Even with the coronavirus pandemic changing life and business, chef Tim LaBant didn’t want to shut down his two Wilton restaurants completely. He was an early adopter of closing the dining-in part of the business, but LaBant swiftly changed the model to curbside takeout and delivery at Parlor and The Schoolhouse at Cannondale well before local and state officials mandated that CT restaurants close due to the rapidly spreading illness.
“We were going gangbusters. Pizza and take-out, that’s not a new concept, and we already had online ordering and the website that worked and all that,” he says. But then, he reconsidered.
“It came down to me, just weighing what happens if one of my employees gets sick or I get sick and bring it to my family or my guests get sick? And with the level of emergency and anxiety that everybody was talking about, I was like, it’s not worth a paycheck. Or trying to make money if somebody gets sick and dies. It weighed a lot.”
Tim and his wife, Julia, made a difficult call.
“We just said, this is what’s coming. If we don’t [close] now, we’re gonna spread it or we’re gonna get it. There were no good decisions, but that’s what led to ours,” he recalls.
Weighing heavily on their minds was the impact that decision would have on the staff working at both eateries. Either way it was a tough thing to ask them to risk–their lives or their livelihoods.
“I just asked them. For them it was, ‘Well, I don’t want to go to work because I’m scared, but I also need money.’ It was just really hard to hear people say, ‘I don’t want to go in and get sick–’ I was like, okay, yeah I get it, I don’t either. But as soon as we turn the restaurants off, there is no money,” LaBant says.
Economics of Running a Restaurant
Turning off the restaurants meant an almost immediate shutting off of cash flow in an already slim-margin world.
“On any given week, for our two tiny restaurants, between the bills coming in and stuff going out, there’s $15-$20,000 a week in just burn-up money. My job is just to take it from the customer and just pass it to the employees, that government, all my 20 or 30 different vendors, whether it’s food, wine, insurance, electric company, all that stuff,” LaBant explains. “I’m basically this conduit–all of last week’s revenue goes to this week’s bills.”
Turning it off means being responsible for every bill of the last few weeks with nothing coming in.
“It empties the bucket, completely. Imagine a sponge and it just wrings every last drop out, it’s instantaneous. There were probably, I don’t know, $40- or $50,000 in bills and checks that we’ve had to write over the last two or three weeks.”
Labor is a huge piece of the pie.
“As soon as the money stops, I have to stop the labor because I already know it’s going to be next to impossible to pay the vendors. But with no revenue, there is no money that can go towards labor–it’s 35% of the cost of running the business. If I let people work, it’s just going to be an empty bucket. It would break my heart worse to have to tell someone, ‘You worked and now I don’t have the money to pay you.”
But ‘labor’ is more than an entry in the books. Restaurant life is like a second family–a family for which LaBant is the patriarch.
“These people have worked for me and served the community for so long. I was lying awake at night thinking about these people. I have never missed paying them. This is the first time in 14 years where, all of a sudden, I was just desperate,” he says. The emotion in his voice is heavy.
“I know whose car was breaking down. I know what sounds people’s cars are making, who’s having issues, who needs what. Somebody needs an advance. They’re on their feet 40 hours a week, but they’re saving up to get their knees scoped–and it’s because they’re on their feet 40 hours. We’re all in it together, but I had that responsibility to try to take care of people.”
Like a family, he could have kept the restaurant going, knowing they’d be committing to it, together, like a family.
“We’re all going to go to work and we’re in it together, all standing here within two feet of each other, moving as fast as we can working. So either we all get it… but I had one girl whose mom is an ER nurse, another person whose parents have diabetes, and another person who pneumonia for a month this winter. And I’m thinking, ‘If any of those people get it, someone’s going to either lose a parent or they’re going to become infected and bring it to us or they’re going to have their own issue and possibly die,” he says, saying that’s when his thinking changed. “Ever since, you know what, well, we’ll all be here even if there is no restaurant; we’ll all still be alive and be able to move forward.”
