In early January, Mei Lin, the chef and owner of Nightshade, a modern American restaurant in Los Angeles’s fashionable Arts District, read about a new virus spreading rapidly through China. “This is something so serious, it’s super contagious, and I knew it was going to affect the industry somehow if and when it came over to the States,” she said recently of her thinking at the time. Two months later, on March 15, when the city of Los Angeles issued its short-lived order that restaurants should reduce their dining-room capacity by half, the effects arrived, and they were far worse than she’d feared.
That night, she told her staff the possibility she’d warned them about had come to pass: They would temporarily close. “It was very somber, everybody looked sad, and I was just very apologetic,” she said. “I think everybody understood that it needed to happen.” Even at half capacity, the numbers wouldn’t work: Nightshade’s ambitious menu required a large staff of cooks and servers, and operating at anything less than full capacity wasn’t financially viable.
How do you close a restaurant? In even the most stable times, the restaurant industry is a risky bet, and closing is a decision plenty of owners have had to face in the wake of failing business or plain bad luck. But except under the worst luck (or worst business practices), there’s time to plan. Mass closures happen in the wake of natural disasters, but while there’s a bit of ambiguity about whether to say, ride out a hurricane (though, uh, don’t?), it’s clear when the storm has arrived and departed, and what wreckage it has wrought. Now, across not merely cities or regions but the entire country, and increasingly much of the world, restaurants are shuttering en masse with days’ or even hours’ notice. The path forward is murky at best, both economically and in terms of the actual crisis. In shuttered cities with inadequate testing and mounting cases of COVID-19, we wonder, is the hurricane here yet? Is it still offshore? And will the first glimpse of blue sky mark the end, or the eye?
Lin, an Eater Young Gun and Top Chef winner, spent years working toward opening Nightshade, which landed on several best new restaurant lists in 2019, including Eater’s. Her cooking mixes inspiration from her childhood, spent in her parents’ Chinese restaurant, with techniques gleaned from her time in high-end kitchens; her mapo lasagna, a sophisticated mashup of comfort foods, is one of the memes of dining-obsessed Instagram.
Nightshade earned a reputation as a stylish, playful restaurant that thrived in the swanky Arts District with 160 to 180 covers on weekend nights packed into the small, buzzing dining room with green velvet banquets. Lin said that as news of the novel coronavirus grew worse, the restaurant saw a drop in reservations, but peak weekend hours were still busy. “That actually shook me,” she said. “Why are people still going out? Stay home.” Her decision to close came in part because she realized there was no way to create six feet of distance between diners and staff to prevent the spread of the virus — their business model required that they were busy, and the risks of busy were too great.
Winding down a restaurant is not like shuttering any other kind of business; you can’t just lock the doors when most of your inventory can rot. The biggest item to grapple with was a wholesale order of short ribs for the restaurant’s showstopper dish. Lin decided to try doing takeout for a few days, primarily to partially recoup the costs of those short ribs, and advertised solely on Instagram. Nightshade didn’t partner with any delivery service, though it offered to provide curbside pickup for customers who didn’t want to come into the restaurant.
Lin decided to sell the short rib dish, which includes bibb lettuce and several types of pickles, for $65 instead of the normal $130, because that approached break even. On Tuesday, the first day of takeout, Lin said they only did eight orders. But after a story on Eater LA ran about her takeout efforts, she said customers called and placed orders while expressing their concerns for the restaurant. The short ribs were gone three days later.
Even after several days of takeout, there was a great deal of produce left over. All of it went to her staff; people could go into the walk-in and take whatever they needed. A local farm provided vegetable care packages to take home, too. Lin laid everyone off, she hopes temporarily, and encouraged them to apply for unemployment (though those systems are currently under strain). She’s not taking a salary, but the people she’s worried for are her employees. “It’s really difficult to even think about everybody trying to feed their families and pay their rents,” she said.
Every thinking restaurant owner in America right now is trapped on this same mental seesaw of risk, and the double-barreled lack of clarity about the number of COVID-19 cases and any economic relief only makes it tip back and forth more violently. Laying off staff leaves them in economic peril at the worst possible time; trying to keep people employed increases everyone’s risk of contracting the virus, and those haggard weeks of increased exposure might not even be enough to keep jobs afloat.
Lin considered keeping takeout going, but she’s still not convinced it was economically feasible. To make takeout work, she has to make $3,000 a day to cover supplies and labor, and she doesn’t know if there will be that level of demand now that every restaurant in the city is offering takeout, and as the looming recession’s shape and scope is yet to be determined. “I want to be able to provide jobs for some of my cooks that are temporarily laid off, but at what cost?” she said. “I know some people don’t even want to work, and I respect that.”
Shutting the doors on the restaurant itself, at least temporarily, was relatively simple. A few staff who wanted to keep working helped Lin do a deep cleaning of the dining room and kitchen, then rounded up some of the restaurant’s nicest dishware and other precious objects to put into storage. “I thought, Are people going to start looting soon?” she said. “I’m just trying to prepare for the worst.”
In part thanks to those four days of takeout, Lin has enough money to pay her April rent — $8,000, which is low for the Arts District — but nothing after. She’s sent an email to her landlord about the situation, but has yet to hear back. “Hopefully we get a break,” she said. “If not, we’re going to need to figure it out. [My landlord] has a lot of properties and is often out of the country.” By the time Lin was able to get to a grocery store to fill her own mostly empty fridge, the waves of hoarders had already been through. There was very little chicken left in the store, and absolutely no toilet paper.
Lin is still weighing whether to reopen and offer takeout; she’s hoping to reevaluate in two or three weeks when — and if — things settle down. Even if the crisis were to have passed a month from now, Lin could not simply reopen Nightshade. She would need the kind of capital she had at her first opening all over again. “We definitely need some dollars to reopen, I would say at least $50,000,” she said. That would cover food costs and payroll, including the expense of rehiring and retraining staff if those she had to lay off had moved on or found new jobs. If she kept the restaurant going with takeout, those costs might be blunted, at least a bit.
For now, Lin is trying to stay busy and keep moving at home, because otherwise she fears she will become paralyzed on the couch and eat everything in her fridge. “I’m one of those. I stress eat for sure,” she said. She can’t speculate on what happens if she can’t reopen; instead, she urges her customers and concerned diners to call their local representatives to make sure the crisis in the restaurant industry isn’t ignored. “I’m sure they are busy, but they really need to help us figure something out,” she said. “Otherwise there’s going to be no restaurants to go to.”
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent