A Sweet. Savory. Social (Distancing). Update

I’ve been putting off writing my next blog. Why? No good reason, just the usual excuses of “I’m too busy with this or that to sit down and put my thoughts down,” but let’s face it – I’ve been working an average of 85 hours a week, every week, for the last three years. There are not a lot of opportunities for reflection.

I had planned to write my next few blogs about the challenges and rewards of being a female restaurant owner and about how operating a business takes a village and requires a 24/7 commitment. The glimmer of hope that I have always had is to find a bit of personal balance – balance necessary to maintain a healthy marriage, start a family, and continuously strive to effect positive change in my staff, my community and my industry.

Instead, as I’m beginning to write this, I’m sitting at Table 11, the table towards the back of the restaurant that doubles as my office during the day, staring down an empty dining room to my left, and a skeleton staff to my right, taking a few phone calls and running the kitchen as we try to create a take-out model for a sit-down experiential restaurant, overnight.

The first few days after it became clear that this pandemic was going to hit our country hard were confusing: what precautions should we take? What’s necessary to keep the public and our staff safe? The last weekend of regular operations, we experienced a 30% decrease in volume – the troubling realization is that, in hindsight, it should have been much more than 30%, people should have been staying home and beginning to practice social distancing. On the other hand, the restaurant has bills to pay, at the time we were grateful for anyone walking through the door.

Deciding that a take-out model was not going to work was equally as complicated. What’s next? Four years of culinary school and three years as a business owner did not prepare me for 25 one on one conversations with our hourly employees to let them know that they no longer have jobs. Every conversation was gut-wrenching, and made worse but the uncertainty of the coming days and months.

Fast forward about two weeks, and I’m sitting in my living room, researching how to apply for small business loans, packing e-commerce orders, checking the GoFundMe page that we created to raise funds to support our laid-off hourly staff during this time, and working on the finishing touches of my first Vanillamore cookbook.

The past few weeks have been filled with a million emotions. As mentioned, running a restaurant is navigating an endless list of challenges, dotted with a nearly equal amount of rewards. Since our opening we have been steadily growing revenues and cover counts and experienced our two best months this January and February. We were on an upward trajectory, and then we were suddenly and unexpectedly stopped short.

Having a government-mandated pause to my 85 hour work weeks, has made the reality that I have been burning the candle at both ends for nearly three years sink in. I’ve taken on this opportunity to pause and really think about the future.

Two weeks into this global pandemic I announced to my friends, family, and extended support network that I’m pregnant. My husband and I are expecting Baby Boyer in September, and we are so excited to be starting a family! I could have not been more thrilled to find out we were expecting, but in between restaurant depot runs, staff meetings, menu tastings and general business owning the question of how to fit an infant into the mix kept arising. The unexpected opportunity to rest for the baby has been a silver lining. Vanillamore has always been a whole family endeavor, but the unpredictability of daily life had created real anxiety about how starting a family would work. My parent’s already spent endless hours helping me at the restaurant, and my husband helped me run the kitchen on the weekends. Vanillamore swung its doors open and swept away the normalcy of our lives and schedules but we have all always been grateful for the success that we were able to build.

The past few weeks have turned everything upside down. I have an opportunity to nest at home but I also have had to halt my dream, close the restaurant that I’ve built. I feel an immense amount of responsibility to take care of my staff, but with the restaurant industries’ razor-thin margins, and bills that still need to be paid, it’s impossible at the moment.

I am also not blind to the bigger picture of this moment. Millions of people are now home like me uncertain of what may come, many are sick, and many are struggling financially. As a family we have also had to front the crisis in different ways; my sister and I both sport white coats professionally, but while my business was shut down, she was thrust onto the front lines of the Covid-ICUs in NY-Presbytarian Hospitals at Columbia and Weill Cornell. Closing the restaurant feels trivial compared to what she’s been battling in this pandemic. She works long hours, with little equipment, and comes home to her two cats, as she has had to isolate herself from her husband and two and a half-year-old daughter – their family life is now held over FaceTime sharing online dinners and bathtime.

The Covid-19 pandemic has infected hundreds of thousands globally and will take a toll on all of us. However, when we communicate to our community through newsletters and on social media, the supportive words that are sent back are endlessly heartwarming and give me hope that whatever the other side of this is, it will be bright.

While there may not be an exact timeline for what will inevitably be a new normal, I am taking this opportunity to appreciate the small things in life and continuing to envision what the future of Vanillamore will look like. I am sorting through creative ideas, updating my business plan, and dreaming up new menu ideas. We are actively planning out the relaunch and will keep you informed as we gain clarity on Vanillamore 2.0.

I look forward to the days I get to invite my staff and customers back in through the doors at Vanillamore, to bring my little baby dinosaur to work, and for all the moments we will share once we get through this moment together. In the meantime, stay safe and wash your hands.

xo, Risa

Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation & change. – Brene Brown

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