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Carolyn Iannone of Love Lane Kitchen (Credit: David Benthal)

I am very aware of March 17th. The date has been creeping up on my calendar and it has a weight to it that I find myself unable to ignore.

March 17 will mark exactly one year since restaurants were restricted to take-out service only. At Love Lane Kitchen, the Mattituck restaurant I’ve owned since 2010, it was the start of a chain of events that would bring doubt, the feeling of failure and some serious soul searching.

The day before, we had gotten the news that all “non-essential businesses” would be closed. There was a panic of Google searches to see where we fell. Are restaurants essential? What does this mean?

News had been escalating of the seriousness of the pandemic for a couple of weeks. But this was when things got real. Real scary, real uncertain. It was that day that I think we all began to see the severe impact this would take, on people’s lives (quite literally), livelihoods and life as we knew it.

We had a small sense of relief that we were deemed essential, and my team and I quickly made moves to adjust, as did so many of the small businesses who are my neighbors on Love Lane. I’ll never forget the wide-eyed, is-this-really-happening look on my team’s faces.

It was my husband’s birthday. We went to my parents to try to celebrate and have dinner and cake, but there was an underlying sense of anxiety and ominousness that weighed on everyone. We blew out the candles and wished that it would all be OK.

“Did I just lose everything?”

The next day I opened the restaurant at 7 am, like I had every Tuesday for the past 11 years. It was as if I was outside myself looking in. I watched myself walk up the path with my bag on my shoulder and my keys in my hand, unlock the door, turn on the lights, start to make coffee.

Arturo, my amazing line cook, arrived, quiet and reserved as always but I could tell he was worried, too. The coffee brewed. Arturo went about his setup in the kitchen. I filled the milk and straightened the coffee mugs.

I walked up to the window. It was raining. No one came in; the phone did not ring.
I looked out onto Love Lane, my home for over a decade. And I fell apart.

The last thing I wanted was for Arturo to see me — I didn’t want to worry him more than I knew he already was. If I lost the faith, how would he be expected to keep it?

I covered my mouth with my hand and silently let tears well up in my eyes until they spilled over. I was taking those awful jagged and shaky breaths trying not to full-out sob. Terrible questions were lingering in my head: Is this it? Did I just lose everything I spent the last ten years of my life building? What would I tell the staff?

Suddenly, thinking of the staff help calm me. I realized I have an entire army of the savviest and most determined people I have ever met in my life right here! I took a big steady inhale and exhale. I dried up my eyes. And I texted my crew.

“I know this is an unpredictable and uncertain time,” I wrote, “but you all know the restaurant industry is made up of some of the hardest working people on the planet. We can find solutions together.”

We continued with take-out and delivery. We got online ordering up and running. We adjusted the hours. We created new systems. We shared memes and toilet paper. We invited people to whatever food they might need from our pantries.

Ten days later, on March 27, one of my guys called: He had a fever and he was having trouble breathing. My chef and I just stood in the kitchen staring at each other. No one could get tested. We didn’t know if he had COVID or if he did when he was exposed, we didn’t know who else could have been exposed to him. It was a Thursday. I had a walk-in full of food prepped for the weekend.

I called everyone on my staff, one by one, and told them we would have to close for at least two weeks. The pastrami could be replaced. People’s lives could not.

We froze what meat and food we could, and I delivered the rest to the staff, friends and family: fresh lettuce and vegetables, pancake mix and sweet potato hash, berries and mango salsa. We gave away thousands of dollars worth of food and prep.

I made a quick video that night to post online for our customers, alone in the restaurant after everyone left. Eventually, I put on my jacket, shut the lights and went home.

I felt defeated. I cried again, this time into my husband’s shirt and covered him with tears and snot and he graciously just put his arms around me. He couldn’t say anything to comfort me because I know he didn’t want to lie.

“I am not defined by my job title.”

It would be a month until we would re-open, another 10 weeks after that until we’d get back to a schedule that resembled our normal hours.

I told my staff to sign up for unemployment. That was so hard for me to do. I felt like I had failed and that maybe I wasn’t the fearless leader I always wanted to be after all. I realize now that what I needed was to show myself some grace. But instead, I felt like if Love Lane Kitchen failed, so did I.

It took the better part of the time we were closed to learn maybe my most important lesson to date: That I am not defined by my job title. No matter how much I love it or work for it, Carolyn Iannone is not Love Lane Kitchen. And Love Lane Kitchen is not Carolyn Iannone. If LLK shuts down, I don’t also need to shut down.

I still woke up every morning before 6 am. I couldn’t help it. I’d make coffee, I’d write. I wish I could say I had unwavering faith that everything would be OK. Anyone who knows me knows that optimism is normally my default mode, but those days that turned to weeks broke my spirit for a while there.

