Exactly one week before my husband and I opened our restaurant, Jackrabbit Filly, I had the dawning realization that I imagine every new parent feels: What the hell did we just do?
My life as I had known it was about to be over.
Granted, I had a similar realization five years back, when we opened our food truck, Short Grain. But that realization came moments in on our first day of service. As I hauled a heavy rice warmer to our tiny food trailer at 4 a.m., well aware I’d be hauling it off in a few short hours, I foresaw exactly how grueling the act of producing food from a moving vehicle would be.
This new “Oh shit” realization was different. Coming off a year functioning as a pop-up restaurant, I foresaw all our lazy Sundays, time with our dogs, travel abroad, and trips back home to see family — never mind my writing career — screech to an abrupt and indefinite end.
Work would be my life now.
Turns out, I was right.
While it’s hard processing — let alone writing about — something I’m very much in the middle of, I can report that from the time Shuai and I wake up at 7 a.m. until we go to bed at 2 a.m. our days are entirely filled by the restaurant.
Opening week, as excited Short Grain regulars streamed through our doors, I was barely convinced we could serve family meals let alone a full slammed service. Yet every guest wanted to know how excited I was to finally be here. I bared my teeth in what I hoped was a decent approximation of a smile. While they marveled at the glitter in the floor stain and our bunny wallpaper — granted, the wallpaper is dope — all I could see were the faults. Tables not being cleared. Food being misdelivered. Bare walls where I had yet to find the perfect tchotchke to hang.
It didn’t help that Shuai and I were subsisting entirely on coffee and adrenaline. Our one meal of the day was consumed at midnight. A huge bowl of restaurant castoffs — rice, random proteins, lots of chili oil — eaten as much out of hunger as stress relief. It also left us with such wicked heartburn upon waking, that we began popping TUMS before we went to bed.
Shortly around opening, a friend swung by with sandwiches and fresh juices for us and I immediately regretted every time I “meant to” bring food to friends who opened businesses or went through a health scare or lost a family member. Because while everyone generously offers to help, only a few send flowers or drop off treats. And on a day when nothing is going right, fresh baked pie never goes wrong and reminds you that there is still goodness to be had outside this thing that is sucking your life force.
Because even though our restaurant is closed two days a week, our only actual time off is Monday night from 7:30 p.m. until you pass out o’clock. Otherwise, those two off days are entirely consumed by running errands, prep, making dumplings, writing checks, installing new POS systems, buying and fixing things that broke during the week, being placed on hold. Friends and family insist I spare time for self-care. But there is literally no time to spare because there is no “end” to our week. Only another week of work that leads straight into another. Again, and again, all over again. And we’ve signed on to do exactly this for the next seven years.
Our first month open, I cried every Wednesday as our work week “started” again.
What had we done?
“It’s exactly like having a kid,” an industry friend of the gift pie sympathized. “It sucks for the first six months, but then it gets better.”
Aspects of my former life that filled up hours of my day before became moot as I truly understood what busy was for the first time in my life. I used to listen to podcasts. Text friends. Write every day. Now I have permanently chapped lips, divide people into two groups, those who want to sell me something we don’t want and those who want reservations we don’t take, and I have a strained back muscle that makes it almost impossible to twist, stand up or lie down, and take deep breaths.
“Three years,” a brewery friend replied, when I asked him how long before things become easier.
Around week five, I bought a pack of men’s white T-shirts from Costco and have begun to solely wear those. Knit hats are my other new best friend because nobody has time for hair. I used to wear make-up because I liked how it made me look. Now I wear it simply to appear awake and I find myself weirdly sympathetic to Mark Zuckerberg. If I’m this stressed running a 61-seat restaurant, how the hell does he get by?
Lithium, I imagine. Or minions.
But as we crawled into month two, I started to notice little things about our restaurant baby.
Like, if you set a table with chopsticks, children (of all ages) will treat them like drum sticks. And that Charlestonians shed a lot of hair.
But I also noticed Jackrabbit Filly was turning out to be the neighborhood joint we’d hoped for, with neighbors nightly running into neighbors. Hugs are given. Friends wave and call out across the space. Everyone walks in wearing a huge smile and seems genuinely happy when they leave. And a small corner of my brain starts to see that this is what we’ve done, too.
After a guest told me that the spicy noodles were different last week — better — we decided that keeping to a standard menu sucks and went back to what we used to do: have fun with our food. Shuai lopped off half the opening menu.
Now, we run playful nightly specials and a Fri-yay Fish Fry in ode to my Buffalo, N.Y. roots. Ever so slowly, I start believing people when they tell me their dinner was incredible.
Same goes for the staff.
From only seeing faults, I now see their magnificence. Our bartenders who make 120 cocktails on a Wednesday and remain gracious hosts. Our servers who welcome all guests with a smile even though I continually flat seat them with four tables at a time. Our cooks who now so permanently live in the weeds that we ought to buy them machetes, yet wake up every morning — our sous sometimes earlier than us — to do it all over again. My husband, who looks perpetually exhausted, but still throws me a joking thumbs up during hectic services. Two months in, I find myself marveling at his passion, talent, and sweetness, exactly as I did when we first met. I worried this restaurant baby would break us, yet I’ve never felt more “in” this life with someone.
And while we knew it from our Short Grain days, what I relearned, and continue to learn, with JF is that y’all are seriously the best people in the world. You. Our customers. With your chagrin at your multiple weekly visits and willingness to wait for that Friday night table, you make my heart sing.
As does the fact that our early seating is full of families and high chairs and kid’s noodles. (Note to self: buttered ramen does not easily come off concrete floors). We wanted to make a place where our loved ones felt welcomed to bring their loved ones. Sure enough, one night finds two mamas simultaneously breastfeeding in different parts of the restaurant.
Another evening sees the couple who provides us our fish sitting next to two women enjoying that day’s catch. Every other week, there’s the couple we turn table 41 sideways for as soon as they walk up, because even after 30 years together, they still like to sit side by side and hold hands.
At the time of this writing, our Christmas tree still stands in our living room. My old life is definitely gone forever. To be honest, on a daily basis, it depends on how well I slept whether I think it’s a fair trade. But then I remind myself of the solemn girl who I caught as she was leaving to ask if she enjoyed everything. Still not cracking a smile, she instead turned, took in the space, and said in a whispered sigh, “I love it here.”
It’s hard not to be okay with that.