You’ve probably been hearing a lot about PPP lately. If you’re a casual diner and not a restaurant owner or chef, you might think this sounds like a potty-training scheme for toddlers. It’s actually a government program that was theoretically set up to keep people in small businesses, like restaurants, employed during the pandemic.
If we’re going to get back to a vibrant local restaurant scene, we, as diners, need to understand what needs to be changed with government assistance and incentive programs. We need to put pressure on our legislators to do things like expand the PPP program and make sure it’s not being diverted to Trump properties like Mar-a-Lago or universities with billion-dollar endowments. We need to make sure there’s a consistent and clear plan for recovery for small restaurants so business owners can plan and support their staffs for the long term.
Toward that end I reached out to Matt Sussman, owner of Table, Donkey and Stick in Logan Square, which has transformed itself into an artisan pandemic pizza parlor, to talk about some of this business stuff in the context of a real world situation.
Sussman was lucky enough to snag an early loan and because of the characteristics of his business, at least for the short term, the PPP has been helpful. Still, because of competing incentive programs like unemployment and the ethics of calling back at-risk employees during the pandemic, and the lack of any long-term plan from the government, you’ll see that navigating this brave new world is still a bit of a sticky wicket.
In addition to talking about business, we do also talk about fun food stuff and an offer that was too good to refuse, and that Sussman was “too dumb” not to take, which led to opening Table, Donkey and Stick.
If you want to get involved or take action after reading this, visit the Independent Restaurant Coalition website and see how you can help.
What is a PPP loan? I know it stands for payroll protection program and it’s a loan, that in theory is forgivable.
The loan allows you to use up to 75% for payroll, wages, tips, health benefits, retirement and payroll related costs. You can use another 25% for mortgage and rent related costs. In theory if you stick to these percentages the loan is forgivable.
By forgivable, you mean you don’t have to pay it back or it’s a grant?
Right, like a grant, but it’s not automatic. You have to apply for the forgiveness.
You sent me an email and one of the things you said is that this loan is allowing you to pay most of your employees, except yourself, more than they were making before?
Our business’ biggest expense is labor, and we have relatively low fixed costs on overhead, so a lot of businesses won’t be able to take advantage of the PPP like we have, because they have to pay a lot more in rent or mortgages and other non-payroll related costs. We have been lucky.
You also mentioned that the gap between what the PPP allows and what unemployment pays is only about 5K, so essentially if people weren’t working, they’d almost make the same amount?
This is the dilemma. I don’t want to put someone at risk who has diabetes or some other condition by calling them back to work when they can be protected and paid. However, this loan only lasts another two months.
At which time, people will likely go back to their old pay. Do you worry that paying people more than they normally make could be a risk? I don’t mean this as people shouldn’t be paid more. I hope the thing that comes out of this is that it elevates the overall pay scale for restaurant workers, but absent of that, it is human nature to say ‘I was getting X and then it got reduced to Y, so I might look elsewhere?’
I’m not worried about that. I think right now we’re lucky we have the funds and the right thing is to pay people. The problem is we don’t know what happens after two months.
And this is part of the problem, right? There’s no long-term plan or even a consistent plan that benefits all businesses equitably. If you’re not operating at all right now, a PPP doesn’t do a lot for you. It would be better if the loans could be dated for the time a place reopens for example, so it can actually be used. A lot of businesses struggled to get a loan because mega chains and colleges with billion dollar endowments somehow sucked up this money. How did you even secure one?
Well, it’s a self-certifying process, i.e. you say you’ve been impacted, and it becomes a calculation of the number of employees you have and your payroll expenses. If I had only worked with the banks I had a relationship with, I probably would have been shut out. Byline bank took a week to roll PPP out and they were not accepting applications for depositing customers, only loan customers.
That sounds like a major conflict of interest, i.e. if someone owes them money, they’re incentivized to give those people loans so they don’t default on the bank vs. a business like yours who has no debt.
That’s what it feels like. Someone told me about Radius bank having an online portal. I figured I’d try it out. I literally never heard of them, but I applied and they approved the loan. I also applied for one for Danke [our sandwich business] in Revival food hall.
But, Revival is closed, so even if you want to put those people back to work, you can’t right?
You can spend it on payroll, so I could find something for the eight people at Danke to do outside of the hall.
Is Revival asking for rent even though you can’t operate?
