Editors Note: Owners of 191 Knickerbocker, Jesse and Rona Davis, are small business owners fulfilling their lifelong dream of opening their own restaurant. On December 14, the loss of business and financial strain from the COVID 19 pandemic became too hard to beat and they made the decision to shut down their NYC restaurant.
The following is an editorial by Rona Davis, detailing the struggles and isolation of being a small business owner navigating a pandemic in NYC.
Owner of Bushwick Bar 191 Knickerbocker
I recently shared a deeply personal account of our struggles as first time restaurant owners, about myself and my husband Jesse Davis, owners of 191 Knickerbocker.
I was in a pendulum swing writing that piece; consulting with a bankruptcy attorney, talking to a broker about a potential buyer for our business, waiting for an official offer, realizing the potential buyer wasn’t serious, and trying to make a decision with little help from our city and federal government. The decision to close permanently came a day after the publication, on December 13th. It was a reality check when a few organizations reached out to donate to help save 191 Knickerbocker. Jesse and I politely declined because what if nothing changes, and we’re in debt again, say six months from now?
The underlying issue is, even if a small business received financial support, for those who received it earlier this year, it was still a losing battle to stay afloat – resulting in exsanguination of an industry. The volume of business has been significantly low, and a huge problem remains – paying rent (not abated for many) in addition to operational expenses; utility, liability insurance, payroll, vendors, and other bills, isn’t exactly profitable. There is ignorance across the board on how take-out and delivery, or a small outdoor area, and 25% indoor capacity would be profitable (it’s not) – now the odds are even worse with indoor dining being cancelled.
During the lockdown, sales rarely exceeded two-hundred dollars a day. We tried take-out only just after the lockdown, but by July our old customers had long vacated the city – there were a few newcomers – they were not familiar with us. Only two years into our business, we didn’t have the financial cushion to take on more debt. Unfortunate for us, however, there seemed to be a small boom in new businesses – with resources and funds, it was the right time for anyone (with or without experience) to take advantage of lowered rents with their pick from an abundance of equipped kitchens, and low overhead costs, to bring something new to market.
Pop-up restaurants seemed like a solution at the time. But the first pop-up couldn’t afford the amount we were asking for, which was our rent of $5,300. We worked with them and covered half instead of the full amount. Though everyone we’ve hosted shared a camaraderie for the existential crisis, having someone else in our space was not ideal; it caused other problems: A few things missing, broken, someone else’s decision to redecorate and paint our storefront without first asking us.
With no way of making a profit, and not qualifying for the first round of PPP due to a lack of payroll information, in addition to a landlord who wasn’t amenable, we didn’t stand a chance to survive 2020.
We’ve never had a good relationship with our landlord, who rarely responds to calls or emails. If one qualified for free legal guidance and succeeded in a lease re-negotiation (in the event one has a willing landlord) the fact remains that thousands of people were laid off or on a tight budget, and couldn’t support their local businesses. I’ve heard several people say they tried to order take-out everyday, and they tipped generously until they just couldn’t anymore.
The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce could be useful to someone if they have options to stay open. We’ll no longer be business owners. What if federal help arrives, what happens then? TheRestaurants Act if passed, could have offered some breathing room or at least helped us make a better decision, in the event we qualified. But now we’ll never know; a decision had to be made because we couldn’t rely on wishful thinking while sinking deeper into debt.
We qualified for Chapter 7 because we don’t own a home, we have one car, and no income. Cost of Bankruptcy: $1,500 to file for business chapter 7, $1,000 for personal (each). $650 filing fees plus a few small fees for the online debtor course. The $8,000 we owe to NY Sales Tax is still due, and so are my student loans of approx. $40,000. Bankruptcy, I’m told, can be removed from one’s credit report with the help of an expert.
I want so badly to plant my own two feet on the ground in solace with a definitive plan because the next few months will reign even more terror as the web of uncertainty grows wider – a recent report showed the probability of contracting the virus in a restaurant is 1.43% while the probability in a gathering is 73.84%. Meanwhile there was an increase in subway riders but a study revealed the transit system is low risk for contracting the virus – allowing for crowded rush hour trains – consequently, restaurant owners can’t help but vilify the mayor and the governor; we feel mistreated.
The hurdle though, is beyond our business, it’s domestic, emotional, psychological, and so it is for many many others. There are thousands crying – a cacophony unheard, lost at sea with no help in sight; nowhere close to land. Amidst the suffering, our restaurant no longer serves a purpose, no longer serves a community, and I don’t yet know what the world will need from us.
As I prepare to enter this week with a list of accounts to close, licenses to terminate, I can’t help but regret not sharing just how terrible things were, sooner, much sooner. In this industry we rarely admit our real struggles – fearing the reflection of failure in the eyes of our competitors – to think COVID times are the exception.
Winter is here and isolation is setting in again. Without the worry of our favorite character of Game of Thrones being killed, instead, we have real and multiple threats. But, Warner Bros released Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max. It wouldn’t cost anything beyond the monthly subscription fee but, for so many reasons that didn’t have to be and which got us where we are today, there are so many people who may not be able to afford just $14.99 for a couple hours of much-needed distraction.
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