Opinion & Editorial

Bistro owners’ how-to on survival: Rise and grind!

Melissa, Lyla and Seth Clark

Sometimes the calendar works in your favor, like when your birthday falls on a weekend so you don’t have to “call in sick,” or Independence Day falls on a Monday and you can get an extra day of vacation.

Well, a few years back, we were granted the rare opportunity to celebrate Saint Paddy’s Day on a Friday, the one night of the week we typically host live music. We knew this night had to be above and beyond. What better way to do that than to bring in the local rock ’n’ roll cover band The Fret Boys for a night of classic hits bathed in green stage lights.

We even had green beer to boot. It was a packed house and stretched a full hour past our usual last call. It was a night worth remembering. Saint Paddy’s, 2020 was a different story. That was the night my little restaurant’s world got turned upside down. Word came down that Oregon was officially going into quarantine, which meant operations as we knew it were immediately put on hold. 

My wife and I, being full of grit and optimism, as many restaurateurs are, clicked-in for the rollercoaster ride we knew, by no choice of our own, we were about to embark on.

So how would I describe the ensuing eight weeks to date? It’s like, it’s like, well, it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before. I can’t even come up with a good analogy. Over the past eight weeks, I’ve experienced incredible highs and insufferable lows, often at the same time. 

The early days had a bunch of questions without any answers. How do you take action against an invisible enemy? Do we shut down, lose all sources of income, and protect the greater good? Do we remain open for drive-thru service to serve and support our local community? How are we supposed to pay payroll, rent, utilities, and cost of goods when the officials are pleading for people to stay home? 

One by one, we came up with answers. 

With barely enough history (about a week) to make an educated decision, and no clear outline for the future, the toughest night in our 10-year history arrived; we had to let our team go. We were looking to lose $1,000 a week by staying open in Coburg. But, if we closed the store, laid off the employees from Coburg and Creswell, we could free up enough income based on our Creswell sales, to cover overhead and buy ourselves a few weeks, in hopes that some sort of aid would come through. If we didn’t act fast, the whole house of cards was set to come crashing down in less than a month. Calls were made, and tears were shed. 

Melissa and I got up the next morning and went to work. We converted the former dining area into a makeshift daycare by bringing down toys, educational tools, and a small teepee for our three-and-a-half-year-old. From this day forward, it was “bring your kid to work day” … every day!

We decided that since our daughter was now forced to hang out at the shop nine hours a day, we would close down the business two days a week to give her (and us) some sort of normalcy, but at the expense, literally, of two days of revenue. 

From the start, we have seen nothing but support from our friends, family, and customers. One of my cousins reached out to the rest of our family and set up a CashApp account. Together they gifted us enough money to pay a month’s worth of our personal bills, gas for our cars, and grocery shopping. I cannot express enough gratitude for this gesture. We have a customer, who, every two weeks has handed me an envelope with cash in it. He and his wife are hunkering down and recognize their dollars still need to be spent to keep the wheels turning.

As a business, we took a stance to help families who qualify for the Free Lunch Program, by offering a well-balanced meal, no questions asked. We also witnessed a growing demand for support of our frontline workers. This translated into customer after customer buying gift cards for us to pay-it-forward to nurses, doctors, and honestly, anyone else deserving of a bit of praise.

Despite the woes of business finance, and my own personal grumbling about canceling our April trip to Costa Rica, what stands out to me about this whole ordeal is an ever-so-slight shift in habits of my customers. I’ve witnessed more patience, more appreciation for good weather, gratitude for remaining open, and an overall sense of joy. It’s as if time with family, time at home, and a bit of good weather are all the medicine one needs.

Overnight the world changed. It reset. It forced us to evaluate what’s important to us. 

As the weeks went on, we got our team back. We owe a big thank you to Banner Bank for helping us secure a Payroll Protection Program loan, which is paying our staff’s wages. Now, we’re on the brink of reopening. Again, more questions without answers. Is it too soon? Will we see a spike in cases? How do I offer a dining experience built on customer service while wearing a facemask? Will people understand if I tell them, they can’t come in yet because all three of my tables are occupied? How will we pay our bills if the State mandates we can only have 50% occupancy at any given time? What will I do with my daughter when she can no longer have free run of the place, but the pre-schools are closed?

This is my life. And so we do what we’ve always done. We take it a week at a time, and we find reasons to be grateful. The rest has a way of working itself out. 

Seth Clark co-owns Blue Valley Bistro with his wife, Melissa. He wrote this for The Chronicle.



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