Brooke Williamson owned four restaurants in Los Angeles before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. She tells NPR’s Noel King about the loss of three of those restaurants in the past few months.
NOEL KING, HOST:
California is going through its worst COVID wave since the start of the pandemic. Statewide, only 2% of intensive care beds are available. Governor Gavin Newsom has ordered most Californians to stay at home to deal with the strain on the hospital system. Now that includes a ban on in-person dining at restaurants, which surprised owners who thought they could survive on alfresco dining.
BROOKE WILLIAMSON: We had invested in several radiators and sidings. And that doesn’t even fit into what we spent on the plexiglass dividers between the cabins. And, you know, there has been a significant investment.
KING: It’s Brooke Williamson. She is the owner and chef of Playa Provisions in Los Angeles. And she says she has been losing money since the start of the pandemic.
WILLIAMSON: You know, I was looking at my books the other day, actually my full year P&L reports the other day. And in fact, I just closed it immediately because I didn’t want to see it.
WILLIAMSON: But there was a lot of money lost. And we probably fell about 80%. And there were still bills to pay. There was still a full payroll due to arrive. I mean, we probably lost $ 100,000 in that first month.
WILLIAMSON: And there wasn’t a lot of money to lose in the bank. So it was sort of a matter of choosing which bills we were going to pay for a period of time. And I have been in the restaurant business for a long time. But it was unlike anything I had known.
KING: Last March, you opened four restaurants. How many have you opened now?
WILLIAMSON: I have a restaurant now.
KING: What happened to the other three? Did you stop them all at once or one by one? How did you make this decision?
WILLIAMSON: It was kind of a domino effect. It was – it happened one by one. The fast casual restaurant – which, in fact, you would think that a restaurant that pretty much only serves take out and delivery would be the perfect business model. Corn…
WILLIAMSON: … Much of our business came from businesses in the surrounding neighborhood. And we were also in a mall. It was an outdoor mall, but there was no more foot traffic. So we really didn’t have the case anymore for it to make sense. Yeah, I mean, just the – I don’t know if I would even be able to run more than one restaurant right now with all the security stuff and everything else involved in running a business right now. Honestly, I don’t know if I would be able to handle more than Playa Provisions.
KING: That, as a pragmatic statement, makes perfect sense. I wonder what the feeling is with closing three businesses that you yourself started? – which is no easy task, as you know.
WILLIAMSON: Yeah, I mean, it’s devastating. One of these restaurants is named after my son. We have been open for 12 years. It’s a lifetime in the restaurant industry. But more than the personal emotional devastation that goes with it all, it’s the devastation I see from my employees, some of whom have worked with me – and my husband – for over 15 years, people who ask us for advice. answers and a timeline of how long that will take and when they could get back to their jobs. And I have no answers.
KING: How many people have you had to fire?
WILLIAMSON: I mean, it was collectively close to 100 people.
KING: OK, so a lot of jobs lost.
WILLIAMSON: A lot.
KING: A personal question for you, but necessary because you are representative of many small business owners in the United States, especially people who were doing well before COVID – when you look at your financial future, what do you see?
WILLIAMSON: He really is a stranger. I really have no idea. It really depends on how many weeks this shutdown will last. But I really believe there must be some relief here. When you ask me about financial stress, I get stressed every day. But it’s really a question of how long it lasts. I am fine now. And I’m literally taking every dollar we make right now and spending it paying my employees because I don’t want to lose the few employees – key employees who have stayed with us throughout this business. We are losing money right now. We’re certainly not breaking even. We are losing money. And we have some money in the bank to do it for a few weeks. But beyond that, you know, it’s pretty dark.
KING: Brooke Williamson, the chef and owner of Playa Provisions in Los Angeles. Brooke, thank you very much for taking the time. We really appreciate this.
WILLIAMSON: With pleasure. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening.
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