How It Feels to Close Your Restaurant for Good
When you apply pressure to stop bleeding, it is not an active decision. Decisions are made about how to proceed. Run and grab the closest rag? Fashion a tourniquet? The need to stop bleeding is presented the moment skin is broken. What happens next are reactions. For my Philadelphia restaurant Poi Dog and for me, the pandemic was the wound. Closing the restaurant was a reaction.
Dismantling and unraveling years of perfecting an operation, accumulating items, and gathering a loyal staff can be as complicated as opening.
Back when my business partner Chris Vacca and I were opening Poi Dog, we handed over lump sums in exchange for refrigerators, stoves, sinks and leases from people who simply walked away. To open our business, we had to first dispose of strangers' trash bags stuffed with faded receipts and unpaid bills, clean out forgotten food in the walk-in, scrub away layers of black mold.
I was determined that if it we ever were to close Poi Dog, we would do it better.
I didn’t expect to close my restaurant in the midst of a pandemic. Small businesses such as mine have enough money saved to endure a few days of temporary closure. Some were fortunate to receive a modicum of assistance which stretched our safety cushion from days to weeks or months. Poi Dog was a tripartite business of restaurant, food truck and catering company that relied on a combination of busy lunch rushes, a constant stream of office catering, and busy food-truck events in order to survive. All three of these pillars of our business evaporated in March. From June onwards, we limped along with once-a-week takeout, bringing in enough money to pay vendors, utilities, insurance, and the salary for a couple staff members ineligible for unemployment benefits—but not ourselves.
We sold the food truck and announced our closure on the same Friday. We planned one final service, a collaboration that showcased our staff with fledgling businesses serving Filipino lechon, kombucha, and tamales, alongside some of our greatest hits: Spicy Ahi Poke, Spam Musubi, Butter Mochi. Pre-orders only.
The news of our closure unleashed a torrent of grief, attention and sales I did not expect or experience before. My phone dinged constantly. Messages, orders and calls. Emails from people who met their spouses at Poi Dog. Former professors and friends from past lives. Hawaii people, heartbroken their food would no longer be represented on the East Coast. Messages from the Philippines, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Mexico – countries in which we had events planned. Notifications came in so rapidly, my phone overheated and began to malfunction.
I couldn’t feel my arms for four days. My vision was tinged with yellow. Symptoms I experience before fainting. I was paralyzed with stress and fear and worry.
Strangers stopped me on the street, offering condolences, like there had been a death. I haven’t had time to mourn, though I burst into tears when my boyfriend asked me to stop and eat breakfast.
To prepare for our final Poi Dog service, my friend Emma spent hours in the empty restaurant with me, setting up the 400 order tickets we'd received in five different time slots, in alphabetical order. We used colored tape to highlight details and affix tickets to every usable surface in the dining room: banquette, counters, tables.
I assigned each staff member a station in the restaurant to ensure we had plenty of space between us. Verbal communication was muffled by masks over our faces. Josh, our former cook and bouncer for the day, wrote down customers’ names on a whiteboard, then relayed it to me to match to tickets. Service played out like complex, simultaneous games of telephone and tag, but instead of whispering and touching, we enunciated and passed poke bowls, Spam musubi, foil-wrapped tamales.
The line snaked down the block. I saw customers, hungry mourners, through the window, coming to collect their orders in masks and Poi Dog shirts. They handed Josh flowers, wine, and sympathy cards to pass into the restaurant.
That night, I collapsed on the grass in Rittenhouse Park. I drank a bottle of rosé.
In a yellow haze and in the days following, I made lists and completed forms to cancel internet, delivery apps, knife sharpening and linen services.
I contacted a food rescue that sent volunteers to collect unused ingredients: dried macaroni, gallons of sauces, pork shoulder.
On our website, we set up a Makana form, Hawaiian for “gift,” to facilitate the donation of our fryers, stoves, and hotel pans to entrepreneurs, prioritizing people of color. We received dozens of responses. I spent a day calling applicants. Many didn’t pick up their phones. I called again and again. I slid into DMs.
We split our equipment between two West Philly initiatives: a non-profit daycare and Honeysuckle Projects.
I've started to sleep easier. I can now eat full meals, ones that I remember eating. I begin to feel relief in letting go of the months-long fight against mounting bills and the constant fear of exposing my staff and customers to potential COVID-19 infection.
My friend, photographer Neal Santos, called Poi Dog “an epicenter of creativity for many, many folks to collaborate, cook, and eat.” As I wrote in Poi Dog’s Inquirer obituary, “a restaurant has a body and a soul. We are leaving the former behind.” I am fiercely proud of the culture of aloha we fostered as an epicenter. I aim to perpetuate it in another form, a magazine that celebrates food of multicultural origins. This was the original goal of Poi Dog, a term that means “mixed breed” in Hawaiian pidgin. Before I can do that, though, we will need to stop bleeding.