New Restaurateurs Press On With Grit, Passion and Flexibility — Even In a Pandemic | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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New Restaurateurs Press On With Grit, Passion and Flexibility — Even In a Pandemic


Published August 25, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

Sushi made by - Kazutoshi “Mike” Maeda - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Sushi made byKazutoshi “Mike” Maeda

On Friday, August 6, Claudia Amparo was sitting in a booth at her Parkside Café in Hinesburg making calls to suppliers of the small eatery she bought 10 months ago. While she coordinated incoming orders of tomatoes, bread and paper goods, employees served outgoing orders of crispy chicken wraps and her signature Baba's Tacos with housemade jalapeño-tomatillo salsa.

Earlier that morning, Amparo had received news that underscored her looming anxiety about the business. The jazz musicians she'd scheduled for the café's first live event under her ownership had canceled due to mounting cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant in Vermont.

"What to do? What to do?" Amparo asked rhetorically. "Today is the first day I am really worried."

Six days later, Amparo, 38, told Seven Days about her decision to build on the success of her Baba's Tacos food truck and invest in her first brick-and-mortar restaurant — seven months into a global pandemic. The next day, instead of the planned concert, Parkside Café hosted a free COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

When the musicians had canceled the previous week, "It hit me like, It's starting again," Amparo said with a sigh. "Business was just starting to pick up a little bit, and now we are back to insecurity."

It would be hard to find a tougher time to operate an eatery than the past year and a half. The National Restaurant Association called 2020 "the most challenging year ever experienced by the restaurant industry" — and the trend has persisted.

Pandemic lockdown was followed by an industry-wide shift to takeout. As restrictions gradually eased, seated dining inched up but was still well below capacity.

In early summer, after Vermont reached Gov. Phil Scott's requisite 80 percent vaccination threshold, diners flooded back to restaurants. But most of these establishments desperately needed time to get their groove back. Many restaurants were and still are critically understaffed; all of them face supply chain issues and ballooning costs for everything from flour to takeout containers.

And then the Delta variant emerged.

"The entire restaurant industry has been on swivel, pivoting back and forth, dealing with constant changes," said Amy Spear, vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. She confirmed that staffing shortages are at an all-time high and that commodity prices jumped, on average, almost 10 percent from last June to this one.


Cost increases of center-of-the-plate ingredients such as meat and other staples are even steeper: Beef and veal are up more than 40 percent and grains up almost 90 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Producer Price Index.

Add in the roller coaster of consumer confidence and, Spear said, "it's almost a perfect storm" for Vermont's roughly 1,500 restaurants and bars.

The hurdles have never been higher, and yet Amparo is just one among many Vermont restaurateurs who still have a passion for the food and hospitality business. The image of one of her early food truck customers sticks in Amparo's head: "When he ate my tacos, he, like, started dancing," she recalled with a smile, shimmying her shoulders to demonstrate. "I knew I was doing something right."

Since the start of the pandemic, the Vermont Department of Health's Food & Lodging Program has completed opening inspections for 325 new restaurant licenses and new owners of existing restaurant licenses. The number also includes reopening inspections for established restaurants that moved to a new location. This number is down just 13 percent from the seasonal 16-month equivalent, mid-March 2018 through early August 2019. (See visual, page 30.) 

Data on Vermont restaurant closures are harder to pin down. But Spear said that the state has not seen "a huge number" so far. A combination of federal and state programs — including Vermont's robust economic recovery grants and Everyone Eats, which paid restaurants to provide free meals to those in need — have kept many afloat.

Spear also pointed to the deep commitment of restaurant owners and operators. "Passion is a key part of the industry, and it definitely lends to the resiliency that we've seen," she said.

Seven Days checked in with the teams behind five new restaurants, from Hinesburg to Stowe, Burlington to Bristol, to learn how they're navigating the industry — and even trying to transform it — during an unprecedented time.

'Close to home'

Parkside Café, 10240 Route 116, Hinesburg
Claudia Amparo at Parkside Café - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Claudia Amparo at Parkside Café

Amparo and her husband moved to Hinesburg from the Bronx in 2016, when their oldest son was 9 months. He's now 6 and has two younger brothers. "We were just looking for a house and a better life and better education for our kids," Amparo said.

Her grandmother had done the same years before, moving from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx and gradually sending for each of her 10 children and their families. Amparo came when she was 9.

