A Note From Kathleen Day a.k.a Katalina
Nine years ago, shortly after I opened a tiny cafe called Katalina’s in Columbus, Ohio, I developed a rare lung disease called Sarcoidosis. No one knows what causes Sarcoidosis. It could’ve been the stress of opening an independent restaurant or it could have been luck of the draw. Either way, I was in and out of the hospital and confined to bed for days on end.
One day when I was home, my husband dragged me to the restaurant, imploring me to show one of our cooks how to make a dish I had insisted be on the menu. At one point, the cook turned to me and said, “It must be nice to have enough money to open a restaurant and never show up.”
His comment was disheartening and frustrating. By that point, self-doubt about operating a restaurant rattled around inside of me along with a pair of very tired lungs. In fact, I felt a lot like I feel today, now running two successful cafes I’m in danger of losing because of a completely unexpected virus that targets the lungs.
It’s hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it the amount of hard work and sacrifice that go into opening an independent restaurant. Before I opened Katalina’s, I had dreamed of using my culinary skills to bring people joy for years. I knew I could do it. I was used to working hard. To put myself through undergraduate and graduate school, I had held two restaurant jobs at a time. I would go on to work in the advertising industry, where 14-hour days are not unheard of. Through it all I still looked forward to coming home and cooking at the end of a long day, even if it meant washing dishes after midnight.
Week after week, dish after dish (and marketing campaign after marketing campaign), I began to romanticize the idea of opening a restaurant. Finally, I did it. Then, like many romantics, my dreams and I met our match, face to face with a hard dose of reality.
I quickly learned that running and sustaining a restaurant takes much more than good cooking skills, hard work and some savings. It takes all that and a lot more. As in, a lot more money. I found myself back at my advertising job while my husband did his best to hold down the restaurant. The 14-hour days of my previous life started to seem luxurious. And then I got hit with my Sarcoidosis diagnosis.
A few days after my employee made his comment about me never showing up at the restaurant, Jack White (yes, THE Jack White) showed up. Lucky for me, he timed this “special appearance” just as social media was taking off. Just like that, my restaurant took off.
I got healthier, too. Was it related? Who knows? Who cares? I paid off my loan and started to build a solid reputation as I garnered some very public respect. Even the late, great restaurant critic Josh Ozersky wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Katalina’s “was proof that farm-to-table food didn’t have to be pretentious.” Next thing I knew, I qualified for a secured loan and opened a second location; an opportunity available to so few restaurateurs. I. Was. Making. It. Perhaps I could finally relax—whatever that means for an entrepreneur!
I had found a level of success that had taken me away from the stove to running what was now a full-fledged company employing over a dozen cooks—almost 50 employees and contractors. The last few years have, in fact, been good to many fellow restaurateurs. We’ve seen some of the most prolific openings in history, including both new openings and expansions. Economic growth combined with other factors such as people cooking less at home has greatly propelled our industry.
Truthfully, most of us small-business owners get up every morning motivated by fear of failure, always thinking about how to avoid what “might happen next.” However, I never imagined something the likes of which is happening now. A pandemic? I couldn’t have written a science-fiction novel provoking as much fear as this has for restaurant owners.
But here we are. Just like that, everything I worked for is in danger of being erased. I’m hanging on for dear life. But how did I get here? I had read Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. I was a glass-half-empty girl. I was a risk-taker turned save-for-a-rainy-dayer. I was the ex-party girl my employees now called a worrier, begging me to “take it easy.” I was responsible, dedicated, driven. And yet—none of that mattered in what seemed like an instant.
Literally overnight, the world turned upside down for almost every restaurant owner in America. We were directed (rightly so) to close our doors or remain open for take-out and delivery only, something few of us were prepared for. Those of us, who didn’t deliver before because of its infringement on any kind of true profit, now needed delivery to save us.
And, of course, there’s the possibility of contracting an illness on top of all that. Now that I’m finally healthy, I’m back to wondering about respirators. Talk about irony. Many of the symptoms of the coronavirus happen to be similar to the symptoms of Sarcoidosis. I’ve been on a respirator. Will there be one for me if I get sick again? And what about my employees? What about restaurant employees in general? Will they be okay? And if we’re all okay, will there be restaurants and jobs to come back to if we survive?
Those of us who have been able stay open have seen our sales drop to unsustainable levels, and we’ve had to lay off an incomprehensible number of workers. Our cash reserves—including personal savings—have been depleted for payroll and to buy food, as vendors have begun requiring cash on delivery. Many of us (those who actually qualify) have loans that are secured personally and live in fear of losing our homes and more. Those of us who don’t have secured loans have family or other investors who aren’t being paid back.
Government relief sounds promising, but as with all government programs, it will take time and red tape, and it will not be enough save favorite independent restaurants. The sad truth is, because of the restaurant business model (think perishable food, low profit margins, lease vs. ownership), many venues can’t survive for even a few days without regular sales. I’m doing everything I can, so I don’t have to shutter the business.
As an independent operator, I, like most, am passionate and tenacious. I opened my restaurants because I love food and community—and I truly believe that I’m making the world better, one little bite at a time. There was no way I could have prepared for this. None of us could have. But we’re pushing on. During this unprecedented time, we are a trusted neighbor. My employees are providing a source of food during a time when the capacity at our grocery stores is increasingly strained. Our customers not only look to us for sustenance but also for comfort. While gathering is not allowed, delivery from a favorite restaurant doubles as a much-needed dose of normalcy.
Whether they realize it or not, our employees are like family to us as well—and we owners are fully aware that we are only as good they are. I rarely remember anything more difficult than having to lay off employees who have contributed to my success. As for the employees who are left, many of us owners are paying them before we pay ourselves. Regardless, many restaurant workers are struggling, bearing the brunt of this crisis as they are laid off or their hours are cut. They cannot wait weeks for relief, as many of the proposals under way will require.
My hope is that the government looks to the independent business owner, in particular the restaurant owner, and provides relief beyond the current, undelivered promises. As it stands, we will owe more money (with interest) to the banks and the government that had already been denying many of us loans based on the fact that we were supposedly not a good bet.
What is a good bet? I certainly wasn’t 10 years ago when I opened my restaurant. But Katalina’s became a destination. My customers don’t want to see a chain restaurant on every corner. They want a place where employees know their names. Think about a world without a single independent restaurant, diner or coffee shop. Would you like to live in that world? If not, help us independent restaurants by making sure your voice is heard. Sign petitions. Contact your government representatives, such as Senators and Congressmen and women. If not for my restaurant, for our communities and me. For our employees.
Speaking of employees, remember the guy with the snarky remark about me not being in my restaurant when I was sick all those years ago? He recently brought his daughter in. He pulled me aside and shyly said, “I’d like to introduce you to my daughter.”
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“Katalina,” she replied.
How much do you want to bet she ends up working in an independent restaurant? I certainly hope so.
–Kathleen Day, May 2020