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How to Close a Restaurant

I have always found restaurants to be inherently romantic. I say this not as a diner, but as someone who has worked in them, owned them, lived in them, and loved them. My entire adult life has taken place in restaurants, and I find them romantic in the same way marriages are: They are nostalgia experienced in real time. They each have a unique heartbeat. They require every ounce of who you are, and then they use it up and ask for more.

I have opened and sold two restaurants in the past seven years, one on each coast. Both I owned with my husband, Kevin. We fell in love, first with each other, and then with the restaurants we built. We worked tirelessly and endlessly to make them successful. They provided the backdrop to our lives. We saw them both as integral parts of the future, and each one took its turn being our entire universe.

Then, eventually, tragically, each of our restaurants came to the point in its life cycle where we no longer had anything to give. We were tapped. I was used to running on fumes, digging deep, and slogging through, but eventually I reached my limit. Three years into our first restaurant, Thirty Acres in Jersey City, New Jersey, I gave birth to a perfect, yet massively colicky, baby girl. My and Kevin’s dream of owning and operating a restaurant together started to crumble: Despite my best efforts, the kitchen was simply too loud and hot to carry Viv on my back while I expo-ed the pass. Now here I was sitting at home with a crying baby while my husband worked endless hours at the restaurant to cover both of our hours. As the months went on and business naturally slowed, cash became tighter, and the scale shifted. The negatives started outweighing the positives, and it became painfully clear that it was time to move on. We found a buyer through a friend and spent a year negotiating the sale.

Two years later, when we were a year into our second restaurant, Mean Sandwich in Seattle, we knew enough to recognize the signs of burn-out earlier. We had hoped that a different kind of restaurant, a sandwich shop without table service, with day business instead of nighttime, would alleviate our problems. We had dreams of opening two or three locations, catering parties, and throwing pop-ups with industry friends. We did some of that, but we also worked as much as we ever had, filling in on the line every day and working opposite shifts. We knew we would never make money with only one location, but we found ourselves hesitating to take on the additional debt necessary to open a second location. Once again, we were rarely able to spend time together as a family, and we brought our stress home with us when we did. We felt trapped. We both desperately wanted out and had no idea where to start.

Eventually we did find a buyer, and our sandwich shop lives on under his ownership maybe even more successfully than it did under ours. It stuck with me, however, that while there had been so much advice available when we were opening our restaurants, so many restaurateurs writing books and making podcasts and telling their stories, no one ever seemed to want to talk about what to do when it was time to call it quits. How do you end a relationship that was meant to go on forever?

So, to that end, I’m here on the other side of both to give you the advice I wish I had received. If you own your own restaurant, or just dream of opening a restaurant one day, I wish you good fortune and success. Have faith; you will need it. Work as hard and as smart and as much as you possibly can. Know, though, that risks are rewarded because they are exactly that. Have a plan for what you would do if things start to go south. Here’s where I would start.

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