Sometimes people like to shine me on. And I get it. When you’re talking to the press, you’d rather have your good side showing. You wipe the sauce dribble off the plate at the pass before it goes out to the public, of course. But I was meeting with a relatively new restaurateur earlier this spring, and I couldn’t get a read on the place other than “Everything Is Awesome.” So, I asked them what had been the biggest challenge, what was something they learned from a failure. They sat and thought and then replied, “Off the record, I do stay up at night wondering how to keep this all going.”
“Off the record?” We usually save “off the record” for when you tell me you’re about to break up with your business partner or you’re going to sign a lease that changes everything. Staying up all night is not a character flaw to hide; it’s a feature of being in this industry. But it got me thinking about failure and fear—and how the impact of 2020 might be trickling through to new restaurateurs.
The night before this meeting, I had eaten at Maison Margaux, the new Fhima-family spot in North Loop. It was just open and still fresh; the kinks were still being worked out. David Fhima was working the line; his son Eli was working the room.
There’s a lot at stake with this spot. David Fhima has put a lot of money into turning a former furrier into a restaurant, and he’s put a lot of himself into the decor and the menu. He’s on the line in a way that he hasn’t been at Fhima’s, which for historic architectural reasons must always retain his own personality, nor with the Timberwolves, obviously. Walking around the space, he said to me, “This is important; this is a big one,” but not in a shiny way. He knows what I know. Never far from the energy and optimism that Fhima has for pushing forward is the ghost of restaurants past. You can’t see the magnitude of his successes without understanding the depths from where he’s come. And why should we pretend that doesn’t happen?
Maison Margaux is the first high-profile new restaurant opening on 1st Avenue North, which in the coming year or so will also see Tim McKee, Daniel del Prado, Ryan Burnet, and Josh Thoma join Gavin Kaysen as the culinary forces shaping the neighborhood. Not one of those humans hasn’t closed a restaurant or lost a deal. While no one wants to dwell on the hard things, not one of them would shy away from telling that story. At least in parts.
Opening a restaurant is the ultimate throw-your-own-birthday-party scenario: What if you do it and no one comes? Today, the hype beast of social media makes that less likely, but it’s also part of the problem, setting high expectations by blowing sunshine all over the place. Perhaps it’s all a reaction to the fear of losing it all again—toxic optimism that it’s all going to be OK because we really don’t want to go back to not being OK. I get that.
Opening a restaurant is the ultimate throw-your-own-birthday-party scenario: What if you do it and no one comes?
I don’t want to diminish the real trauma of losing a restaurant or small business. People’s lives are halted, their dreams can be crushed, and their families are affected. They could lose their homes, which are often tied to securing those dreams. I know the sleepless nights of this; I know it firsthand, and I respect anyone who sallies forth. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it doesn’t have to end you. You can get up, and you can dream again. But you need to have learned something, which means you need to look at fear and failure in the face. Because in the end, the hard stuff is good. And the good stuff is hard.
The day after I saw this fresh human restaurant, I was talking to a friend who is a farmer. He was wondering when he’d be able to get his 80 acres of soy planted in the wacky spring, which, he noted, is always wacky. Two years ago, he and his family had pulled in their best crop ever since taking over his father’s farm. Last year was the pits. But that’s the deal, he told me. You buckle up each year, and if you’re in this, you have to believe it’s going to be better next year. That final and more resonating F word is perhaps the biggest gift and the deepest curse: faith.