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Restaurants have lost so much in the pandemic, but what I miss most is you

STAUNTON, Va. — The dining room of my 26-seat restaurant should be full of hungry, happy guests. It should be filled with the sounds of our wait staff rattling silverware and glasses, scraping plates. The kitchen should be humming.

But the only thing my restaurant is full of right now is empty seats. The kitchen is dark, and the only sound is my tapping on the keyboard, trying to pay bills from a quickly draining bank account.

In the months since we had to close to wait out the spread of the novel coronavirus, writers have penned eloquent love letters about restaurants, about the social and cultural significance of sharing food. A taste or smell can evoke the best, worst and most bittersweet moments of our lives. Everybody misses normal.

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But here’s the story from inside the restaurant: We miss you, too. It isn’t about the money, and it isn’t really about the food. From our friends who raise and deliver the food we cook to the friends we serve it to, our industry is really about people.

At a restaurant like mine, the Shack, in the small town I adopted to be near my family, I have history with many of our diners every night. If I weren’t running a restaurant, these are people I would be inviting to my home to cook for them. We’re a part of our community, and our community is a big part of us.

The stories you read about restaurants tell you about the food, the service, the wine, the ambiance and maybe the chef. Rarely do they talk about the customers, the life force of a restaurant. Let me introduce you to some of ours.

The first dollar I ever earned as a restaurateur came from David and Anne Jeffrey at my first restaurant, Staunton Grocery, and for 13 years, the Jeffreys have celebrated nearly every birthday and anniversary in my dining room, on top of being weekly guests. They’re educators, and he is the foremost scholar on one of my favorite authors, Harry Crews. We were friends for almost 10 years before I found that out, giving us one more thing to talk about when they came in.

Everyone at the restaurant is happy when the Jeffreys’ names are on the reservation list. They are the first guests to arrive, and they lighten the mood when they walk in. They greet us with hugs and handshakes — I can’t wait to get back to that — and we’re already working on her cocktail as they head to their table. He asks what new bourbons we have. After dessert, Anne will weave her way to the kitchen to thank us for “taking such great care” of them, clasping her hands in appreciation.

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At one point, they told me they decided to sell their house in town to move to the country. The story goes that they changed their minds when they realized how far they would be from the Shack. Were they serious? I have no idea, but it made me realize how big a part we have played in one another’s lives, and what the comfort of our table has meant to them.

That was never more obvious than when Anne’s father was sick. The Jeffreys came to the restaurant after each time they went to see her dad, and the post-dinner kitchen visit seemed more serious those nights. She would walk in with tears in her eyes, telling us she loved us and thanking us. He died at the end of February, and the Jeffreys had dinner with us after his service, just a couple weeks before we had to close.

Tears came to my eyes, too, when these people who have always been there for me thanked me for being there for them.

When you run a restaurant in a small town, your customers, friends and suppliers can end up all being the same people. Linda and Clay Trainum own Autumn Olive Farms about 15 miles east of the restaurant and run it with their three sons. Every Wednesday, one of them, usually Clay or their son Tyler, shows up at the kitchen door after putting our weekly supply in the walk-in. They come in, and we catch up about what’s going on at the restaurant and what’s going on at the farm. Sometimes they’ve been working all day, it’s late, and they’ll ask if any seats are open in the dining room. We find a way to feed them. Oftentimes, my wife, Leslie, and our kids are eating, and they’ll share their table.

When I turned 40, the Trainums smoked a pig for my birthday party. It was a great day, and I was glad to return the favor in the early days of the pandemic.

Most of Autumn Olive’s business is with restaurants. So when everything shut down overnight, they were in as much trouble as I was. We didn’t have a plan, so we had them bring their smoker to the Shack and smoke two 120-pound pigs. We made side dishes and packed them for curbside pickup, with all the money going to the farm.

We sold out in 15 minutes.

The list goes on. Charlotte Allen, who has a dry sense of humor and an infectious laugh that would fill our dining room, found us at Staunton Grocery because her son was dating one of our waitresses. She wasn’t laughing, though, the night we didn’t have chocolate ice cream on the menu. She decided to skip dessert. Then my sous-chef, Zach Weiss, found some dark chocolate whey caramel ice cream in the freezer and took her a scoop. Charlotte was in disbelief, and Zach got a hug that made him blush.

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I met KT Sparks and Nick Auclair when they raised guinea hens for another restaurant and the deal fell through, so I bought them. In return, I earned loyal friends and customers. When we did brunch service at the Shack, they were always there. And when we had to close in March, one of the first calls I got was from KT, offering to do anything we needed, including covering for our employees if they had to miss time and prepaying for a party they would throw when all this is over.

And I knew something was up one day when Deirdre Armstrong pulled up to the restaurant and it wasn’t Wednesday. She’s a farmer and delivers some of the most incredible produce, but always on Wednesday. She came in to tell me her husband, Phil, had died the night before. She knew I would want to know.

For us, it’s all a lot to lose. Sure, we’re doing curbside pickup twice a week. But we love the noise of a crowded dining room and the action of the busy kitchen. We love when our guests greet us with a smile and a hug. We love watching your excitement in eating a dish that we were excited to create. We love the gratitude you show when you poke your head into the kitchen on the way out.

I tell my staff that restaurants don’t really belong to the owners. A restaurant is a living thing. We work for it, and in return, it nurtures us. It gives us a space to celebrate and mourn. Our customers come in to be supported, and in return, they’re supporting us. It isn’t our home away from home; it’s our home, and there isn’t any place I’d rather be.

So whenever you hear someone say that the thing they can’t wait to do when the pandemic is all over is go back to a restaurant, know this: The restaurant can’t wait for you to come back, either.

As told to Washington Post multiplatform editor Jim Webster.

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