I would still go to the restaurant, applying for grants, emailing purveyors, talking to my landlord and my accountant. I made a list of work to do and invited anyone who was also losing their minds at home to help. So, we painted. We sanded and resurfaced the bar counter. We hand washed every rung and leg of every chair in the restaurant. We watered the plants. We played music and drank coffee. We collectively hurt for the huge amount of loss we were witnessing.

Hundreds of New Yorkers were dying by the day. Hospitals and front-line workers were at their breaking point. Businesses were shuttered, the political and racial divide was being felt within the country. We were all in this collective cloud of grief. For our friends, for our industry, for humanity.

“Fears and anxieties were projected on us”

We finally re-opened at the end of April when some PPP monies came through. We decided on a limited schedule and menu and put together a skeleton crew. We had some really incredible people come through for us over the next few months. Those people will never know how much their business and their love and encouragement meant to me.

But a lot of people were scared. Their own fears and anxieties were projected on us and our policies. The way people were acting had nothing to do with us really, and they were just as angry and hopeless as I was feeling.

The day we opened, a guy asked to see a menu. When I told him we just re-opened and had only a limited menu online, he rolled his eyes at me and walked away. I went outside, onto the sidewalk after him, and I lost it. I told him he had no idea what we had to do to even have the doors open and he needed to have more patience. He snapped right back at me that I, in fact, had no idea what he was going through, either. We just stood, staring at each other, feeling misunderstood and wronged. Really what we were saying is, “I am at my limit and I need grace and compassion.”

I wish I could go back and just tell him I know we are all hurting and here’s a menu and a hug. But instead, we stood in the middle of the sidewalk — on Love Lane of all places — yelling at each other. I am so sad for the two of us when I think of that moment.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a one-off. I found myself unable to empathize with customers who were unable (or worse, unwilling) to put aside their exhausting expectations. I was filled with anger and resentment.

There was another encounter where I realized I needed to ask for help. The details are unimportant at this point, but it was an insensitive comment from a woman eating a salad. I swear, I envisioned myself putting two hands on her table and just hauling it into the air. This, did not, in reality, happen. But in my head, it was very much a possibility — and I was pretty alarmed by that. Of course, the staff and everyone around me could feel it, and shockingly, this is not a helpful quality to have in a leader. So I stepped way back.

I once again leaned on my staff and my managers. I removed myself almost completely from managing the floor. I was mentally exhausted. “Can-do Carolyn” was shorting out like a blown fuse.

So I made some changes. I enlisted my very capable and professional and somehow still hospitable staff to manage the floor. I focused my energies on the back end of the business, which was also, unsurprisingly, in need of attention.

The gratitude I have for my staff and the mental strength it took to get through that summer will not be easily forgotten. Even at what felt like my worst, we managed to still show up and have moments of joy and fun — where we remembered why we do this in the first place.

I could claim that it was for good food, or good service, for hospitality, for our community. Those things are all really important to me and I truly believe in them, but I know that’s not why we showed up the way we did that summer. We showed up the way we did for each other.

“Unexpectedly, something shifted”

We wouldn’t open the dining room until the fall of 2020. At 50% capacity, we had a pathetic seven tables. It was like a bad comedy skit where we have one table and a waitlist six days long. Oddly though, it didn’t feel pathetic. It felt really nice. The space had looked like a storage unit for months. It felt really good to clear out all the boxes and set the tables that sat unused for so long.

The shorter days and colder months let uncertainty creep its way back in. The nation would continue to reel in its political divide and the death toll would reach heart-shattering numbers. We would have periods of time that we would just be closed.
Someone would have been exposed and the whole staff would stand in line for hours to get tested. We would adjust the hours to a “safe crew” of people who weren’t exposed while others quarantined. Sometimes this meant closing, sometimes it meant just running breakfast and lunch.

We just got used to it. The distance and the masks, the inconsistency and the uncertainty. The tests and the politics. Everyone was just trying so hard to literally get through this alive.

Then, unexpectedly, something shifted. Maybe it was the new year, maybe it was the vaccines being released, maybe it was Amanda Gorman’s poem.

But out in the distance, I finally saw it: That tiny, burning light of hope. Real hope. Not like explained-away-hurt hope. Or band-aid hope, Or, “There, there child, things will look better in the morning” hope. Like, real, tangible, bright-hot hope.

Little by little, I let it fill me.

A half a million people have lost their lives. Millions of people are unemployed, hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed. There is no real reason to feel hopeful. But against all odds, here I am, seeing the light, again, in these dark, dark days.