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Earlier this year, I wrote about Uplifters Kitchen, a vegetarian cafe in Santa Monica, California, purchased by chef-owner Salima Saunders amid the pandemic. Last month, Uplifters Kitchen announced a sudden restaurant closure. Here, founder Salima Saunders shares her journey as a first-time small business owner and what she learned from the experience. Thankfully, she has not lost her love of food and baking – she brought me a deliciously fluffy chocolate almond cake when we met for coffee. – Amber Gibson
Sometimes it feels like a breakup. Some days I’m ok and some days are really hard.
It all happened so quickly and it just feels like the end of a dream. I think that’s the hardest part. I’d been thinking about owning my own cafe for years and now that it’s come to an end, it’s painful. You have to go through a grieving process.
I learned a lot being a first-time operator. Everything was new. It was such a learning process, and I think I need to go back to the drawing board with a fuller understanding of what the demands are and how to create a more successful business next time. One of the things that I now realize is that business takes time. It can take three, four, or even five years sometimes to even just establish the restaurant.
We went in taking a huge risk and making a big assumption that having a breakfast and lunch place would be a priority for people. But without the foot traffic from businesses nearby, most people are eating their breakfast and having coffee at home. How do I justify keeping the doors open when I have no idea when or if the foot traffic will even return? It might take two or three years and I don’t have the runway to do that.
We had maybe 60 to 70 regulars and more people on weekends. But that wasn’t enough. This is really a volume business, and location is so important. There weren’t enough residences within walking distance. And with neighboring businesses still working remotely, we had zero foot traffic. I think if we could have held on for two more years we would be in a much different situation. Even just in the year we opened, the cost of everything was going up – paper goods, coffee, chocolate – and we had to pass that on to the customer.
It’s only natural for us to operate in a scarcity mindset when resources are so tight. It’s really hard to pick up your head from the day to day and realize that you’re taking steps for the long term.
We just hit a point where we needed more investment. It was a hard sell for people because there was so much uncertainty over when businesses would return. Businesses in the area were not resigning their leases. There aren’t that many grants available and they’re really difficult to get. It was almost serendipitous when we had an offer from a buyer. Because of the uncertainty, we just sold. I also wanted to not run out of money entirely. At least I was able to offer my employees a severance package and take care of them. I knew who the buyer was and that gave me a little more comfort too.
The main reason we closed was operating challenges, but part of it is the isolation that comes with it.
I burnt out fully. Never in my entire life had I had that level of stress. It was so much penny pinching and I was doing so much work myself, from baking to deliveries and filling in for a barista who was gone. All of the outlets that I was used to, like going to a yoga class, carving out space for myself, just didn’t exist. All I had was work and all I was doing was work. Being stressed about money and paying people on time and making sure our supply chain was healthy. It was very weighty.
It was hard initially not to take it personally and think of our closing as a personal failure. But there were so many circumstances and so many things happening that are greater than myself. I don’t know what the next step is and I’m learning to be ok with that. To move to a place where I’m open to the next thing.
I’ve never really taken a break before so this is my first break in my professional life. I don’t really have a dream right now. Beyond knowing that I want to remain in food. I’ve started doing a little recipe development. I’d love to do more food writing. But I’m taking a ceramics class now and just trying to take a break.