $1400. I’m starting to face the cold hard fact that Tastebuds is going out of business. This is no time to be a small business owner. The government said they would swoop in fast and keep the economy going. Well, too little, too late is the reality. We applied for an SBA loan for $20,000 which I now realize is totally inadequate, on April 7th. We had everything ready to go on the 1st, but the portal didn’t open till the 7th because of glitches in the system.
My mind, stomach, and heart are heavy with worry for my employees. How have they been surviving? I talked to my attorney earlier about bankruptcy and he was incredibly helpful. He explained that I most likely don’t need to do all of that. Bankruptcy is a tool to help companies who wish to remain in business and at this point, I am 55% sure we do not wish to remain in business.
These are my reasons:
The joy is harder and harder to find.
People have become nasty or simply distracted- on BOTH sides of the counter and kitchen.
Food sources worry me. There are constant recalls and E coli and salmonella outbreaks and for the last few months, chicken and fish have just been weird.
Everyone in America is sick all of the time now.
My employees are paid at the absolute ceiling- I cannot afford to give any more raises and food prices are soaring.
My chefs need health benefits and retirement plans that I cannot offer.
The cost of doing business just keeps going up.
People want online ordering and delivery. I didn’t get into the restaurant business to have a dining room full of Uber drivers pacing anxiously or to pay fees to middlemen.
I was done emotionally a year ago when employee infighting, lies and petty theft became too much.
It’s not really reasonable to think that Erin can build a restaurant from the ground up, with the pay cut that it would undoubtedly require and be necessary to survive. And certainly not with three kids potentially needing to be homeschooled.
I want to change careers and have dreams of being a writer and filmmaker.
I want to move to Ireland.
Reasons to Stay:
I will miss Tastebuds TERRIBLY.
I will miss our Regulars TERRIBLY.
I may regret giving up that huge space for what I pay in rent.
I may never make that kind of money ever again.
I will miss working those hours.
19 years is a long time. Owning Tastebuds has cost me almost all of my personal and familial relationships. At the same time, it’s made my life extraordinary. It’s been a dream come true and I’ve met so many incredible people and have been given so many opportunities. I love Tastebuds and I cannot imagine life without it, but it is dying and I can’t die with it.
I just had a breakdown on my kitchen island counter. Today was a day full of gut punches from our government leaving me full of rage. I used to wonder if my running away from home or walking out of a job saying, “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU ALL!” was childish. Now that I feel it so strongly at 49 years old, I realize it’s not childish at all. It’s a perfectly mature and justified reaction to INJUSTICE and BULLSHIT and my reaching the point where I CAN’T TAKE ANYMORE OF EACH!
YESTERDAY I felt like it was ME making the decision to close Tastebuds, a painful decision, but something I could live with the consequences of because I CHOSE to close. And TODAY…I FIND THAT I’VE BEEN SQUEEZED OUT. The money that was set aside to help small businesses is gone. Drained by greedy, old, rich, white male republican owners of chains or fine dining restaurants including some that are racist, anti-gay, or big game hunters. THAT’S IT! I’M DONE! FUCK YOU AMERICA! YOU DON’T DESERVE ME OR MY RESTAURANT, OR MY SON, OR ANY OTHER THING I CREATE! (See note!)
Also, the guidelines have been put out by the president to begin re-opening the country and there will still be very strict requirements on restaurants, which is to say, we are opening prematurely. My attorney looked at my lease today and thankfully, it looks like we can walk away without losing any personal wealth. “Tastebuds is the tenant,” he said, “and the tenant has nothing in the bank.”
(Side Note: Please don’t think I hate America. Like just about every other deeply passionate and loving relationship in my life, it’s complicated! I was extremely upset after reading an article that the PPP Loan Funds had been drained by companies with millions, even billions of dollars in reserve, while the status of my $20,000 loan application seemed permanently ‘under review.’ I was interviewed about this a month later on ‘Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and learned that the LA Lakers received a PPP Loan of nearly FIVE MILLION DOLLARS! More on that later!)
April 17th, 2020
I started the day today thinking that my head chef should buy Tastebuds, but I was hesitant to tell him because it would be like selling someone a used car during a gas shortage and a driving ban! No matter how good the deal was, I’d never hear the end of it if he couldn’t make a go of it!
Things will go wrong. It’s clear to everyone in the world that this pandemic will return and will close businesses again. So whatever I decide to do, the odds of succeeding are miserably low.