She often cooked with her grandmother and, at 16, landed her first job in the kitchen of a Mexican restaurant. Her paychecks helped Amparo fund a paralegal associate's degree, and she started doing some immigration legal work. Amparo said she was happier cooking, but practicality eventually won out: She did a one-month training to become a phlebotomist and got a job in a hospital.

"The pay was better, and you get benefits, you know?" she said.

When the family moved to Vermont, Amparo looked forward to being a full-time mom. She bought two goats to provide her growing family with fresh milk. But cooking kept calling to her, so, with her husband's support, Amparo pulled $23,000 from her 401k to launch Baba's Tacos food truck in 2018.

The business grew, and, despite the pandemic, the summer and early fall of 2020 were busy with small, private events. Amparo shuttled between home and a shared commercial prep kitchen in South Burlington.

In October, her husband noticed that Parkside Café was for sale. They quickly applied for a business loan, putting their house up as collateral. "It went fast. Like, in three weeks, everything was done," Amparo said. "We were so excited to bring the business close to home."

Amparo considers herself a positive person, but she admitted to some moments of doubt about her decision. She declined to share what she and her husband invested to buy Parkside Café's equipment, furnishings and name.

"I just don't want to say the price because then people will really think I'm crazy," Amparo explained. "Who will invest that amount of money — and in the middle of the pandemic?"

When she took over Parkside Café, Amparo added her tacos to the existing menu of breakfast scrambles, panini and wraps. She is especially proud of her pork carnitas, which marinate overnight in an 80-year-old secret family spice and herb blend. Then they cook, low and slow, in just their own fat in a copper pot.

Amparo initially worked in the kitchen with a remaining Parkside employee, but that woman left in March 2021 to stay home with her kids. Amparo understood: "My mom is with my kids. If I didn't have that, there would be no business," she said.

For three long months, Amparo cooked alone every day; she would have hired anyone who walked in the door, she said. She's still hurt by an anonymous Yelp review from a customer who was upset that the carnitas tacos were not available. "Carnitas take a long time to make," Amparo said. "I needed to save the business by cooking the rest of the menu."

In May, Amparo finally found a cook, but the woman had no transportation. "I was driving to Bristol twice a day to pick her up and bring her home," Amparo said. To house the employee, she and her husband decided to buy a mobile home in a Hinesburg trailer park for $30,000, not including monthly park fees and utilities.

Two cooks and one cleaner for the restaurant now live there. "It was worth it," Amparo said. "I can go to sleep knowing they will come to work."

Parkside Café serves breakfast and lunch daily, and Amparo heads out to events with the Baba's Tacos truck a couple times a week. She sold the goats because she had no time to milk them.

"Since I started here, I haven't made [any] money, just enough to keep the business going," Amparo said, noting that her husband's online sales job supports the family. "But we are here surviving."

Amparo heard about the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the latest federal program to help restaurants. But when the May 24 application deadline came, she had her hands more than full. "I was not even thinking about that. I was just in the kitchen all day," she said.

Theoretically, she would have had priority for funding as a woman and a person of color, but she "didn't have enough information," she said, "and by the time somebody was willing to help me ... all the funds were gone."

Indeed, the RRF quickly ran out of money, leaving many applications unfunded, including 61 percent of Vermont restaurants that applied. It remains to be seen whether Congress will replenish the fund. (See "Tale of Two Restaurants.")

Still, as Amparo sipped her favorite orange soda outside her tidy café, she said she mostly focuses on appreciative customers and future dreams. "I want to franchise. I want to do things. I'm coming out with Baba's Burgers — another food truck," she said enthusiastically.

Amparo expects to make money eventually, but she cautions those considering her profession: "If you're gonna go into the business for money, then don't do it," she said. "I do it because I enjoy making that food."

A Hot Start

The Café HOT., 198 Main St., Burlington
Travis (left) and Allan Walker-Hodkin with BMO the dog outside the Café HOT. - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Travis (left) and Allan Walker-Hodkin with BMO the dog outside the Café HOT.

On a recent Monday morning, Travis Walker-Hodkin, 35, was painting a neon-yellow custom color he called "cheese" around the new takeout window of the Café HOT. in Burlington. He co-owns the precisely capitalized and punctuated breakfast spot with his brother Allan, 38. The Café HOT. is due to open in a few weeks in the storefront that Mirabelles Bakery & Café occupied before moving to South Burlington in early 2020.

