Thunderstorms of Change

There are so many ups and downs in this quarantine. This began as one of those down weeks. Struggling with the idea of opening, something that 65 days ago, when we were submerged by the knowledge that we would have to close our restaurants, we were buoyed only by the thought of when we could open again.
And now? Well, to put it mildly, it’s complicated.
It’s a complicated decision for every business, but particularly for restaurants. Our workers are in the front line of bodily functions so to speak and even with every precaution in place, you cannot control the actions of humans.
Add to that the fact that I am thousands of miles away from Danny while we make these decisions, well, it becomes more of a battle than a conversation at times. This is one of those weeks where our conversations have become monotonous for us both – the misunderstandings and communication problems that can happen over texts and internet calls with lags in conversations and mishearing the directional tone – needless to say we are both feeling a bit empty. We are at our best when we are in sync and this has not been a synchronized week.

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Michelle Moran & Danny Mellman. Early years in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

Anyone who knows us personally, knows we have these moments often, even in person. Normally, in conversation, we talk at the same time. We also have a tendency to get a bit loud when we “discuss” options. And so the past 10 days have been, well, frustrating.
Moreso for Danny, I am sure, as I can sit down and start writing or paying bills or research how to stay afloat for what I believe will be a crazy eighteen months ahead. Meanwhile, Danny is on the end of the phone that still has to make the face-to-face decisions.
In fact, today he has a meeting with the entire team to discuss reopening plans for dine-in Memorial Day weekend at Harvest on Main, Masseria Kitchen + Bar, and La Pizzeria – all the restaurants with the exception of Cucina Rustica which is still curbside and Blue Smoke Barbecue which we have put on the market to sell.
It is the first time I have not been by his side in over a decade of team meetings. In fact, I am normally the one who leads them. So, who knows, he may be relieved. I am sure the team will be relieved as I normally pull out a test or try some sort of new team-building exercise.
We would never open a new restaurant on a holiday weekend, such that it is, and reopening with the new restrictions and safety protocols is basically like reopening three new restaurants on the same day. So we are all a bit on edge.
In the midst of this I got an email announcing another repatriation flight this week – which would get me home for my nephew’s birthday and Memorial Day weekend craziness. I was immediately filled with angst. Every time they announce another flight to the states, I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I know I have to stay here and work.
In the days following Danny’s departure back to the states, I questioned my decision to stay in Belize over and over. Of course, I felt a bit nervous about staying since the island was the location of the first reported case in Belize. And then I felt guilty for second-guessing myself. Did it make me a bad person that I was now second-guessing my decision to stay because we had cases while sending Danny back to the States? Was I really a bad person for thinking, ‘Great, I thought Belize was the safest spot and now Fannin had no cases?’
Talk of repatriation flights made me even more unsettled. No one really had answers. How bad would Belize get if cases grew? What sort of care would I get in a third-world country compared to the US? What would I do with our dogs here if I could not get back in a month or so to get them back from the neighbors? How would I manage the rentals here and the small renovation project already underway?
Ugh, the labors of being human.
One particularly bad morning I sent Danny a pretty pitiful video chat missing him. I felt bad as soon as I sent it, I mean what good would it do? I wanted him to know how much I missed him but I certainly didn’t want him to feel bad.
After he saw it he asked me to not send one like that again, the one saving grace in all of this was him thinking I was happy in Belize and that I could write and get the house here ready for whenever things opened again.

Whenever. Who knew whenever would continue to be so far away.

