Coronavirus Forced Me To Shut Down My Restaurant, But I Won't Let That Hold Me Back

4 Min Read

On December 11, 2019, I opened my first New York City restaurant, The Banty Rooster, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. The road to opening had been long: I sold my first successful restaurant, Work & Class, in Denver in October 2016 and moved to New York City six months later. I knew virtually no one in the city, but I was determined to take what I'd learned and pursue my biggest dream: owning and operating a restaurant in New York City that put the wellbeing of its employees first while creating a warm, convivial space where people could escape the pressures of life in the city.

Over the next three years, I hustled; jumped through hoops; pitched investors; searched for real estate; applied for SBA loans; and hired lawyers, architects, and general contractors to help me make my dream a reality. I'd sat for hours at the Fire Department and the State Liquor Authority to beg for final inspections and licenses. I'd interviewed, hired, and trained 32 employees, and on December 11, I proudly unlocked the doors and welcomed our first guests into the dining room.

Over the next three months, we began to hit our stride. Members of the press, reviewers, and influencers were talking about us. Our neighbors were becoming regulars, and our team was really beginning to gel. Reservations were up and so were sales. All of the hard work was finally paying off. And then the unimaginable happened — the coronavirus hit New York City in full force, and I had to close the doors I'd labored so hard to open. I laid off thirty-two employees, including my own husband, who is the restaurant's executive chef. The momentum we'd built came to a screeching halt.

Like many small business owners, I promptly filed a claim with our insurance company for business interruption losses, only to be swiftly denied because my location had not experienced physical damage, and even if we had, the policy contained an exemption for damage due to "viruses and bacteria." I felt frustrated, angry, silly, and small all at the same time.

Who was I to think that the insurance company I paid $27,000 a year to would ever step in to help?

I watched the news constantly — probably more than was healthy — waiting to see what type of stimulus package would pass and if small restaurants like mine would be included. I cleaned out the restaurant's walk-in coolers and donated food to our staff and neighbors. I texted my landlord to start a conversation about rent and contacted the bank who originated our start-up SBA loan to request that payments be deferred. I counted the pennies in our bank account and cursed myself for making a sizable payment to a contractor for our buildout just two weeks prior. That kind of liquid cash was now like precious gold.

I sent my 19 investors an email letting them know that I had decided to close and that we would not be processing takeout or delivery orders because I felt that it wasn't ethical to ask our staff to put their own health at risk by asking them to commute into work on public transportation. I was moving, but slowly, feeling numb and voiceless in a way I hadn't felt in a long time.

And then something changed. I realized that not having a voice was a choice. I called on the best piece of advice I've ever received, spoken by my mother many years before: "Don't give yourself choices you don't have."

Being silent and small was a choice, and it was a choice that I didn't have if I wanted to survive. I called our PR agency and filled them in on what was going on. If I felt this way, surely others did too. I wrote letters to Congress, called my representatives, and asked friends and family to do the same. I spoke with writers from Eater and CNBC and tried to articulate what I and other small business owners were (and still are) going through. I contacted my accountant, lawyer, and other friends in the business for support and advice. I may not be a famous chef or restaurateur with a platform like Danny Meyer or Tom Colicchio, but I decided that it didn't matter.

My voice, and others like it, also deserved to be heard.

Personally, I put the kibosh on any type of pity party. Poor-me thinking, stress eating, lying paralyzed in bed, and other activities that simply create more problems are off-limits. Feeling bad for myself, dwelling on all the failings of government, or projecting my fears and anxieties into an unknown future isn't healthy or productive — it simply drains precious energy from other, more important pursuits.

Today, I'm using my time to reflect on The Banty Rooster's first few months as if it were a dress rehearsal for the main show. What worked? What didn't? What changes need to be made in our business model to be competitive in a post-pandemic marketplace?

Financially, I've applied for multiple grants and loans, including the important but flawed Paycheck Protection Program. I haven't received word, or funds, from any of them yet, but I am cautiously optimistic that I will. If I don't, I'll do what I did to build the restaurant in the first place: keep at it until someone, or something, breaks in my favor. If there's anything I've learned as an entrepreneur, it's to never, ever give up. Giving up is a choice, and it's a choice that I simply can't allow myself right now.

This article was originally published March 17, 2020.

5 min read

Lessons Learned and the Power of Turning 50

Except for 16, I have celebrated all of my milestone birthdays in New York City.

