This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.
I work as a barista and a server at Communitea, in Long Island City, and I am lucky enough to work side-by-side with the owner, my sister. A question we’ve been getting daily is “How’s business?” Sometimes my sister answers “Business is terrible.” She answers with feeling.
There are visual signs that the business and the neighborhood are struggling. The dining area is closed off, the neighborhood feels still, and every day I see moving trucks. We have a beautiful little patio, but many of our regular customers simply are not in the neighborhood, either because their workplaces are closed or they have left the city.
The news in the paper is far worse, and reinforces what we know. The New York Times recently published a prediction that one-third of small businesses will close in NYC, and already the list of restaurants that will not reopen is long and includes beloved, well-run institutions.
My sister and her husband opened their cafe in 2005. They met years earlier on the train on the way to run the NYC Marathon. My brother-in-law was about to open a bar at the time, and then decided to open Communitea on the same block as well.
The details of the cafe’s origin story are unique and romantic and important to our family narrative, but their larger story is shared by so many NYC business owners. This is the business they dreamed of and then designed and built and poured hard work into. It is the business that supports their two boys and has employed me and so many others.
I don’t fault any individual for asking the question, “How’s business?” Ordinary language is inadequate in all kinds of crises, and often the person inquiring is concerned or at least interested. But there is something startling about responding to it in a time when it is clear so many small businesses will close.
It feels like a denial of reality, a failure to see what is right in front of all us. Sometimes an honest answer opens us up to denial and well-meaning but misdirected advice. One woman told me we should pass out free samples near the park, advice that fails to understand that there are fixed costs we must cover and that my work must be compensated so that I can live. I worry that people are too invested in the myth that hard work can pull anyone out of anything, and that while they cling to this belief, the places that sustain our communities will perish.
In order for small restaurants to survive, we will need help: federal help, state help, local, and communal help. We received the Paycheck Protection Program funds but many places, especially many minority-owned businesses, didn’t. And still we need more help.
When we temporarily closed the restaurant in March, my sister gave me nearly an entire box of avocados to give away before they went bad. I bagged them up and hung the bag on my building’s gate with a note telling my neighbors to take them. I gave bags personally to postal workers.
But now, as we have very little we can give away, the spirit of give-and-take has fallen away. My daily interactions are about individual needs and interests, about oat milk and dressing on-the-side, even as the system we operate within may crumble. Food service at its best is about comfort, but it is hard to offer comfort when our livelihood is uncertain.
As businesses close all around us, my hope is we will reevaluate how we, as New Yorkers, understand failure. I do not believe that every closure is a failure, and if the restaurant I work at should close, I will not see it as a failure for my family. For so many families, the restaurant has been the setting of their first meal outside of the house with a new baby; a place where couples have had weekly meals; where so many people have written books, and plays, and created art.
We have done more than serve food. We have held keys, checked in on people on their worst days, and congratulated them on their best days. My sister and her husband created a restaurant where she and I have been able to work together for years. This has not been a failure. The small grocery stores, the laundromats, the hair salons, and the restaurants that are closing are not failures. They have changed their models radically and implemented expensive safety measures to keep us safe. All along they have given life and spirit and personality to our city. 2020 has been a year of lessons in how our fates, our health, and our livelihoods are interconnected. The list of closures is not a list of individual failures. It is a reflection of our communal failure.
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