There’s something ineffably sad about eating at a new restaurant that’s mostly empty. The wait staff is eager and expectant, the food is meticulously presented, and underneath there’s a sense of impending doom.
Apparently 90% of restaurants fail, and those that don’t fail become successful very quickly. So if you’re starting a new restaurant, and it hasn’t taken off in the first month or two, there’s an exceedingly high probability that you are not going to make it. But you’ve put in so much time, and money, and heart, and you just can’t bear to shut the place down. That feeling permeates the place. And it’s sad.
The summer after my first year of college, I got a job in New Haven and lived at home. Every day after work, my dad and I would go pick my sister up from the summer school she was attending. We had to drive through Wallingford, and would pass a restaurant spot that had changed hands numerous times… one of those cursed locations. That summer, an authentic Mexican place called “Mama’s Kitchen” opened up. My dad and I both like Mexican food, and for a while commented on the new place as we drove by.
After a few weeks, we finally found the time and stopped there for a meal one day. The place was utterly empty. It was clearly a small-time, family operation. The blurb on the back of the menu spoke of Mama’s fantastic home cooking. A tall, proud young man – Mama’s son, as it turned out – came from the back room and seated us at our table. We ordered our food and he did an impeccable job serving us. Mama presumably made the food in the back – there really was no one else there – and when it came out, it was fresh and authentic. My memories of the meal are a bit hazy, but I recall it being a little too authentic; it simply wasn’t Taco Bell-y enough to survive in Connecticut.
We ate mostly in silence. Something about an empty restaurant quiets you. I imagined Mama a year ago, as her family’s best-loved cook, making meal after delicious meal. She’s encouraged by her children and siblings and cousins to take her home cooking to the next level and open up the restaurant she’s always dreamed of. One day she finally decides to take the plunge. She spends hours and hours in the kitchen perfecting a menu. Her family scrapes together some cash and collateral for a small business loan. Her son, a new high school graduate, puts off college plans to be the first waiter. Hopes are high and the quality of the food speaks for itself. Opening day arrives and the entire family is so proud.
You know what happens next. A few weeks after we ate there, Mama’s Kitchen shut down. A decade of hopes and savings lost. The pursuit of the American dream, rudely awakened. Somehow this experience had a large impact on me.
Entrepreneurship is a story of failures interrupted only occasionally by success. For every Wolfgang Puck there’s nine Mamas. Perhaps she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (with the wrong menu). Damn you, Vulfgangk. Damn you.