That bright-yellow window frame can't be missed, but the Main Street spot was already high-profile. Soon after Allan, a longtime restaurant professional, and his wife moved from Brooklyn to the Burlington area in November 2020, he started thinking about opening his own restaurant there. He had eaten at Mirabelles on previous visits and knew its solid reputation.

"No one knows me here. Visibility is very important," Allan reasoned. That Mirabelles had been a popular breakfast destination also supported the brothers' plan to focus on a meal they could handle without help.

They will serve breakfast sandwiches on house-baked buttermilk biscuits and sesame seed-sprinkled milk buns made from a soft, rich dough that Allan describes as "sexy as a brioche bun can be." Textural variety is big for the duo: Crispy wonton skins, fried rice paper and golden hash browns will crunch up the sandwiches, too.

The brothers drink a lot of coffee, much of it decaf, which often gets short shrift. "Our decaf will be as cool as the caf," Travis promised.

Before the pandemic, Allan was culinary vice president for the Grey Dog restaurant group in Manhattan. The company was set to open a fifth location on March 25, 2020, but then the city shut down due to the coronavirus on March 15. It's "a date I won't forget," Allan said. "We all got laid off."

He immediately busied himself raising money and delivering food to many of the company's 150 employees. Every week for more than two months, Allan made 45 food drop-offs in his Toyota 4Runner.

"It was terrifying," Allan said. "I lost friends and coworkers" to COVID-19.

He reopened Grey Dog's original four restaurants by June 2020 and then resigned in September.

Allan, a Long Island native, came up through the ranks, starting at 17 as a server in diners and catering halls. He was waiting tables at Five Points in lower Manhattan when he saw a chef butchering a whole pig.

"I begged them to make me a prep cook," the former vegan said. "The first week, I put my hand through a mandoline [slicer]. I went to the ER, got 12 stitches in my right index finger and went right back on the mandoline."

Blood and bravado aside, Allan said, "I fucking love restaurants. It's all about people: the people who walk through the door, the people you work hip to hip with."

But he was done with New York City, as was his brother, whose career as a commercial and music video producer took a hit during the pandemic. The two have always been close; as soon as Travis and his partner moved from Queens to Vermont in early 2021, a fraternal food business was in the works.

"I dream about restaurants 24-7," Allan said. "I've always wanted a restaurant."

The brothers have sourced almost all their equipment secondhand and are doing as much of the work themselves as possible on the 1,200-square-foot space. Outlaw country music — from Johnny Cash to Lil Nas X — and Allan's dog, BMO, have been their constant companions.

Other family members came from Pennsylvania and Oswego, N.Y., to help out for four days. The crew took the whole kitchen apart and put it back together. "We've been raised to fix things," Travis said.

After first declining to specify their financial investment in restaurant setup, the brothers reconsidered and provided the exact amount spent as of 1 p.m. on August 16: $50,319.91 — "obviously, not including sweat equity," Travis qualified. They had run that decision by their valued advisers from SCORE, a U.S. Small Business Administration-supported network of volunteer business mentors.

Sharing the figure is their small way of increasing financial transparency in an industry that is known for huge pay disparity and related power inequities, they explained. "There needs to be a cultural shift," Travis said, "and we're going to do our best to be a part of that positive change."

Fish Tales

Big Fish, Commodores Inn, 823 S. Main St., Stowe
Glory Salad at Big Fish in Stowe - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Glory Salad at Big Fish in Stowe

Jack Pickett was surprised by the success of the drop-in job fair he held on August 13, about two weeks before he hoped to open Big Fish in Stowe. Seven prospective applicants stopped by, six of whom seemed promising.

"We're giving food out. I don't know if that has anything to do with it," Pickett said, half joking. He was sitting at the restaurant's new zinc bar in the center of the 80-seat dining room. Samples from the menu were spread across the bar: spicy calamari, sweet-and-sour meatballs, peppery fries that remained miraculously crisp even as they sat.

The name of Pickett's new spot, which looks out over a small pond, alludes to its seafood emphasis, but it could refer to the man himself: Pickett, 68, is a mainstay of the Stowe restaurant community.

A lot has changed since the chef started his first job there, at Ten Acres Lodge, in the late 1970s: "We'd put an ad out for a sous chef, and six culinary school grads would apply," he recalled.