Finding a Way–for Them
LaBant has turned to a GoFundMe appeal, hoping desperately to raise money for his employees.
“I have 40-50 people, some of them have been with me 14 years. They’ve built their entire lives by Schoolhouse paychecks. They’ve hustled. Everybody is a legal person, they all pay their taxes and it’s not corporate America–there is no safety net. A lot of them are week to week–they don’t get a check, it’s like ‘Boom!’ They can use up the groceries in their pantry and then they’re out of money. It’s a huge weight on my shoulders.”
He’s hoping to raise $30,000.
“I want to try and get people paid for two weeks. Each restaurant is $8-$10,000 in labor per week. My goal was $30,000 so that they could all be paid for two weeks, and if it’s stretched to three weeks or four weeks, at least maybe they’re getting some on unemployment and then this helps cover the second half of that, and then it can go a little bit further.”
The GoFundMe is intended to help out the employees only–not LaBant himself.
“I made the decision to open the restaurant and have these people work for me. I don’t know. I’m just going to call my vendors and I’m trying to talk to the landlord–the landlords are in the same boat, they’re like, ‘I need your money to pay my mortgage,’ and I feel that. Everybody is in the same boat.”
Still, he’s optimistic.
“We’re all smart people and we’re going to get through it. I’m surviving on the crumbs of the restaurant at the moment–leftovers of inventory and stuff like that. And in the end, my family is healthy, we’re all at home and yes, there’s a lot of stress, but you know, we also have to take a minute, go out in the sun, take a few deep breaths, do some homeschooling and have some faith that in the end, it’ll be fine.”
Visit the Parlor/Schoolhouse GoFundMe campaign webpage to contribute.
Other Wilton Businesses Running GoFundMe Campaigns
GOOD Morning Wilton will include links to GoFundMe campaigns that Wilton businesses set up for employees. Any information can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Naked Greens Employee Emergency Fund
“We’ve been part of the Wilton community for the last eight years, but now due to the unprecedented outbreak of COVID-19, and like most in our industry, we are doing what we can to stay afloat. Unfortunately, with business down 90%, and with no end in sight, we’ve been forced to furlough most of our employees and very drastically cut back on the hours of those still working to just a couple of hours a day while, and if, we can stay open much longer.
“As you can imagine, this has had enormous consequences for our amazing and loyal staff, as they’re no longer able to work to provide for themselves and for their families.
“I am creating an emergency relief fund to help fill in some of the gaps for our amazing employees, who are now really fighting to make ends meet, and with no clear certainty as to what the future holds or when the situation will change. 100% of the money raised will go directly to the employees.
“I know many places are reaching out for help and you might be already overwhelmed, but in these very difficult times, anything you can do to help either fund and share this message is greatly appreciated.”
Victor Melendez, Naked Greens Owner
Great Clips, Wilton
“So many people have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our hearts go out to all those who are dealing with this terrible virus. Thousands of people are out of work and yet still need to provide for their families. We have decided to set up a GoFundMe page for our hard-working stylists at a locally owned hair salon (BT GC, LLC DBA–Great Clips) at 5 River Rd. in Wilton.
“The proceeds will be used to help them and their families get through this difficult time while the business is closed. Rest assured, they will eagerly get back to providing excellent customer service and Great Haircuts when we open for business. Thanks for your help!”
Bryan Therriault, Great Clips owner
Cactus Rose Employee Relief Fund
“First, Katerina & Maria hope that you are all staying safe and are healthy during this tough time we are all facing.
“Although we have made the decision to reopen for takeout, as you can imagine most of our staff has had to stay home due to the drastic reduction in business. We are reopening in the hopes we will be able to continue getting at least a little income to those who help us run our business.
“We have decided to create this relief fund to help our employees who have been facing significant hardship as a result of these COVID-19 restrictions that have been put in place for the safety of our employees and our loyal customers and community.
