It’s a dirty little secret that’s not really so secret.
And yet, independent restaurant owners have to be mum about it anyway. They have hard times. Really, really hard times, where they sometimes even have to entertain the idea of shutting the doors. But they can’t tell anyone, because it might look like they are having hard times.
“You sort of have to suffer in silence,” says Sarah Harms-Master, whose restaurant Mr. Roberts in Pengilly, Minnesota closed last year. “It’s embarrassing. You want to keep up your airs.”
"Keeping up airs" is in part what keeps restaurant ownership looking glamorous. A restaurant has to always look shiny, new, exciting, and most of all successful, so that it can continue to attract customers, who, after all, go in part for a fantasy.
Angelo Pennacchio has owned Minneapolis' Bar Luchador since 2015. Like almost all indie restaurateurs, he was seeing the realization of a lifelong dream. “My mom still has my frigging 'Angelo’s Cafe' typewritten sign up on the wall.”
And he repeats the very same mantra I hear from most independent owners, even the ones who’ve loved and lost: It’s the most difficult thing in the world, and the most rewarding.
Still, hard times are a very hard, very real reality. Pennacchio recently had to swallow some pride and put up a plea on Facebook for new customers to take advantage of a Groupon, and to please visit the restaurant. It read:
“Hey everyone! I'm a proud dude, so it's super embarrassing to admit that the end of December/January has been a really hard month at Luchador. I don't love Groupon but I would absolutely love if the people I love took advantage of this awesome deal and came and enjoyed the restaurant for super cheap!”
There’s that word again: embarrassing.
“I hated writing that post,” he tells me. But, he said, if it encouraged people to come out who hadn’t been in, then perhaps some good could come out of it.
Bar Luchador is located in Stadium Village, so when school is out, it’s especially tough financially. Plus, he says, the weather is crummy in January, and people are trying to stick with their New Year's resolutions to eat and drink less. He calls it a “triple whammy” for the restaurant.
Meanwhile, he’s struggling to retain good employees while business is down, so even though he can and does do quadruple duty as cook, bartender, server, and dishwasher, there’s only so much staff trimming he can do. He has to make sure those people can continue to make the money they need to live and to stay working there.
He knows that business will be back up soon enough, but in the meantime he pivots, he’s nimble, he wears all the hats. “You don’t think about it day to day or you’d drive yourself insane,” he says.
But the day-to-day business can be the difference between keeping the doors open and not. I’ve had owners tell me off the record that even one bad week could ruin them.
“People come in and spend their hour and a half in the restaurant and either like it or hate it and then go online and bash my life,” says Harms-Master, laughing wryly. “You spend every ounce of your life there. It’s hard to take even one day off.”
The always entertaining Eddie Wu of Cook St. Paul, one of our most vocal and honest restaurateurs (“I have no shame, all my dignity is already gone, you can’t humiliate me anymore,” he half jokes) says retaining the illusion of success while struggling runs deep.
He tells me a story of writing what he thought was a private letter to a magazine that featured his restaurant, thanking them and explaining how thin the margins can be, and how a little press can make all the difference. Unbeknownst to him, it ran as a letter to the editor. He got calls from other restaurateurs, thanking him for speaking out about the delicate subject. He had no idea that he had, but he says it illustrates how unwilling most owners are to admit that hard times happen.
“Nobody wants to hear about the owner who is working 80 hours a week and making less than the dishwasher. It ruins the dream.”
Harms-Master and her partner wound up launching a Go Fund Me page in a plea to save their restaurant. She had already sold her house and tapped out her savings account, and there was nothing left to do, they figured. They actually ended up making their goal, and it still wasn’t enough. The restaurant closed anyway.
“You have no idea how much money you have to spend," she says. "It’s pretty epic.”
Epic or not, Wu doesn't think he's speaking only for himself when he says it feels "shameful" to ask for help, and while other businesses have alternative avenues for assistance when times get lean, the belt tightening all falls back on the owner.
At his place, the servers are tipping out the cooks so that they can make a higher hourly wage. In gratitude, Wu takes fewer shifts on the floor so that the servers can recoup the money that they are passing on. Which means less money for Wu (and for his family). It's just how it goes.
Pennacchio can relate. He says he can always tell how well (or not well) the restaurant is doing based on how fat the stack of his own personal payroll checks is -- the ones he hasn't cashed.
If there's a bright side to any of it, Pennacchio says the lean times make him take a hard look at the product, figuring out where he can tighten the slack. He says that he's heard feedback more than once that "hey, the food is tasting better than ever" after a particularly tough stretch.
Though she admits she must be a glutton for punishment, Harms-Master says she'll do it again if she has the chance, and she'll know what to do differently this time around. She's currently running the kitchen at Red Stag if you want to get some of her cooking in the meantime.
As for Wu, he says if he had to do it all over, he might go back and work as a bathroom attendant at a strip club again.
Keeping it real, all day every day.