In 1992, Pickett opened Blue Moon Café, a pioneer of locavore cuisine. In 2001, he was burned out and sold it to his manager, who kept it going another decade.

Pickett took a break from ownership and worked as a carpenter and for other local restaurants until he launched his next enterprise, Frida's Taqueria, in 2009. It did well, he said, until landlord issues caused its untimely demise in 2014. The restaurateur jumped immediately into a new venture, Phoenix Table and Bar, which was undercapitalized from the start, he said, and lasted only two years.

Pickett served as general manager and executive chef of von Trapp Brewing Bierhall Restaurant from its opening in September 2017 until November 2020. The fall 2020 virus surge had slowed restaurant traffic to a crawl.

When the owner of the Commodores Inn approached Pickett about taking on the hotel's restaurant space, he just couldn't help himself. The bierhall had offered good compensation and a fun challenge, he said, "but it wasn't mine." The chef felt like he had at least one more restaurant in him.

At the end of his seventh decade, Pickett knows he's pushing it a little to be opening the seventh restaurant of his career. Still, he said, "I'm a pretty high-energy person." Plus, he added with a grin, "I'm not sane." He also had a silent business partner ready to underwrite a restaurant project.

Pickett is known for steering operations with a firm, supportive hand and a sense of humor. "I knew I could learn more from him," said Big Fish sous chef Jacub Burton, who worked for Pickett at the bierhall.

In fact, Pickett said, he had a harder time finding construction workers for the roughly $400,000 renovation than kitchen staff. He's always done a lot of the construction work on his own restaurants. "This time, I said, 'I'm just gonna be the guy who sits in the office.' Didn't happen. I had cooks doing carpentry."

Big Fish’s Jack Pickett - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Big Fish’s Jack Pickett

Pickett's reputation was likely a factor in drawing potential employees. Jen Grant, who applied for a serving position, grew up in Stowe. The 33-year-old remembered working with Pickett when she was 16.

"Jack's been around a long time, and he was always nice," she said. Grant was happy to hear that Big Fish servers will start at $10 an hour plus tips. "This is what I do best," she said. "If you can make good money and if you're in a respectful work environment, it's a good job."

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Tiramisu

Pickett recognizes that restaurants are going through what he described as "an industry reckoning" right now. "Why do you think nobody wants to work in restaurants?" he asked, then answered himself. "Eighteen-year-old women get raped. Young cooks get screamed at. I get it. We've got to reinvent the systems."

As Pickett and his team buttoned up Big Fish last week, he was also dealing with basic issues such as the cost of flour, which was up sevenfold, to about $70 for a 50-pound bag, and the lack of crab for crab cakes. "They can't find people to pick the crab," he lamented.

Distribution is unreliable, too. Trucks that used to show up by 8 a.m. are rolling in way too close to service at 4 p.m. due to a lack of drivers.

Rising COVID-19 cases were also keeping him up at night, Pickett said, even though Big Fish has a 60-seat pondside deck and will offer takeout.

"The food service industry is at the top of the heap in terms of trouble right now," Pickett said.

Despite all the challenges, the veteran restaurateur said, "I'm sort of eternally optimistic." He always comes back to the fact that this is what he loves to do.

"I've tried other stuff. It's so hard to get it out of my system," Pickett said. "It's that excitement about putting out good food. This morning when I got here, all I had to see was people cooking in the kitchen, and I felt it again."

Roll With It

Sushi Maeda, 152 Cherry St., Burlington
The team behind Sushi Maeda on Burlington’s Cherry Street. From left: Reiko Maeda, Patrick Dougherty, Kazutoshi “Mike” Maeda, Shane Hardy-Johnson and Minori Ueki - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • The team behind Sushi Maeda on Burlington’s Cherry Street. From left: Reiko Maeda, Patrick Dougherty, Kazutoshi “Mike” Maeda, Shane Hardy-Johnson and Minori Ueki

Since the fall of 2017, white lettering on the glass doors of the former Outdoor Gear Exchange on Cherry Street in Burlington has promised that Sushi Maeda is "coming soon." Close to four years later, the lettering has finally been scrubbed off, and "soon" will be here within a few weeks, promised Patrick Dougherty, the restaurant's general manager.

Sushi Maeda's original timeline ran into contractor issues, which Dougherty declined to detail. A new contractor came on board in early 2020 but couldn't get started "in earnest" until earlier this year due to the pandemic, he said.

