We are closed. Here’s the story.
Coronavirus destroyed the Katonah Reading Room. It was slow and brutal, a piercing of the heart, and it hurt more than you can imagine.
When Gretchen and I decided to close on March 13th to protect our staff, we thought this sucks, but we’ll get through it. I made plans for our employees to work in small groups the next week. Finally! We’ll get to all the maintenance jobs that we have been avoiding forever. I planned to paint and power wash. A local contractor was scheduled to come to build new shelves and benches for the dining room. The staff was unphased, they made a huge family lunch, and cleaned like crazy. I told everyone to take the weekend off, get drunk, and report on Monday to figure out a plan to move forward.
It didn’t work out like that. A few key staffers trickled in the next week. They cleaned more, paid bills, and gave away all our perishables. My son and I filled the back of our pickup truck with milk and brought it to the Community Center. As news grew more ominous, it was apparent that we couldn’t ask our employees to come to work.
On Friday, March 20th, Gretchen and I called every single one of our 20 plus employees and laid them all off one by one. We called it a furlough. We cried, we apologized, and we said go on unemployment, and we will make up whatever you’re going to lose by not working. And we did. For six weeks. Don’t ask how.
A few weeks later I got into bed and Gretchen and I started talking, for probably the hundredth time about this disastrous situation. We talked about how much money we were losing, about how weird it was to not know when we could re-open. I finally admitted out loud that I thought that we were going to lose our businesses. I couldn’t see a path forward.
We tried to find a way. We got an EIDL grant. We got a PPP loan. We had a plan to re-staff and re-open. We rehashed every scenario, ran numbers again and again. It just didn’t work. Our business was going to die. The loan wasn’t going to help. We couldn’t ask employees to come back to work under unsafe conditions. Most were making more with Unemployment. They were better off staying home and safe with their families.
Here’s the screwed-up thing about the restaurant business. It barely works when things are good. The margins are tiny, the risk is immense. This crisis, being closed for 8 weeks so far, with no revenue, has been deadly. Get inventive! Try take out! Sell booze to go! Sell all your toilet paper at a 1000% mark-up! It’s all noise, it won’t work. Not for us. We need 150 transactions a day to kind of break even. That’s not happening with just take out. We figured 50 to 75 at best. Less was more likely. The delivery services take a one third fee, so there’s no profit there. And then what about the future? Would people want to eat in? Even if we can open, at the rumored mandate of one quarter of your normal seating capacity, that’s 4 people that can eat in the restaurant at a time. Forget about it. Furthermore, how can we keep our staff safe by distancing? Kitchens are busy and crowded, and in order to safely provide food, we would be expecting our staff to perform like front line-health care workers. But they don’t have that training. Neither do I. Even if we figure that all out, will people spend money on Avocado Toast and Lattes after they’ve lost money in the markets? After they’ve lost jobs? Not like they did before the crisis.
We have to close the Reading Room. It can’t come back out of this catastrophe and be the same. It needs a rest, and it needs to weather this storm. We hope that Little Joe’s, our bookstore and coffee shop, will survive. It’s smaller, more agile. Less of a risk. It requires less people to operate. But success at Little Joe’s isn’t guaranteed, we have a lot to figure out.
Perhaps someday, once this maelstrom has passed, we will rebuild using Little Joe’s as a foundation for something new. Watch our social media to see what we are doing at Little Joe’s. Support us there, support Katonah’s other merchants, and do everything you can to support our incredible community.
This experience has been heartbreaking. We miss our staff, we miss our customers, and we hate what happened. But we are still here. We love Katonah and we’re not going anywhere. We’re just a little smaller, and a little bruised. Count on this though, we’re going to heal. Someday, we will pry the shutters open, and welcome you and the sunshine back inside the Reading Room.
Our love and thanks,
Pete & Gretchen Menzies
Please check our social media for updates. You can find us at @katonahreadingroom