Pandemic Perspectives: Restaurateur Doesn't Expect to Reopen (Again) in 2020

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Small Business Owners

Pandemic Perspectives

Joyce Chan @ The Balance

The coronavirus pandemic has had an immense impact on the economy and workforce, as it has not only exacerbated a recession but led to nearly 55 million people in the U.S. filing for unemployment in just a 21-week span leading up to August 8, 2020. 

Every unemployment filing, furlough, and closed business reflects a personal experience. As the statistics pile up, we’re committed to sharing stories of how COVID-19 continues to shape people’s lives and livelihoods—how they’ve coped, what they’ve learned during the crisis, and how they’re moving forward. 

Among the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic has been hospitality and service, with studies showing that over 26,000 restaurants closed in the U.S. as of mid-July 2020. Miami-based Julio Cabrera—the 56-year-old co-owner of popular Cuban bar/cafe/restaurant/live entertainment venue Cafe La Trova—has witnessed both the economic and health impact of coronavirus firsthand. As someone who hails from an area that's been a COVID-19 hotspot throughout the summer, Julio initially closed his 5,000 square-foot establishment when the pandemic first hit, then reopened briefly before being forced to shutter operations again. Speaking to The Balance in July, the restaurateur and celebrated cantinero (or bartender) shared his experience navigating the pandemic, why reopening might have to wait, and how the coronavirus affected him personally. His answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

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Julio Cabrera
Julio Cabrera.  Photo Credit: Anthony Nader

You’re in Miami, which has been a hotspot for COVID-19. How has it been going?

It’s really tough as a restaurant owner. We reopened at the end of May thinking that everything would go better and we were going to be able to go back to where we were before. But when we reopened, there were a lot of restrictions, like 50% capacity [and] using masks all the time. We were thinking the plan would be to increase the capacity and open the bar area, but that never happened. Because of the increase in numbers of coronavirus cases here in Miami, we were forced to close again. 

It didn’t make any sense for us to be open. We were losing more money being open than being closed. If we are closed, we still have to pay the lease, water, and power, but employees’ payroll was pretty high. We were selling OK but it was not enough to make a profit or break even. Being open, we were giving our employees the opportunity to work and make some money, but as owners, we were losing a lot of money. If we stayed open another month, we would be closing forever. We didn’t have any more budget to be working like that. So we decided to close and have the small amount of money that we had just to pay rent for 2-3 months and wait to see what happens. 

When you initially reopened, how did state restrictions directly impact Cafe La Trova, economically and/or operationally?

It was really tough because our place is more than a restaurant. It’s not just a place that sells food and drinks. We sell and provide an experience to people. We have live music and entertainment every night, and that’s huge. It’s not just the musicians, but bartenders and staff are also part of the show, every night, singing and dancing with the guests or behind the bar. To provide that experience to people, we have to smile, our face representing the happiness and passion that we have. Using the mask, it was not possible. 

They allowed restaurants to open at 50% capacity, but not the bar. We have two bars inside the venue and those were closed. So, it was really tough making drinks for the tables at 50% capacity. We had the music but people were not allowed to dance. Wearing the mask behind the bar and doing the show wasn’t the same. If you’re a singer in Vegas and you have to wear a mask, it doesn’t make sense. We are artists and entertainers more than bartenders. That’s why our place is a little bit different. 

How did you deal with staffing issues, in terms of unemployment or furloughs? 

During the first period of time we closed, we kept all of our employees. We paid health insurance. We got a [Paycheck Protection Program] PPP loan and we decided to use it for our staff thinking in a couple of months, everything would be [back to normal]. They didn’t apply for unemployment [at the time] because we were employing them for takeout and deliveries and doing training. From the end of March to the end of May, we kept all of our employees and paid them a decent amount of money in order to survive. 