“We hope you can find it in your hearts to make a contribution to help these employees through this time. We are trying to do all that we can so that our Cactus Rose family can come back better than ever when the nation is able to reopen and things are back to normal.
“As you may or may not know, a majority of people in the service industry live paycheck to paycheck and this unprecedented event has and will continue to have a huge impact on their lives.
“We ask you to think of the times that Cactus Rose has donated to your school events and fundraisers, the good times you’ve had with us, the memories you’ve created while at Cactus Rose. We hope you are able to contribute to this fund to help those who have helped you celebrate milestones in your lives.
“We want to thank you for taking the time to read this, for your donations and good thoughts and support. We thank you for helping us get our Cactus Rose family through this time.”
Katerina Pertisis and Maria Pertisis, Cactus Rose owners
Bianco Rosso Wilton Relief Fund
“The past few days have been tumultuous for everyone, and it’s hit the restaurant industry especially hard.
“The majority of service industry workers are paycheck-to-paycheck, and with the temporary closure of all restaurants and bars, that’s put an extraordinary financial strain on every single one of us.
“Every server and bartender, every line cook and prep cook, every dishwasher; we’re all facing an uncertain future, and we’re asking you for a little help to keep us on our feet until we can reopen.
“Restaurants are so many things to so many people. We may be where you met your spouse, or spent a holiday, or celebrated that big promotion, or wallowed in a bad day. We are many things to you, and we spend many hours working to evolve into something even greater for you.
“Now we need your help. In other difficult times, my restaurant family would turn to one another for help. However, the reality of the current situation is that we cannot. With that in mind, we look to you for support and generosity.
“All donations will go directly to all of our hourly employees who have been impacted by the restaurant closure.
“It’s hard to ask, but now is the time we need you. Please help us by making a donation.
“As always, the Bianco Rosso team wishes you good health and safety. We look forward to opening our doors to host you soon.
“All the best,”
Mario Lopez, Cristina Ramirez, Jaime Lopez and Bianco Rosso Family
Create Learning Center
“This campaign was started by friends and families of Create Learning Center to support Sharon Cowley, known lovingly by her students as ‘Miss Sharon.’
“Miss Sharon runs Create Learning Center in Wilton, CT. She has been a hallmark of early education, creativity, and learning in this community for years, having run the On School Road preschool program prior to opening CLC in 2014.
“Due to COVID-19, the school was forced to close, and funds are critical to support Miss Sharon and her small business, a business that so many families consider a ‘second home.’ Despite being unemployed in this crisis, Miss Sharon and her team continue to connect with our children, providing them with learning and virtual meets.
“The money raised here will help pay her bills and the operating expenses that will continue to be owed during the weeks and months ahead.
“Miss Sharon’s school has evolved over the years. Not only does her program provide education for young students, it also extends beyond traditional school hours, supporting families and their unique schedules. Like schools everywhere, Create is evolving once again to support its students remotely. This is our opportunity, as a community, to give back during this difficult period.
“With love and gratitude,
Friends & Families of Create Learning Center”
Feed Wilton Ambulance Workers on Duty
“Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Inc. (WVAC) is comprised of volunteers who are working to keep everyone in our town safe during these dangerous times. Let’s keep them well fed during their shifts and support local restaurants at the same time!
Donations will be used to fund meals for the volunteers during their shifts at Marly’s, Pinocchio Pizza and Orem’s. Please be generous.
Campaigns Started by GoFundMe’s COVID-19 Small Business Relief Fund
Trackside COVID-19 Relief Fund
“Since 1921, Orem’s Diner has been a part of Wilton’s history. Now a staple in our community, we’re proud to serve deliciously fresh breakfast, lunch, and dinner all day. You can expect a warm welcome from our staff as you enter our doors. The smell of warm and comforting food cooking will hit your nose as we seat you, and our large menu will help you choose which meal to feast upon. We’re here to help you have a wonderful experience in our delightful diner, so stay a while and make yourself at home.” Support Orem’s