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What is it like owning a restaurant today? | Moment's Notice

Series: Coronavirus | Story 196

Last updated 5/21/2020 at 8:41am

Cheesemonger's Table

This week, the Beacon asked me to write this Arts & Appetite column from my perspective as a restaurant owner. Since my personal feelings are entwined with any attempt at a rational evaluation of the restaurant world today, this may be less an exercise in journalism and more a first-hand account.

As many of you may know, my husband and I own The Cheesemonger's Table in downtown Edmonds. It is a small café, focused on organic, local ingredients and recipes for our favorite sandwiches, salads, and soups, as well as a selection of cheeses and charcuterie.

It grew out of our previous businesses in Edmonds: Olives Gourmet Foods/Café & Wine Bar and Resident Cheesemonger.

Running a restaurant during good economic times is difficult, let alone during an international pandemic.

Profit margins are slim, minute really – an average of 3-5%. Think about that – $3 out of every $100 that comes in is profit.

For every dollar you spend at a restaurant, at least a third of that pays for labor and another 30% to food costs, especially at a place like ours that prides itself on the best ingredients.

Rent, utilities, advertising, etc., etc. It all adds up and restaurants find themselves functioning with very little room for error, or significant economic or health disruptions.

This pandemic has caused us to make difficult decisions, and we are among the luckiest of small-business owners to be in a community like Edmonds that is so supportive. We limited our menu because buying perishable ingredients with fewer sales means food will go unsold.

We cut staff hours because sales did not support payroll. We choose what protective and medical equipment to buy with changing guidelines and ever-rising prices, and to figure out how to talk to customers on the phone wearing a mask.

It was not easy, but we also decided to end our relationship with food-delivery apps. These apps take 30% of the cost of a menu item, not from our profit margin as is often reported in the media, but off the top. If we charge $10, they take $3 of those dollars.

The apps knew they were forcing us to sell at a loss, but said we are open anyway and should consider the losses from app orders as a marketing expense. In today's economic climate, that is no longer an option.

But most of all, we worry.

We worry about our employees, who are like family, about their health, their financial welfare, their futures. We worry about how businesses will operate safely in Phase 2 or Phase 3 of reopening.

We worry about our fellow small-business owners who may not survive as we feel the great divide in this country between Wall Street and Main Street (you just need to look at the recent increase in the stock market to see where the majority of federal investment has been to buoy the economy).

We worry about the hundreds of businesses that contribute to every sandwich we make – the bakery that made some of our breads just closed its doors after decades. (How we wish we could support our creameries and other suppliers at the same levels as we did in the past.)

At the end of the day, and often in the middle of a sleepless night, we worry about ourselves. We try to hide the worry, even from each other. The failure of a business that is a part of our existence is indescribable.

Small business owners are not separate entities from their companies. Like us, most have to sign personal guarantees for leases or credit terms or loans. We take on that personal risk because we know how local business owners want to invest in local schools or nonprofits or community assets, and we do not want to imagine our hometown filled with only national chains.

So what is it like owning a restaurant today? Not easy, but it never was.

It does not feel like we will have been small-business owners in Edmonds for 18 years next week – Olives opened on the Tuesday after Memorial Day in 2002 with our dear friend Michael Young. The community of small-business owners in the Bowl is incredibly supportive of each other, and has honestly been the reason we have stuck it out through all of the ups and downs, from opening just after the dot-com bubble burst to the Great Recession to the current pandemic.

We hope that most of us will be here in 2021 to continue to serve the community that we love so much.


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