Revival is asking for rent. They told us the master lease with the landlord CBRE has not granted any abatement. They didn’t ask us in April, but they did in May. The doors are locked. Takeout is not viable because the loop is ghost town.
Alright, let’s move to something a little less heavy. How did you shift Table, Donkey and Stick to serving pizza?
I love pizza. Growing up in NY, it was everywhere for $1.50 a slice. I always thought about doing a pizza concept, however, we’re still keeping the spirit of TDS. We still make charcuterie that we put on the pizzas with pork from Catalpa Grove farm. We just bought a half hog.
Your involvement in the restaurant industry started because you were really in to baking bread right?
Yeah, at the time, I thought bread service was really lacking locally and I really focused on it and that led me to stage at Bonsoiree.
You were a history major at Princeton right? That’s a big shift.
I graduated in 2009 and there were no jobs. Both of my parents were attorneys. A lot of history majors become lawyers. It wasn’t something I was in to. So I joined a nonprofit focused on urban sustainability issues. While I was cooking at Bonsoiree, I got a lot of exposure to the business side of restaurants. Then this opportunity to take over the space came up, and I was too dumb not to do it.
Shin Thompson (Furious Spoon) was like The Godfather. He made you an offer you couldn’t refuse! What were those early days at Bonsoiree like?
I staged there on garde manger. It was not a significant role. I had way less experience than someone should have when they decide to open a restaurant. I also was helping Johnny Clark and Beverly Kim, when they were opening up their own new business called Bonsoiree. I wasn’t part of the creative effort, but I looked a lot at the financial model. The reality of what I was going to do was unknown. I had no context what opening TDS might be like. I was 25 turning 26.
You joked that you were too dumb not to do it, but you’re happy you did, right?
I love it. It hasn’t been easy. But, it’s been fascinating to see the future.
Are you making the bread for the pizza? Or is it your recipe?
No. Corey Jordan of Little Goat Bakery would make these pizzas for staff meals.
How many pizzas are you doing on a Friday or Saturday?
It’s been up and down. Last week was slow, but the week before was heavy. We’re doing 80-100 on those nights.
So you went from zero to 100 pizzas. That’s impressive. I’m guessing you don’t have conveyor ovens.
We don’t. They’re really expensive. If we do spin this off, we’ll have to invest in some equipment.
The pizza was good, but OMG, those duck fat confit buffalo wings. You should make that the new kiosk at Revival.
That was an outgrowth of having a lot of the duck fat from a duck dish on the winter menu. We buy whole ducks and they render a lot of fat. Everyone likes duck fat fries, so why not? I’m glad you liked that.
Back to you majoring in history. Did you focus on a specific time period?
At Princeton you could write a thesis. We didn’t really specialize, but I did focus on colonial Kenya and colonial Africa. I think everyone should know more about the legacy of colonialism as it’s a big part of our culture. I was only scratching the surface.
How did you come up with the idea of focusing on the food of the Alps? Or was that because of your opening chef Scott Manley?
It was my idea, but it worked really well for Scott. Because I was a bread baker, I focused on all the regional traditions of charcuterie and cheese. Also, there was no bar (in the old Bonsoiree space), but I thought it might be a bar, which is pretty dumb way to think of the space, since it didn’t have a bar. But we added one eventually and focused on the amazing traditions of fermentation. The Alps have a rich set of traditions that are very regionally focused. It’s a crossroad for French, Italian, and German food, a true fusion.
How has it evolved from your original idea?
It’s a little more of a bar scene. I didn’t want to take reservations, but we revisited that after the first day we opened.
What does the future look like?
It depends if we’re talking short term, medium term, or long term. I’m really focused on building restaurants rooted in the community, and not on things that are strictly economic opportunities for maximum profit. Right now, the environment for that kind of business isn’t going to be viable. How do you open a small restaurant in tight quarters, which is my ideal restaurant? I don’t know if that’s in danger, forever, or just for the foreseeable future.
How big is TDS and how much bigger would you want it?
It’s 48 seats including the bar, but I don’t want to go much bigger, just a little for scale. The restaurants that are the most memorable to me are the intimate ones.
What restaurants had that kind of intimate impact on you before opening TDS?
There’s a lot, a million anonymous places in Europe not known beyond their communities. A lot of the restaurants in Montreal. In Chicago, I loved Rootstock, The Bristol, and Avec. I was 23 then, but I thought, that’s pretty cool.