Covid Update Two Years Later:
On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, I faced a startling new reality for my businesses and my two young sons (then 12 & 6), along with 50 plus employees and their families of Midtown Cafe and Cabana. Due to Covid 19, I faced the hardest business and personal decision of my lifetime impacting all of our futures.
The SEC tournament the previous Wednesday had shut down, and various states and cities were beginning to take drastic actions that month in response to Covid-19. Around 2pm, I called my operating business partner of Cabana, Craig Clifft. I told him I had decided to shut down Midtown Cafe operations indefinitely as our 33-year-old business was empty that breakfast and lunch due to the Covid pandemic panic that filled the media, online, and literally the air.
Asking him what he thought of my decision to close indefinitely, Craig replied that Cabana should close as well as he had tested positive that day. His wife, who worked at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, had tested negative, which turned out that weekend to be a false negative.
Sharing the news of our shutdown with my daytime staff plus night shift when they arrived at work that afternoon broke my heart as it dawned on me that I had no idea of what the future would bring for all of us. How would we survive, and pay our bills, and protect our families from the challenges around all of us? As I recall the unknown confronting us then, I feel connected to the stories of the tragedy to Ukrainian families torn apart or dying as pawns in Putin’s Neo-Stalinist geopolitical Soviet reborn legacy ambitions.
We began to clean up for closing down that night and asked all staff to come in early the next day to prepare the building to shut down until circumstances allowed us to reopen. All available staff came in the next day as we all prepared systems’ sanitation for an indefinite shutdown. Charlie Strobel is a good friend and customer, so I called Rachel Hester with Room in the Inn. She had a truck come the next afternoon to pick up all perishables for their campus off 8th Avenue that had not been donated to my staff for their homes.
Later that week, after cashing my employee’s payroll checks for the previous week and getting all eligible for TN Unemployment, I started a GoFundMe Facebook account to help support our staff which raised over $10K from our gracious customers. GM Doug Stevenson handled the distribution of funds to those with families that unemployment funds were unable to cover like rent and more.
Soon afterwards, Congress passed the “Payroll Protection Plan” and even though Craig had “Long Covid,” he was finally able to get our information to our CPA, Rob Taylor, who was able to finally secure an SBA-PPP funding grant that allowed us to reopen Tuesday, May 12. After taking all of the equipment out of the kitchen and deep cleaning all surfaces floor to ceiling before reopening, we reduced the menus and prepared our POS and website for TO GO and Pickup service.
Several longtime employees moved away from Nashville, and some had health issues and fears of returning to work serving the public during a pandemic. Most of the kitchen crew chose to return to work while only one manager, Gina Kochevar, chose to return at that time to manage night shifts with first one, then eventually, a second server. Longtime bar manager, Patrick Petzko, suffered a mild stroke that summer and sadly has never been able to return. He is better and working in Cookeville, TN, but I and we sure miss him! On days, I reopened weekdays managing and had one server until General Manager Doug Stevenson returned in August after completing some medical treatments. Business was alternately slow and occasionally overwhelming, but we persevered as ever so slowly. Nashville and America recovered and paused from Alpha, Delta, and now Omicron with everything else along the journey.
My landlord was a magnificent partner during all this time as our first PPP grant allowed us to pay back rent and through that October. A new TN Economic Development Grant of $20K, then another $30K, allowed me to keep our doors open through 2020. In December of that year, we sold Cabana, which became Cabana Taps, as I would not sign a personal guarantee on its lease for the next 5 year lease option as weekly sales did not even exceed monthly rent payments. That sales income helped buy time until Congress passed the second SBA-PPP funding, which allowed me some financial breathing room in 2021.
Tony Girantana had hired my hospitality consulting firm in fall of 2019 for a project in his iconic 505 residential towers on Church Street. He then retained me personally in 2020 to put together his dream project to save the historic 1939 Elliston Place Soda Shop that he had an option to purchase. Elliston Place Soda Shop wound up going in next door to its original building and reopened last May of 2021 with Craig Clifft as General Manager. January, 2021 we decided to postpone the Soda Shop opening for the third time due to pandemic marketplace challenges. I returned to Midtown full time February 2021. Midtown slowly grew as we did a quarter of our annual revenues in the first half of that year and three quarters the last half finally breaking even in late summer. Then Delta rolled across our nation and we bottomed out in August / September; However, we rose to the busiest month ever in October. That rise was followed by Omicron which savaged our revenues by half in January, but we have been recovering since Valentine’s. Over the two years almost $2M in direct business losses or valuations were gone. But, I am fortunate to be healthier than in recent years, reasonably happy with two beautiful thriving boys, and a Midtown Cafe finally returning once again to it’s finest hours as it was two years ago.
Last Summer as business was growing, I decided to raise wages for ALL of my employees front and back of the house, to retain and attract new and subsequently returning longtime employees. That action worked as we added several longtime industry professionals to our teams, and four former employee from long before the pandemic returned to us. We now have seven more employees than pre-pandemic, and serve more customers than ever having opened for Breakfast / Brunch on Saturdays and Sundays due to the wise counsel of Gina and Doug that I fortunately acted upon. What a blessing and surprise weekend days have been! We await the return of locals to their office workplaces near us to boost our local daytime business guests. Tourism has taken on stronger guest numbers of visits over the past two years, which is the opposite of when we closed that March. Business is getting better in February/ March and I love seeing friends and their smiling face upon returning.
During these last two years, I have found myself challenged as never before on a professional level, while being confronted initially by what I have called the Longest Spring Break in History for my young sons. Even though divorced, their mother and I worked together to protect, shield them in safety and provide graduate students and later tutoring to work with them during online school which was a difficult and challenging learning environment for both boys. Early last year they went back to Metro elementary and middle schools, but they are behind, as were most of their peers apparently. We were able to continue their tutoring sessions, and they enrolled in the fall in their new schools in Sumner County. My biggest concerns all along had been not only for their physical health, but their mental health issues given their physical isolation from friends and media reports of emotional challenges all across our nation. Fortunately, they seem to have survived well, and their resiliency amazes me.
Both boys received vaccinations as soon as available for their age group as I decided to trust Doctors and scientists given my adult lifetime of experiences with politicians’ opinions on all sides of the isle on any issue. Feeling helpless at the time, I chose to do something to try to be of service, so I participated in the Vandy Moderna trials where, through the grace of God, I received the “good juice” as Dr. Buddy Creech, head of the study shared with me January of ‘21 by phone. I am looking forward to meeting him in person some day and buying his meal as he said he loved Midtown and Elliston Place Soda Shop from his Vanderbilt undergraduate era.
Today, Midtown Cafe and my work family there (with more employees than ever), along with Duke, Dean, and I offer our thanks and blessings to all who helped us along the way with support in any and all aspects of our lives. I am looking forward to the next chapters in this life’s journey, even with challenges known and unknown ahead. My Milan High School mascot was a bulldog, which my now closest friends call me on occasion for good reason. In High School, I learned from the sports’ fields as well as the classrooms to never give up on effort or hope.
Finally, let me offer my personal praise to the new Churchillian figure of our era for his courage and grace with which he leads his people and inspires the world in the fight for freedom against “Bad Vlad” Putin. “The question for us now is to be or not to be,” Zelensky said to the British Parliament, evoking Shakespeare. “I can give you a definitive answer: It’s definitely to be.” Again, I feel the connection to the people who are suffering in this crisis. To continue with Hamlet’s musings, they, like us, took up “Arms against a Sea of troubles.” May they, like us, never give up and come through to a new reality.
March 17, 2022