It has always been hard, but when did it get this hard?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

A sad story of a business crushed by circumstance:

But the very first time you cut a payroll check, you understand quite bluntly that, poetic notions aside, you are running a business. And that crew of knuckleheads you adore are counting on you for their livelihood. In the beginning I was closed on Mondays, ran only six dinner shifts and paid myself $425 a week. I got a very positive review in The New York Times, and thereafter we were packed. When I added a seventh dinner in 2000, I was able to hire a full-time sous chef.

When I added weekend brunch, which started as a dreamy idea, not a business plan, it wound up being popular enough to let me buy out all six of the original investors. I turned 43 in 2008 and finally became the majority owner of my restaurant. I made my last student-loan payment and started paying myself $800 a week. A few years later, when I added lunch service on weekdays, it was a business decision, not a dream, because I needed to be able to afford health insurance for my staff, and I knew I could make an excellent burger. So suddenly, there we were: 14 services, seven days a week, 30 employees. It was a thrilling and exhausting first 10 years with great momentum.

But Prune at 20 is a different and reduced quantity, now that there are no more services to add and costs keep going up. It just barely banks about exactly what it needs each week to cover its expenses. I’ve joked for years that I’m in the nonprofit sector, but that has been more direly true for several years now. This past summer, at 53, in spite of having four James Beard Awards on the wall, an Emmy on the shelf from our PBS program and a best-selling book that has been translated into six languages, I found myself flat on my stomach on the kitchen floor in a painter’s paper coverall suit, maneuvering a garden hose rigged up to the faucet. I’d poured bleach and Palmolive and degreaser behind the range and the reach-ins, trying to blast out the deep, dark, unreachable corner of the sauté station where lost egg shells, mussels, green scrubbies, hollow marrow bones, tasting spoons and cake testers, tongs and the occasional sizzle plate all get trapped and forgotten during service.

There used to be enough extra money every year that I could close for 10 days in July to repaint and retile and rewire, but it has become increasingly impossible to leave even a few days of revenue on the table or to justify the expense of hiring a professional cleaning service for this deep clean that I am perfectly capable of doing myself, so I stayed late and did it after service. The sludge of egg yolk seeped through the coverall, through my clothes to my skin, matted my hair and speckled my goggles as my shock registered: It has always been hard, but when did it get this hard?

Two weeks after we closed, Ashley still had not got through to unemployment, and I had been thrice-thwarted by the auto-fill feature of the electronic form of the loan I was urged to apply for. I could start to see that things I had thought would be quick and uncomplicated would instead be steep and unyielding. No one was going to rescue me. I went into the empty restaurant for a bit each day to push back against the entropy — a light bulb had died, a small freezer needed to be unplugged and restarted. Eleven envelopes arrived, bearing the unemployment notices from the New York State Department of Labor. The next stack of five arrived a week later. And then another six.

The line of credit I thought would be so easy to acquire turned out to be one long week of harsh busy signals before I was even able to apply on March 25. I was turned down a week later, on April 1, because of “inadequate business and personal cash flow.” I howled with laughter over the phone at the underwriter and his explanation. Everything was uphill. Twenty-one days after we closed, Ashley still hadn’t been able to reach unemployment. They now had a new system to handle the overload of calls: You call based on the first letter of your last name, and her next possible day would be a Thursday. If she didn’t get through, she would have to wait until the next day allotted for all the M’s of the city.

Links to low-interest S.B.A. disaster loans were circulated, but New York City wasn’t showing up on the list of eligible zones. I emailed my accountant: This is weird? She wrote back with a sarcastic smiley emoticon: I believe it will be updated. It’s the government — they are only fast when they are collecting your taxes. The James Beard Foundation kicked into high gear and announced meaningful grants of up to $15,000 and with an application period that was supposed to last from March 30 to April 3, but within hours of opening, it was overwhelmed with applications and it had to stop accepting more.

Ashley texted me from home that our dog was limping severely. This was the scenario that made me sweat: a medical emergency. We could live for a month on what was in the freezer, and I had a credit card that still had a $13,000 spending limit, but what if we got hurt somehow and needed serious medical care? Neither of us was insured. My kids are covered under their father’s policy, but there was no safety net for us. Among us chefs, there have been a hundred jokes over the decades about our medical (and veterinary) backup plans — given our latex gloves and razor-sharp knives and our spotless stainless-steel prep tables — but my sense of humor at that moment had become hard to summon.

I cannot see myself excitedly daydreaming about the third-party delivery-ticket screen I will read orders from all evening. I cannot see myself sketching doodles of the to-go boxes I will pack my food into so that I can send it out into the night, anonymously, hoping the poor delivery guy does a good job and stays safe. I don’t think I can sit around dreaming up menus and cocktails and fantasizing about what would be on my playlist just to create something that people will order and receive and consume via an app. I started my restaurant as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder on the table to keep the conversation flowing, and ran it as such as long as I could. If this kind of place is not relevant to society, then it — we — should become extinct.

Source