The next day after working the line by myself, I woke up in pain. My lower back and knees hurt, and even though I slept, I felt still felt tired. It seemed like things were moving in slow motion, at least in my mind they did. Even though it usually takes about 5 minutes to brew coffee it seemed like an hour, I was standing in front of my chemex watching the coffee drip through the filter, praying for it to go faster. My brain was telling me to sit down, in fact screaming at me so sit down or crawl back into bed. When the coffee finally finished brewing I sat down on my couch and laid my head back and closed my eyes. I was trying not to think about the fact that I would have to work solo again tonight.
Now, as I write this and think about this time, I was probably not ok mentally. I was under a lot of stress, money was tight and we were getting behind on our bills. It was getting harder and harder to find the motivation to go to work, which should have sent off all kinds of alarms but I just kept pushing forward hoping for something to change.
When I got to Vera, something happened, something so ordinary and dumb and yet it had a profound effect on me. So we had an alarm that, once you opened the door, gave you 30 seconds to enter your code and turn it off. Otherwise, it sent a notification to an operator who would call the police. This day I unlocked the door like I had done thousands of times, walked quickly through the restaurant to get to the alarm, but failed to notice a rolled-up mat on the floor and tripped over it, and fell to the floor with a definite thud. Shooting pain went through my knees as I tried to stand up, and I started to freak out because now the alarm was going off and the phone was ringing, I knew it was the alarm company, they called you before they notified the police. You also were given an expensive ticket if it was a false alarm. I stood up, leaning on a chair for balance because my knee hurt like hell. I hobbled over to the phone just in time to tell the operator I had set off the alarm by accident. That at least was a relief.
I limped over to table 19 and sat down. I had landed in an awkward position and my right knee hurt like hell. I closed my eyes, tried to relax, and prayed I hadn’t done any real damage to my knee. After a few minutes I tried standing up and it didn’t hurt quite as much, so I hobbled over to the coffee station and made a coffee for myself, and turned on Tom Waits. Along with the coffee I popped four Ibruprofren and sat down at table 19, figuring I’d just chill a bit before attempting to work.
As I sat there I became angrier and angrier. Angry at how things had turned out, angry at how I had neglected my health for so long because I put my job/career first before everything, angry at me for not doing a better job at running the business of Vera. One of the things Liz and I discussed a few days before was that we had a really good restaurant but a terrible business. Making delicious food and providing good service doesn’t mean you are turning a profit.
I was really just pissed off in general. As I was sitting there, realizing I had a lot to do to get ready for dinner service, I figured I needed to change something, anything, because what I was doing right now just wasn’t working. First, I had to decide which came first, my health or my business, most normal people don’t have to choose but I felt I did. I felt it was too late in the game and I had to play catch up. I decided there and then to start focusing on my health. Not just physical health either, I was stressed and burnt out. I averaged about 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night, there were many nights I didn’t sleep at all and just stared at my bedroom ceiling trying to figure out how I was going to pay all our bills, there usually wasn’t enough money to go around.
I got up and walked downstairs, I needed to start prepping for dinner service and my knee didn’t hurt as much so I felt that I might as well try to get ready. My mind was swirling with ideas about how I could do things differently, where do I even start? I could probably start small, maybe walking every day, just for 30 minutes or so, it wasn’t much but it was better than nothing. I googled “walking for weight loss” to see what came up. I saved some of the articles in my notes. I would start tomorrow.
I was running Fabada as a special that night and I needed to start cooking the beans right away. I put the beans on and started making desserts, cleaning kale, and making lamb pinchos. My prep wasn’t as intense as I thought and after a couple of hours, I was able to sit down for a while. I made myself another coffee and tried to turn my brain off for a few minutes. There were so many restaurants opening in the West Loop that it was hard to keep track, and I felt Vera was getting lost. It’s easy for people to forget you are there. For most of the past year, we had tried to come up with new ideas to reinvigorate Vera, we tried new things, experimented with new dishes, specials, promotions, we tried to be more creative. Some things worked, most didn’t. But now, I felt something had changed, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I knew the time had come to talk to Liz about our end game and try to decide what we really wanted and how we could go about getting it. I avoided even allowing myself to think about stepping away from Vera, after all, it was our dream come true, to open our own restaurant, be our own boss. Any time that thought popped into my head I felt guilty just entertaining the notion.
One of the things I had to confront was my avoidance of a certain word. A word that made me uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. That word was failure. I didn’t want to be seen as a failure. Even though we had been open six years, not bad for any restaurant, I still felt quitting would be accepting failure. It was very difficult for me to let go, even though I needed to for my own sanity and health.
That night went pretty much the same as the previous night. I made a lot of kale salads, garlic shrimp, and tomato bread. It seemed like the wheels might fly off the bus at one point but it turned out ok, but I was exhausted and my knee was throbbing after service. When I walked home that night I just happen to see my reflection in the glass door leading into my building. What I saw was a very tired middle-aged man, I really looked like shit. When I walked through the lobby I stopped in front of a full-length mirror near the elevators. I took a hard look at myself and honestly almost fainted. I just looked awful. I had huge bags under my eyes, I was slumped over, my coat was worn and old, my shoes had food splotches on them, my whole body seemed like it was sagging. My face, it just had this look on it, like I hadn’t slept well in ages, and I hadn’t. I had to make a change.
The next day I started walking in the morning. I have walked or exercised in some way shape or form almost every day since then. I have taken a week off here or there, a day or two, but honestly, I walk almost every day. I have made a lot of changes in my life. I don’t eat the same, I move my body more, I meditate, and my health has grown progressively since then. I still have a ways to go, but I feel much better. That “failure” led me to an incredible place. I am so grateful for Vera, it was amazing while it existed but helped me learn what truly matters in life. I have everything I could possibly need. Not everything I want, but everything I need. I’m still married to an amazing woman who loves me despite myself. Walking away fromVera was the scariest thing we’d ever done but it has turned out to be the best thing for both of us. Now I try to help other restaurant owners going through the same drama we did and it gives me great satisfaction to help other people and contribute in some small way to their success. Writing this was difficult because it brought up difficult memories and feelings but also gave me so much hope. Thank you for reading and next week we will get back to kitchen life.