I turned 16 in Arnold, Missouri. Arnold is a small town (though not small anymore) 20 miles south of St. Louis. St. Louis is known for the Gateway Arch, a beautiful arch of shiny stainless steel, built by the National Parks Service in 1935 to commemorate Thomas Jefferson's vision of a transcontinental U.S. St. Louis is also known for its custard, a frozen dessert that is so thick, they hand it to you upside down with a spoon inside. Something else about St. Louis you should know is that there is a courthouse just steps from the base of the Gateway Arch where one of the most important cases in history was tried: Dred Scott v. Sanford.

I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive.

Mr. Scott was born into enslavement around 1799 and, in 1830, was sold to a military surgeon who traveled back and forth between his military posts in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1842 the doctor and Mr. Scott both married, and they, all four, returned to St. Louis. Still enslaved, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit against the doctor's wife for his and his wife Harriet's freedom. We don't know exactly why he chose this moment in time to file a lawsuit, however, he did. At the time of filing his, now, famous lawsuit, he was 50 years old. Ultimately, The Scott family did not gain their freedom, but their profound courage in filling this case helped ignite the Civil War and what we would come to know (or think we know) as freedom from enslavement for all human beings. Powerful then and even more powerful now.

My next milestone was turning 21, and I did it in the Big Apple. Having only moved to "the city that never sleeps" a few months prior, I knew nobody except my new friends, the bus-boys from the restaurant I was working at, Patzo's on the Upper West Side. And, yes, pazzo is actually the correct spelling of the Italian word, which translates to "crazy." Trust me we all had several laughs about the misspelling and the definition going hand in hand. I worked a full shift, closing out at around 11 PM, when, my kitchen team came out from the line with a cake singing, "Cumpleaños Feliz." It was fantastic. And the kindness of these almost-strangers was a powerful reminder of connection then as it still is today almost 29 years later.

I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy.

When I turned 30, I had just finished a European tour with Lucinda Childs dance company. The company had been on tour for months together and were inseparable. We traveled through Paris, Vienna, Lisbon, and Rome. We ate together, we rode on a bus together, we had drinks after shows together, and we even took turns giving company class to get warmed up before a show. It was deeply meaningful and dreamy. We ended the tour back in New York City at BAM, The Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was an incredible way to end the tour, by being on our home court, not to mention I was having an important birthday at the culmination of this already incredible experience.

So, when I invited everyone to join me at Chelsea Pier's Sky Rink to ice skate in late August, I was schooled really quickly that "tour" does not mean you are friends in real life, it means you are tour friends. When the tour ends, so does the relationship. I skated a few laps and then went home. This was a beautiful lesson learned about who your real friends are; it was powerful then as it is today.

Turning 40 was a completely different experience. I was in a serious relationship with my now-husband, Joe. I had just come off of a successful one-woman dance show that I produced, choreographed, and danced in, I had just choreographed a feature film, John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes, with A-list actors, including Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini, who became a dear friend and had even been on the red carpet with Susan Sarandon at the Venice Film Festival for the movie a year earlier.

And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age.

This was a very special birthday, and I had, in those 10 years between 30 and 40, come to cultivate very real friendships with some wonderful colleagues. We all celebrated at a local Italian restaurant, Etcetera Etcetera (who is delivering for those of you in NYC — we order weekly to support them during COVID), a staple in the theater district. Joe and I were (and are) regulars and, of course, wanted to celebrate my 40th with our restaurant family and friends. We were upstairs in the private room, and it was really lovely. Many of those in attendance are no longer with us, including Joe's Dad, Bob Ricci, and my dear friend Jim Gandolfini having transitioned to the other side. Currently, that restaurant is holding on by a thread of loving neighbors and regulars like us. Life is precious. Powerful then and today even more so.

I write this article because I'm turning 50, still in New York City. However, I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive. And I could not be more filled with hope, love, possibility, and power. This year has included an impeachment hearing, a global pandemic, and global protests that are finally giving a larger platform to the Black Lives Matter movement. Being able to fully embody who I am as a woman, a 50-year-old woman who is living fully in purpose, takes the cake, the rink, and the party.

I'm making movies about conversations around race. I've been happily married for 11 years to the love of my life, Joe Ricci. I'm amplifying and elevating the voices of those who have not previously had a platform for speaking out. I choose who to spend time with and how long! I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy. Being 50 is one of the most amazing things I ever thought I could experience. And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age. I'm 50 and powerful. Dred Scott was 50 and powerful. This powerful lesson is for today and tomorrow. We have the power. No matter what age you are, I invite you to use your powerful voice to join me in making the world a better place.