In a lot of ways, it felt like a typical morning at The Kitchen Cafe. Customers trickled in and out. Music bounced off the walls decorated with chalkboards and Banksy prints. And the air was filled with a comforting clatter: crackling bacon on the flat top grill, the squeal of steam from the espresso machine, the thump of the cash register.
Manager and co-owner Jayme Valdez called out orders in English and Spanish, and doled out elbow bumps to customers as they picked up their food.
What was not typical, however, was that by the end of that mid-November day the cafe — located a few blocks from South Station in downtown Boston — would be closing its doors for good. After four years in business, The Kitchen Cafe would join roughly 3,400 other Massachusetts restaurants that have gone into hibernation or out of business during the pandemic, according to estimates from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
In recent months, we've heard a lot about how hard it is for restaurants to stay open. But what we often don't hear, is that closing can be just as difficult.
WBUR spent time at The Kitchen Cafe to document its final days. To hear that story, click the play button above. Below are excerpts from interviews with Valdez, edited for length and clarity.
My COVID Economy: Jayme Valdez
How did The Kitchen Cafe come to be?
I have done everything in the food industry from delivery driver all the way to distribution, inventory, managing food costs. I was working for a major casino in New York City in the food and beverage department.
Right after we got married, in 2016, my wife got a new job here in Boston.
When I moved to Boston, I was hired by a shellfish company as a warehouse manager. After three or four days of me plowing snow, I said, "Dude, this wasn't the job I got hired for."
So then my wife said, "Let's look to see if we can buy a cafe." She was actually the one that found [the space]. I came and looked at it, and the bones were here. And I said, "I think we can take this to the next level."
I was very excited in the beginning. "We’re buying restaurant! We’re buying restaurant!" But once it gets closer and closer, and then here’s the key ...
It was very, very scary. I have memories and I have pictures of days when we didn’t have no traffic at all.
When did that change?
[In early 2017], we finally got some acceptance and the business just took off. We were open on Monday to Friday for business, from 7 'til 3. I think between those five days we had over 500 checks every single day. There was times that before we open at 7 we had a line outside already. So, it was great. It was very great.
We started seeing some profit from the store pretty fast, but we put it back into the store. There was a lot of equipment that needed to be improved. Mid-2019, [we] start seeing some extra money in the bank. And by the beginning of 2020, we’re over that hump.
And then the pandemic happened.
How was the business impacted by the pandemic?
There were days during May that we literally had 15 checks a whole day. And I have a team of 20 people. Those days were extremely long.
We did cut the menu, but people were coming to order what they want, and if you don't have it, they were walking out. We tried takeout orders. We tried to do dinner. We tried to do brunch. We're not in the right neighborhood, unfortunately.
The hardest part as an owner was the decision to close. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. I still don’t know if we did the right thing.Jayme Valdez
You know, I … I [had] trouble sleeping. Waking up at four o’clock in the morning, sitting down at the desk and running numbers and trying to see what I can make different, who I have to let go, or who can do the job of two.
What made you decide to close the cafe?
We were paying $8,000 a month [for rent] ... The landlord finally gave us a little break in terms of giving some rent reduction. That helped a little, but still wasn't enough.
A lot of our customers are office people and a lot of office people are now working from home. To be able to cover all my bills, I needed to sell a breakfast sandwich for $15 ... I needed to sell a salad for $20. Nobody's going to give me that, but that's my cost right now.
In March, my rent was going to go back to $8,000. I needed to sign a personal guarantee on this lease. What that means is, if I don't survive, the landlord can come after my house, my car, my savings on the personal side. So, there's no way in hell I could have signed that kind of lease.
(Around October, Jayme’s landlords agreed to reduce The Kitchen Cafe’s monthly rent from $8,000 to $4,000 until March 2021. One of the landlords told WBUR that if the cafe had wanted to renew the lease, she would have considered extending the lower rent during the pandemic. She also said that it is common for commercial lease contracts to contain personal guarantee clauses.)
The hardest part as an owner was the decision to close. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing. I still don’t know if we did the right thing. But I just couldn’t keep on. You know, we were losing $10, $15,000 a month just to keep The Kitchen Cafe open, waiting to see when it's going to bounce back.
I feel relief, because I don't like to see my store so quiet. I enjoy what I do, but I also want to be able to cover my bills, and I'm not covering my bills. So that's why it's time to cut the losses.
Everybody talks about the light at the end of the tunnel, but we don't know when the light is going to click on — or if it's ever going to click on.
After closing, you cleared out all the equipment, decorations, and furniture. How does it feel to see the space empty?
It is no longer us. I used to come to my store, when I walk in every morning, I talk to my store:
"Good morning! Let’s have fun, let’s have a good day!"
"Thank you for giving a lot to so many — giving a lot to the customers, giving a lot to my team, to my employees."
That’s the biggest pride I took.
The store will let us know what was wrong, what was right. I don't know, it has a soul, like, she can talk to me. She'll say:
"You know what? That counter that you have there, put it over there, and you'll see what happens."
Looking into the future, do you think you will try to open another restaurant?
There's three things in a restaurant that are complicated to execute perfectly: good price, good food and make it fast. And we did all three, every day.
Many friends of mine tell me, "Why don't you do something different, in terms of business, instead of restaurant? Do you really want to open a restaurant again?" I said to them, I really enjoy the rush of being busy. My day goes so fast. That’s my persona.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include the specific amount of rent reduction that landlords agreed to provide The Kitchen Cafe, and the landlord’s statement that she would have considered continuing that lower rate during the pandemic.
This segment aired on January 21, 2021.