People will know the day has finally arrived, Dougherty said, when he cuts his hair to celebrate the long-awaited opening. It currently reaches his low back, when not pulled back in a ponytail with a backward baseball cap jammed on top.

Dougherty, 38, moved to Vermont from Baltimore in 2001. He taught snowboarding in the winter and cooked in the summer. For a decade, he has worked and trained with Kazutoshi "Mike" Maeda, owner of the long-planned Sushi Maeda and also of tiny Bento on College Street. Dougherty was also part of the opening team alongside Maeda at Chris Russo's San Sai Japanese Restaurant, which operated from 2011 to 2015 in the Lake Street building that is now Foam Brewers.

For the last few years and throughout the pandemic, Maeda has been crafting his pristine jewels of deep red tuna with pickled daikon or yellowtail with fragrant shiso leaf within a protective plexiglass cubicle at Bento. According to Dougherty, "Mike-san," as he calls his mentor and boss, prefers to work rather than talk.

"He's the kind of guy who needs to work every day, very passion-driven," Dougherty said. "He takes his sushi very seriously."

There's ample proof of that in the rear of the new restaurant, near the kitchen where the team will make ramen, rice bowls and dumplings. Dougherty showed off a pile of press clippings. They included a 2006 Saveur magazine featuring accolades for Tsuki, a previous restaurant Maeda owned in New York City. In 2002, the New York Times praised Tsuki along with another of Maeda's restaurants, also named Sushi Maeda, and its "veteran sushi chef" for being "several cuts above the ordinary."

On a recent tour through the massive 9,400-square-foot space, Dougherty showed off the 40-foot bar and several eating areas including a reservation-only omakase (chef's choice) sushi bar and another 16-seat robatayaki bar. There, diners will receive their food on paddles hot off special grills that burn Japanese oak charcoal.

Dougherty declined to share the total investment Maeda has made into the new restaurant. "I can share that it was four times more than we thought," he divulged, due to skyrocketing prices of building materials in the pandemic.

The pandemic also means that customers will have to wait at least until fall to sit in any of the eatery's 150 seats. Initially, Sushi Maeda will open only for takeout and delivery, due to the industry's current staffing shortages and also to protect the health of Maeda, who is in his seventies, Dougherty said.

On the flip side, Dougherty asserted that Sushi Maeda's limited initial opening could actually be "a blessing in disguise on an ambitious project like this." He feels pretty solid as a sushi chef after his years of training with Maeda, but he'll do what it takes to get the restaurant up and running.

"I'm gonna be the dishwasher for now," Dougherty said. "My hope is, when college students are back, staffing will be easier. A lot of people like working in a brand-new restaurant."

Rerouted and Rooted

The Tillerman, 1868 N. Route 116, Bristol
Mary’s Restaurant at the Inn at Baldwin Creek will soon become the Tillerman. New owners Kate Baron and Jason Kirmse with their sons, Oliver (left) and Henry - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Mary’s Restaurant at the Inn at Baldwin Creek will soon become the Tillerman. New owners Kate Baron and Jason Kirmse with their sons, Oliver (left) and Henry

In the spring of 2020, Kate Baron and Jason Kirmse were poised to move to Spain with their sons, Henry and Oliver, now 8 and 6. Kirmse had sold most of his ownership stake in the small San Francisco restaurant group he had cofounded; the family had plane tickets and a visa appointment at the Spanish consulate.

The couple had zeroed in on Spain for its rich food and wine culture and affordability. Baron and Kirmse figured they had enough money saved to qualify for the country's nonworking visa program and hoped to find the right spot to invest in their own food- or beverage-related business.

The pandemic canceled that plan, and the family found themselves locked down in their Marin County rental home amid "too many fires and too many people," Baron said.

When COVID-19 restrictions eased a little, Baron, 46, and Kirmse, 43, packed up their car and, with their kids, embarked on a road trip across the country. They sought an escape route from climate disasters, overcrowding and sky-high real estate prices.

They also wanted to be closer to family in New York and Florida. Baron had attended the University of Vermont, which put the Green Mountain State on their short list.

Among the potential properties they found for sale was Mary's Restaurant and the Inn at Baldwin Creek on Route 116 in Bristol. Over nearly 40 years, founders Linda Harmon and Doug Mack had built the business into a farm-to-table dining and event destination.