The PPP was beneficial. But at the beginning, they said we had to use it in eight weeks. Then, they decided that we can use it in 24 weeks instead of eight, but we had already used [75% of] it on our employees and [25% on] our place. After two months, what we were spending was much more than our revenue, and we ran out of PPP. 

But now, the second time we closed, we told them to go on unemployment—even myself, everyone went on unemployment. We [were] not able to keep our employees on the payroll anymore. Now, hopefully when we open again, we’re going to call our employees back and [try to keep] them; everybody that’s worked there since day one. 

When you reopen again, and because entertainment is a big part of your business, what kind of safety protocols will you implement or take into consideration? 

With the experience we have…I don’t think we want to reopen again with 50% capacity or social distancing. If we still have a lot of coronavirus cases here in Miami, I don’t think we want to open again. We need X amount of customers every night in order to have [a] profit. We’re not opening again just to open. We want to open when we’re going to be sure we can work at 100% capacity again. That’s going to happen when we don’t have too many cases of coronavirus here in Miami and in Florida, and when the government allows business to open at 100% capacity and open the bars. The bars are more than 50% of the revenue in our place. Also, if we have to pay the talent for the show—we have to have it because it’s a must—we need it at 100% capacity again. If the government at some point in August or September says we can open at 50% capacity, socially distance, and wear masks, then no, we probably won’t open again. It’s not going to be profitable. [The goal] is to open it like it was before, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen again this year—or before the vaccine comes. 

What have you learned from this whole experience? How has it changed your perspective on your career?

What I’m still learning is that we need to be ready for the worst. Florida is a hurricane area. Today could be perfect and the next week, it could be destroyed by a hurricane and you’d have to stop for a month. That could happen, not just for a hurricane, but for a pandemic like this one. What I’ve learned is that you can be successful, and in a really nice place today, and the next month you [w]on’t know what’s going to happen. We were named one of the best bars and restaurants in the United States by GQ, [and] we were really happy about what was going on in our place, but what we learned is you can never be sure of anything. You can be successful today and be closed tomorrow. I always think positively that we’re going to survive because we fought really hard. We tried really hard for so many years to have this, and we are a group of partners that believe in each other. We believe that if we are smart, we’re going to be able to reopen again and be as successful as before. 

Personally, I’ve started doing research and going back to writing my book that’s been on hold for so many years. It is about cantineros, my father, and my story. I’ve been working from my house, trying to stay [COVID-19-]negative. I tested positive [for coronavirus in June] so I’m still recovering. I was really bad for 11 days and I’ve been positive for 16 days. My wife and my daughter also tested positive and we’ve been home. 

How are you feeling right now? 

Just a little bit of coughing and a little short of breath, but the headache and fever that I had for 11-12 days is gone. My lungs are not the same anymore. Hopefully, I can be 100% recovered [soon]. My wife, who’s younger, had a fever for just two days and had no symptoms. I never went to the hospital. I didn’t want to. My family wasn’t here, but now we’re all together. It’s still hard, but I’m feeling much better now.

What does the future hold for your business?

I can’t imagine the future. When we closed the first time, I always thought it was a matter of a month or two and then we’re going to open again. I thought we were going to open again in late May or June, at [latest] July, scaling up again. That never happened. We don’t want to make the same mistake again and reopen with the same restrictions. I’d prefer not to reopen again with the same situation, the same rules, and with coronavirus still there and people still afraid to go out. If we still have some cases in Florida and we don’t have the vaccine, I don’t think we’re going to open again. I’m thinking [we’ll be closed] the rest of the year. The question is, can we survive until next year? We don’t know. We’re trying to survive being closed like this, paying the lease every month. But we don’t know if we’re going to survive until the end of the year. 

Can you imagine if they allow us to reopen in September and we do everything we do that we have to do to reopen—[spend] all the money we need to buy all the food, to refill the walk-in cooler, the bars, the liquor, and retrain all the staff again? It’s a lot of money we need to spend before reopening and if we open it and everything happens the same way, we don’t want to face that again. 

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