So I buckled back down, continuing to push through unemployment for 97 team members. It was crazy, the calculations and timelines the state uses to figure qualifications out. I became an expert. And because of really amazing friends in government and the Chamber of Commerce, I was able to find someone in the state to bounce my roadblocks to qualifications by – this amazing woman put up with me – and still puts up with me 53 days later.
I promised myself I would only send her one email a week so as not to be one more thorn in her side. The work these government officials across the country face is maddening and without recognition. I wanted to be sure I was someone who recognized her for her ongoing efforts.
It was also difficult to not just play whack a mole with team members that were not getting their funds. This is where being in Belize was a Godsend. While I understood their angst ten-fold, as we faced the same disappearing income and uncertain future on so much greater a level than I could ever imagine – everyone on my team had their livelihoods changed in an instant. Being in limbo for weeks – and for some more than a month- as to where their next paycheck would come from was overwhelming. Keeping the same level-headed response to them regardless of whether they had completed all the paperwork as instructed or ever bothered to log into their state unemployment portal was critical.
Luckily, two of my team stepped in to assist – Susan Bell and Erin Hagan – kept at it with staff Stateside giving instructions on how to login and set up their accounts so they could monitor their qualification status. Erin ultimately became the unemployment whisperer and main point of contact or liaison between me and the team – an act of sacrifice I will forever be grateful to her for taking on.
And now, we are coming to the other side of it, for now. Some of my team still never received unemployment – a benefit I have to say is pretty overwhelmingly in support of the low- and mid-income hourly worker. The central government was very generous to add to the state unemployment bank with a $600 a week bonus payment to every worker who qualified, whether their state rate was $97 or the maximum of $365, the federal CARES mandate added another $600 a week to the pot.
That legislation was something that I was so grateful my team received. It meant the difference of them going out to try and find other employment to carry them through their furlough or simply not being able to make ends meet. For the other folks who did not qualify for anything, we set up a general account for funds raised through the sale of gift cards on GoFundMe. Of our $30,000 goal we raised $12,000 which we know we will still be tapping into as the months go on and business ebbs and flows. We paid rent, doctors bills, purchased gift cards for supplies, and more for staff. Anything remaining will be used as continued support and for PPE supplies and COVID19 testing.
The other thing the CARES Act allowed was partial employment, so as we work toward building our hours back, our team can still collect a portion of their unemployment benefits as we build back to full-time. The reason that is important is because, in spite of the fact that it’s critical we get people off unemployment, we still don’t know what the long-term effects of the changes will have on restaurants.
I believe, especially in Blue Ridge, we will be back stronger than ever. But it will take some time until capacities can be normalized and restaurants can begin to turn a profit. And the issue on top of that is most restaurants across the country had to take out loans to make their way through the pandemic shut downs, so in an industry with already tight margins we have a very short period of time to bounce back and begin making a loan payment on top of existing bills.
Our business was built on not having debt, so this is a particularly hard pill to swallow for Danny and myself, especially as Danny was looking toward stepping back a bit over the next 10 years versus going into debt for another thirty.
But these are unprecedented times.
This week, a group of restaurateurs were given a seat with the President of the United States. Never has it become so clear the part that restaurants play as one of the largest employers in the nation, nevermind the role our 650,000 restaurants play in the food supply chain. Our “down-time” has impacted so many other aspects of the nation’s economy that this industry has finally gotten some of the attention it deserves.
In seven short weeks, the independent restaurants across the country, joined forces for the first time ever speaking directly and honestly amongst themselves to get this crisis handled for restaurants of all sizes. I have been joining in and working with this incredible group – the Independent Restaurant Coalition – pushing out social media and writing letters to officials every day. So I know my time away from our restaurant group is paying off – being alone here has given me this gift of time.
Anyway, I digress.
My point is the variables on an average day in the hospitality business is mind-boggling. You have to love this business to work it for more than a decade. And you have to have an incredible understanding of it and passion for it to work it the forty-plus years that Danny has been involved.
And now, there are so many more hurdles and tightropes to walk to make it work out right. New equations to manage; protocols to maintain; and customer service improvements and impressions to navigate.
And while my team is up to the task and I am writing protocols and handbooks from Belize, I feel damn guilty not being by my partner’s side.
In the meantime, in my neck of the woods. I am learning to bathe from a temporary cistern outside as we emptied the cistern beneath the house to repair some cracks and clean it. Hauling 5 gallon jugs of water inside to flush toilets has been a learning experience. I mean, who knew how much water it takes to fill the toilet tank!
I have never been so grateful for a rainstorm. In one night we gathered 1,584 gallons of water into the cistern. So I am all in for more thunderstorms this week, although the dogs would prefer the rainwater be delivered without the midnight round of thunderous lightning.
So, as I sit here as a voyeur watching Danny and Addison give their insights to my crew on our security cameras back home, texting them information that I overhear them mention they don’t really have the answers to… and getting text messages back “are you watching us on the cameras?” – I take great joy and pride in knowing that these folks have it covered.
They are all my heart – Danny and Addison and Erin and Scotty and Jeremiah and CJ and Sean and Kelsey and Walter and…I can’t even begin to name them all. They are my family, fights and aggravation and misunderstandings and all – and it makes me smile and get a little teary-eyed knowing that I won’t be there this weekend to help them navigate the storm.
Here’s to hoping I am the only one with thunderous days ahead.
Until tomorrow, whenever that comes…please be safe out there.

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Published by The Chef & The Writer

Michelle has covered the specialty food industry for more than a decade traveling everywhere from Spain to Singapore in search of great eats, beautiful table settings and the best kitchenware. Her partner, Danny Mellman, is a James Beard Chef, Cakebread Cellars alumni and more...his remarkable ability to pair ingredients and flavors with passion and creativity brings joy to the kitchen, the plate and the diner.

3 thoughts on “Thunderstorms of Change

  1. Michelle, Shelly and I both really feel for you. Although we’ve never been in the restaurant business (I did work in several while in college), we understand and truly appreciate just how hard this whole thing is, for you and our many, many friends who have eating establishments. I have a cousin who is a nurse who spends all day determining the results of covid tests. Next to her and others like her, and first responders, I think restaurant people are truly at the greatest risk. I just have to comment on your last digression regarding water. Here in Las Cruces, our last recorded rainfall was on March 18. Since then, not a drop.
    Thankfully, we are both doing quite well, and our sons are both still employed, healthy and working from home. I understand why everyone in authority (with sense, and a reality check) has been trying to slow the spread, so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system, but I sometimes wonder if, like dealing with forest fire management, we might not have been better off to just let it run rampant, and concentrate on treating the most severe cases, rather than worrying about slowing the spread. I told Shelly that I’d have like to have contracted the virus back in February, when facilities to deal with it were readily available, and I could then have been a little more lax in my precautionary measures for the last three months. I’m still not sure that’s not a better approach. I am convinced that over the next 2 to 3 years more than three million Americans will contract the virus, and more than a half million will die from it, or related illnesses. That’s not being negative, just realistic, I think.
    Retail, and the restaurant, travel and entertainment industries will all have to establish new modii operendi. Like the advent of the internet, it’s a permanent game-changer.
    Hope you are enjoying your weather down there. And more than that, I hope you and Danny weather this whole mess without too much heartache.
    If you, and/or Danny get bored, or feel the need to just get away, we still have two very nice guest rooms, with 24/7 kitchen and bar privileges, and free transportation to/from the El Paso airport. Even have a Honda CR-V all wheel drive you can use while here. Also, we are truly missing entertaining. In the first two months of this year, we probably had either house or dinner guests 30 nights. Since the first of March, twice. And I have all these new recipes I keep creating, and no one to try them on. Our garden is in, and all the plants are up, with most of the herbs starting to be harvested. The tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, artichokes, and Padron (remember those?) peppers will take another few weeks.
    Stay well, and if you get a chance, send a note, just to say hello to us. Shalom,

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