Baron and Kirmse made an offer on Mary's but were outbid. When that sale fell through, they had a second chance. On June 11, they closed on the property. For $675,000, the couple had bought a home for their family along with 12 and a half acres and a rambling inn and restaurant in need of a significant update. To get started, they planned to add a room to the five-room inn and open a casual restaurant by the end of the summer. The new business will be named the Tillerman, after the couple's favorite Cat Stevens album, Tea for the Tillerman.

When Seven Days visited on a warm early August morning, Henry and Oliver were busy rescuing frogs from the old swimming pool behind the family's house. Inside the inn and restaurant building, a crew was finishing up the kitchen flooring around a newly installed wood-fired pizza oven and repairing some of the 18th-century framing. A truck backed into the driveway to maneuver a large dumpster into place — "our third," Baron said.

Navigating past boxes of tile stacked in the walkway to the inn, she and Kirmse sat down for a rare quiet moment in rocking chairs on the porch. They share a deep love of food and hospitality, they explained, though each came to it from different angles.

Baron, who is originally from Westchester, N.Y., has worked in sustainable agriculture and catering and as a personal chef. As a kid, she said, "my favorite game was 'restaurant.' I'd print out menus and force my family to be my guests." Her go-to offering? Tuna melts, she said.

Kirmse started his hospitality career at Bennigan's, a chain restaurant in his home state of Florida. He took to it immediately: "It's fun. It's lively. It's different," he said. "I liked the culture and the community at restaurants. And I like to drink and eat."

He later worked in sales and real estate but always came back to restaurants. Kirmse even applied to culinary school but decided the cost was too high.

Baron was Kirmse's first customer at Fat Angel Food & Libation, a San Francisco neighborhood restaurant he cofounded in 2010. He poured her a glass of sauvignon blanc and, after a month of bar-side flirtation, they went on their first date. The couple became known for throwing elaborate dinner parties. "It was where we came alive and where we thrived," Baron said. "We work really well together."

The Tillerman is their first joint business venture. And the pandemic has provided them some extra challenges. Baron spent four or five weeks, she said, calling contractors in Addison and Chittenden counties. She estimates that 15 to 20 told her, at best, they couldn't fit in the project until the end of the year.

The couple eventually found a crew of two from South Carolina who came for five weeks this summer. "Without them, we'd be dead in the water," Kirmse said.

By early August, Mountain Builders of Bristol found some time to keep the renovations moving along. The Tillerman's projected opening is now late September. Baron and Kirmse declined to share specifics of their budget, but they did reveal that the pizza oven alone cost $25,000 with installation.

That oven is at the heart of the Tillerman kitchen and its menu. Baron and Kirmse are pairing up with chef Justin Wright, who also relocated from the Bay Area during the pandemic. Wright previously headed up the kitchen at the pandemic-born and now-shuttered Ç'est Ça in Burlington and later cohosted a weekly fish-focused pop-up market in Bristol.

In addition to pizzas, the trio envisions offerings such as wood-oven-roasted shellfish and composed vegetable plates. Groups of diners will be able to dig into whole roasted porchettas and whole fish.

Baron and Kirmse thought they'd dodged the COVID-19 bullet with this project, but given the surging Delta variant, now they're not so sure. On a tour through the first floor of the building, Baron paused by a small pantry that has a door to the outside. "We could do takeout from here, depending how COVID behaves," she said.

"We thought our timing was brilliant," Kirmse admitted. "We're just like, Oh, this is great. By summer everybody will get the vaccine, and by September it's gonna be gangbusters, and we're just going to be the smartest people on Earth. Now, we're looking at it like, Oh, man."

At least their loan payment is manageable and they don't have investors to please, Kirmse remarked.

The hurdle of staffing comes next. Baron and Kirmse are hoping that they can draw employees by offering a healthier work environment than is typical of the industry. "We know the life of running restaurants: It's seven days a week, and it's stressful," Kirmse said. The Tillerman will likely not be open daily and will close for owner and staff vacations, he noted.

"Jason spends a lot of time thinking about how we need to reimagine restaurant culture. It's not sustainable long-term," his wife added.

Kirmse believes that extended unemployment benefits have given people time to reconsider how they want to reenter the workforce. Whether prioritizing pay equity, work schedules or personal safety, "I think some people are reinventing their lives," he said.

But, Kirmse added, "I think some people will eventually come back to restaurants because, when it's in you, it's in you. And maybe they'll come back to a place like ours where we're considering the things that drove people away in the first place."

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