By afternoon, I had a long-awaited, much-anticipated conversation with the chief architect for the city of Cleveland, who I had called about getting our occupancy permit for Tastebuds at long last! I became excited again about the prospects of building a dinner theater and applying for a liquor license or being able to sell Tastebuds down the line with a clear conscience and make money off of something I worked so incredibly hard to build.
But then…a miracle happened!
I texted Father Mark to confirm that Ari’s Baptism was indeed canceled and he called me back right away. We talked for a half hour about the crossroads before me. He quoted Jesus several times and really really helped me. He asked me how my plans were going for Ireland and I told him how badly I wanted to go but that everything was in jeopardy.
He said he’d been playing a lot of guitar in his isolation and he was hoping I was writing during this time. I mentioned that the challenges of Tastebuds and having a six-year-old by my side 24/7 eat up all of my days.
He gave me assurance that whatever I decide, will be the right decision. He sent me the only song he ever wrote when we hung up called ‘Give it a Try.’ He wrote it after seeing a good friend of his play guitar and sing at a coffee shop. He wasn’t very good, but he was excited and it was his excitement that made the audience love him and cheer him on. Father Mark said he could tell that everyone sitting in that room had something they always wanted to do, but were afraid to try.
I loved the song! I was stunned by how great he sounded singing and playing guitar. I sent the song to Erin and she was impressed too!
About an hour later he sent the message that just might be the most incredible way to end Tastebuds. The message said:
“I was thinking…If you have to liquidate and you need somebody to buy your restaurant equipment…Remember St. Michaels as a potential buyer because we are trying to renovate our kitchen that’s attached to our gymnasium. We are hoping to transform it someday into a reception hall/basketball court.
I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. I hope Tastebuds truly bounces back. This is like when somebody’s dying and they ask if they can have your stereo!!! Forgive me! Thank you!
LOL! Squeaky wheel gets the grease! And now I am inspired, knowing that our equipment could have a good home if it comes to that!
So…What a way to end that would be! Donate the restaurant equipment to St. Michael the Archangel! It’s the only decision so far that makes me smile and it’s not followed shortly by a wave of doubt and a pit in my stomach and fear in my heart.
Plus- I would still own Tastebuds. If I were to sell Tastebuds, it would belong to someone else. Like the architect told me, “Tastebuds is NOT the walls and the building that houses it!” Do I really want to sell my concept, my recipes, my paintings? Great question!
And why should I get my landlord an occupancy permit? He’s the muther fucker that wouldn’t comply- wouldn’t put one dollar toward the fucking safety of the building. And how good would it feel to remove every valuable thing before walking away and giving it to the Church? To Father Mark? Wow! That would feel amazing. The Spanish parishioners are always cooking and could really benefit from everything I own.
This could be Tastebuds’ legacy. Leaving with one final act of generosity.
A Parting Gift.
It’s definitely a leap of faith. A belief that I will be more successful. That I will go on to bigger better things.
You get what you give.
Sure, I might be giving up hundreds of thousands of dollars, but what is still owning Tastebuds worth to me?
I love this idea!
To Be Continued!
One thing that I have never done is wait for very long to make a decision. I have found that the decision itself hardly matters at all. It is what comes next that determines your outcome. It is the effort you make, the work you put in and your shear determination that will PROVE you made the right choice. Dr. Seuss had it right when he described ‘The Waiting Place’ as a ‘Most Useless Place’ in one of my most favorite books, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Here’s an Excerpt:
You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place…
…For people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.
That’s not for you!
Thank You For Being Here With Me My Friends!
It’s crazy what a nail-biter the re-telling of this saga is to me. I lived it and know exactly how it ends and yet, it is fascinating for me to read through these old journals and watch as my fate and the fate of the world unfolds in the face of the pandemic.
This post marks the one year anniversary of my SubStack Newsletter and I cannot thank all of you enough for your support. I encourage those of you who have not yet become paid subscribers to please consider doing so, as it is becoming more urgently needed and sincerely appreciated.
As I begin year two, paid subscribers can expect to see more videos mostly about cooking but I’d love to show you what life is like here in Cork Ireland as well, and maybe even introduce you to some of my dear friends, many of whom are immigrants to Ireland as well, from Europe, Africa and India and they all have amazing stories and recipes to share with you as well! I do hope you will join us!