I Lost My Restaurant To The Pandemic, And It Hurts

by Rickey Dobbs
A sad man who has lost his restaurant to the pandemic wearing a mask and is leaning against a glass ...

This is the post I’ve avoided writing for seven months.

I lost my restaurant.

No, I didn’t misplace it. It’s stationary. If it were a food truck, that might make sense, like I parked it somewhere and now I can’t find it. I’m a known drunkard, so it’s not that far-fetched. Plus, I make stupid jokes to keep from crying.

But no, I lost my restaurant in that I had to make the decision to shut it down permanently. It’s not all that funny. I had seen other people lose their businesses before, and that was fucking hilarious. But this time, it happened to ME, which was significantly less funny.

I decided to write this for two reasons.

First, I fell off this metaphorical horse seven months ago, and I love metaphorical equestrianism. The idiom indicates I have to get back on my majestic literary steed and ride the now exhausted figure of speech into battle. I’ve let too much time pass between the tumble and the remount, and I’m risking becoming scared of the ride.

The circumstances may have robbed me of one dream, but it’s on me if I let them steal two.

Second, it’s unfair to keep my struggles private when sharing them could help someone else. I don’t have a lot of secrets, but this one strikes at the core of my identity. I’m embarrassed. I’m furious. I’ve lost a non-zero amount of swagger. And I know I’m not the only one. As trite as it may seem, if sharing my story and struggles can help another cope with their own loss and grief, then I owe it to them to extend my hand.

For now, I’m just going to write about my favorite subject: me. So, here goes.

If It Can Happen To Me, It Can Happen To Anyone Who Is Also Amazing

When I was a little boy, I always dreamed of owning an Indian fast-casual restaurant in Washington, DC. What little boy in rural southeast Texas doesn’t envision that future?

Revisionist history aside, I’ve been working in restaurants since I was 14 years old. In those years, I noticed an oddity: the two best jobs in the business are server and owner. Everything in between beats you to a bloody pulp. Yes, being a server or an owner also repeatedly pummels you. The difference lies in the accompanying benefits of the smackdown.

When you’re a server, you have freedom to drop shifts, leave work behind when your day is done, and earn in proportion to your skill and effort. When you’re an owner, better or for worse, you’re your own boss. And, in theory, you likewise earn in proportion to your skill and effort.

But when you’re a manager, you’re tethered to the restaurant and almost universally underpaid. Perhaps worse, you answer to someone else, which is often someone who has no fucking idea what they’re talking about.

I was a manager (and other such titles) in the many years between “server” and “owner.” I worked insane schedules and made livable-at-best salaries. I spent hours dissecting and explaining numbers to owners/proxies who hadn’t worked a shift since the end of the Cold War (or in some cases, ever). And I alternated daydreams of returning to being a server and grabbing the just-out-of-reach brass ring of being the big boss.


Getty Images/Maskot

In my last job, I was hired to consult a small “scoop-and-go” Indian restaurant. The owners were negotiating to sell their business to a well-known franchising consultant who had identified it as a potentially replicable concept. He wanted to buy it and make it the next Chipotle. It just needed systems. And more sales. And better recipes. And better staff. And lower costs. And marketing. And new equipment. And capital. But other than that, it was great!

In the course of a year, I was able to right the ship. I took pride in seeing this soon-to-fail business become a profitable and fun place to work.

Then, like a middle-aged douchebag, the franchise consultant saw a sexier, younger restaurant sashay by. The owners of my place were told the big check they’d been waiting for was not coming. Well, it was coming to someone, just not to them. The douchebag and his stupid sexy homewrecker restaurant laughed as they drove off in a convertible.

Recognizing that the owners of the restaurant were now likely to get zero dollars for their investment, and recognizing that I also had that exact sum of money, I crafted a plan. I offered to buy the restaurant on terms such that I could pay for the purchase with the future cash flow of the business. That is, I would borrow the money to buy the restaurant from the sellers.

Best case: I’d be successful. The owners would get their payday over the next few years, and I’d own the restaurant. Worst case: I’d fail. The owners would get zero, and I’d be unemployed, both of which were about to happen anyway.

To my surprise, they agreed. In the course of a few days I went from “soon to be homeless” to “soon to be able to live in my restaurant if I had to.”

I was a restaurant owner. At long last, I was a restaurant owner.

Over the next three years, I built my restaurant into a solid little business. I’ll spare you all the ins and outs of it; suffice it to say it was sustainable and doing well enough to provide me with what I really wanted: a job, a tiny chance at hitting it big, and no boss. And it provided eleven people with decent-paying jobs, working for an owner who understood first hand what their job was like. I not only remembered being an hourly employee, I was literally working beside them almost daily.

I was having some financial trouble before the coronavirus came around, to be fair. Solvable, but serious. I was in debt, and the winter had been tough on us. A year before, the 35-day government shutdown had nearly incapacitated DC, and in turn, my restaurant. As 2020 dawned—a full year later—we were finally recovering.

And then along came COVID-19.

Nice Restaurant You’ve Got There. Be A Shame If A Pandemic Killed It.

In March of 2020, Washington, DC shut down. Our in-house sales dropped by ninety percent. Our catering sales ground to a complete halt. It turns out people don’t order catering if they’re not at work, and people who are at work don’t want to share food with others during a global pandemic. Who knew?!

Was this shutdown going to last six weeks? Six months? When it was over, would people return to dining as usual? Catering as usual? How much money could I reasonably borrow? How long could I last without paying myself? Was I risking getting COVID-19 or exposing my team to it by staying open?

These questions and countless others clogged my thoughts. After two and a half months of operations on an unsustainable ten percent of normal sales, and many conversations with objective lawyers and accountants, I arrived at my decision: I had to close my restaurant permanently and walk away.

Did COVID-19 kill my restaurant? Basically, yes, although nothing is ever that simple.

It’s like the bullshit argument you hear from the science deniers on the right: sure, Ethel was 97 years old and had AIDS and hepatitis C and crashed her jet ski, but she came down with COVID-19 so the doctors will put that down as her cause of death.

I get the skepticism. But irrespective of her preexisting conditions, COVID-19 was the proximate cause of her heart ceasing to beat.

We were sick, but had a plan to recover from that sickness. The plan was working, but we were immunocompromised. We certainly couldn’t afford to be exposed to a deadly disease in our condition. We didn’t need a miracle, we just needed a year or two of normalcy to pull through.

Instead, we got the opposite, and we died.

So, here I am. I lost my restaurant. A personally-unforeseeable externality arrived and blew up my already struggling situation. I’m embarrassed about it because it’s embarrassing. Being a restaurateur was a major part of my identity and a source of tremendous pride. Being an entrepreneur and a job-creator gave me self-confidence for pastimes such as arguing on the Internet. Owning my restaurant justified all my seemingly illogical steps and mistakes along the way.

I lost all of that, and it hurts deeply.

Falling down in front of people is embarrassing, even if someone trips you.

I’ve laid on the ground for a good long while. Today, I’m looking you all in the eye as best I can with the platform I have, laughing at myself to quell the searing pain, and assuring you that professional failure doesn’t have to become long-term personal failure.

I’m going to tell you that in the hopes that I’ll believe it, too. I fully believe it intellectually. I just need to internalize it on a deeper level, and I’m working on that. This is step one in regaining my swagger.

Thank you all for participating in my self-work.