Covid-19 Pandemic Caused Restaurant Closure with Heavy Costs : The Indicator from Planet Money We've heard about how hard it's been for restaurants to stay open during this pandemic. But what we often don't hear is that closing can be just as tough.
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Inside A Restaurant's Final Days

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Inside A Restaurant's Final Days

Inside A Restaurant's Final Days

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

In a lot of ways, it feels like a typical morning at The Kitchen Cafe. That's this small-ish hipstery (ph) joint in downtown Boston.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Chalkboards and artsy prints decorate the walls, and the air is buzzing with the sound of breakfast sandwiches and burritos in the making.

JAYME VALDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

VALDEZ: BLT.

MA: So that's Jayme Valdez. He and his wife own the place. Picture a middle-aged guy with a shock of wavy salt-and-pepper hair. And as he sort of glides back and forth behind the counter, he occasionally stops and chats up a customer or doles out an elbow bump.

VALDEZ: Thank you very much.

MA: Like we said, typical day, except for this - today is The Kitchen Cafe's very last day of business. So a lot of the customers are here to say goodbye.

(CROSSTALK)

GARCIA: A few hours later, the last order is rung up, and the final customers shuffle out the door. Jayme plops down on a bench and he looks around the room.

MA: How do you feel right now?

VALDEZ: My friend, I feel relief. I feel relief. I've been looking forward to call it done, you know. For me to stay open, I need to sell a sandwich for $50. Nobody's going to pay me $50 for a sandwich. But that's my cost right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

MA: And I'm Adrian Ma, a reporter at WBUR in Boston. In recent months, we've heard a lot about how hard it is for restaurants to stay open during this pandemic. But what we don't often hear is that closing can be just as tough.

GARCIA: The National Restaurant Association estimates that more than 100,000 restaurants have gone into hibernation or out of business entirely. And today, Adrian, you've brought us a story about exactly that.

MA: Yeah. Between the rent and labor and insurance, The Kitchen Cafe was losing about $10,000 a month. So, yeah, closing was actually a weight off Jayme's shoulders. But the process of shuttering a restaurant isn't as simple as locking the doors and walking away. There are all sorts of hoops to jump through, contracts to dissolve, spaces to clean, final bills to pay. And then there's the emotional cost of terminating a dream.

GARCIA: For Jayme, that dream started in 2016. That's when he and his wife moved up from New York City to Boston. And Jayme at first took a job managing a shellfish warehouse, but soon after that, he quit. And the two of them thought, now is the time to take a chance.

MA: Jayme says they weren't able to get a loan, so they had to put about $200,000 of their own money to get the place up and running.

VALDEZ: I was very excited at the beginning. We buying a restaurant. We buying a restaurant. But once it gets closer and then here's the key, it was very, very scary. Like, I have memories and I have pictures of days that we didn't have no traffic at all.

MA: But as the months went by, things picked up. The Kitchen Cafe became a go-to spot for office workers and students in the area. And after a few years, Jayme started to feel like, hey, we made it. He figures they averaged about 500 orders a day.

VALDEZ: There were times that before we opened at 7, we had a line outside already. So, you know, it was great.

GARCIA: By the middle of 2017, Jayme says he and his wife had started seeing some extra money in their bank account. They'd started making money on their investment. And then...

MA: The pandemic happened.

VALDEZ: You know, there was days during May that - when we opened - that we literally had 15 checks a whole day. And I have a team of 20 people. You know, I was having trouble sleeping, just waking up at 4 o'clock in the morning, you know, sitting down at desk and running numbers just to try to see what I can make different, who I have to let go or who can do a job or two.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: After some haggling, Jayme's landlord agreed to temporarily cut the $8,000 a month rent in half. But that didn't solve their bigger problem.

VALDEZ: A lot of our customers are office people, and office people are now working from home. Everybody talks about the light at the end of the tunnel. You know, we don't know when the light is going to click on or if it's ever going to click on.

MA: So they decided to shut it down. After the break, the doors close and the messy clean-up begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MA: It was a few weeks before Christmas, and The Kitchen cafe looked completely different. The space was filled with stacks of boxes and chairs and pots and pans and panini presses.

GARCIA: Yeah. And every piece of furniture, every piece of art on the wall, every jumbo-sized can of beans had to be sold or stored or junked, a process that Jayme Valdez says set him back at least 5,000 bucks.

MA: The cafe's lease wasn't up until March, but Jayme figured if they could get out fast, the landlord might be able to find a replacement tenant. If not, Jayme and his wife would have to keep paying rent and insurance and utilities, meaning they'd be out about 25 grand.

GARCIA: And this restaurant that took four years to build had to be cleared out in about two days. Jayme and his staff worked all through the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Oh, Christmas tree, oh, Christmas tree...

MA: And as they did, a playlist made by his wife floated through the cafe speakers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Shine so brightly. Oh, Christmas tree...

VALDEZ: Hi.

MA: Hey.

VALDEZ: How are you?

MA: Not bad. How was your holiday?

VALDEZ: It was great. Do you want...

MA: After the new year, Jayme and I met back at the cafe one last time. The place was empty, not even a chair for us to sit in. Jayme said it feels like a foreign place, which is weird.

VALDEZ: I used to come to my store, when I walk in every morning, I'll talk to my store every morning. Good morning. Oh, good morning. Let's have fun. Let's have a good day. You know, thank you, you know, for giving a lot to so many. You know, that's the biggest pride I took.

MA: What's the hardest part about being the owner?

MA: I think the hardest part as an owner was take the decision to close. I didn't know if I was doing the right thing. You know, I still don't know if we did the right thing. But I just couldn't keep on, you know, where we were just losing 10, $15,000 a month just to keep The Kitchen Cafe open, waiting to see when it's going to bounce back.

GARCIA: Rather than waiting on an uncertain rebound, Jayme had decided to simply cut the losses. And yes, shutting down cost $20,000 or $30,000. But at least the bleeding had stopped. And now he and his wife can start over.

MA: That's right. I checked in with Jayme recently. He and his wife have moved south of Boston to Cape Cod. He says they're trying to get a small business loan to buy a restaurant space down there because this time, he says, they want to be their own landlords.

VALDEZ: Many friends of mine tell me, why don't you do something different? You know, in terms of business, instead of restaurant, do you really want to open a restaurant again? I said to them, I really enjoy the rush of being busy. You know, my day goes so fast. It's my persona.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINS RUSTLING, DOOR CLOSING)

VALDEZ: All right. See you, buddy.

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph). THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch, and it is a production of NPR.

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