“It’s hard to start,” Rachel says to me a bit wistfully, “We’re at the end.”
It’s hard not to hear the first verse of The Doors’ “The End” in my head as she speaks: This is the end … of our elaborate plans, the end/Of everything that stands, the end …
Matt then speaks, momentarily shaking the song from my head: “The end has been something we’ve been looking at for about four months now.”
And now the verse comes back stronger… No safety or surprise, the end/I’ll never look into your eyes again …
The words are apt. This is the end of Rachel Coit and Matt Mahoney’s acclaimed Worcester restaurant cumbutcher shop, Kummerspeck. We will never look into its eyes again. It will close its doors for good on Sunday, October 28. The end of Kummerspeck has and will be mourned by foodies, fans, and especially Matt and Rachel, who could but don’t blame anyone but themselves first and foremost. And we at Mass Foodies have no interest in rubbing salt in their wounds or in offering postmortem I told you so’s. Let those who are without sin (or prefer to hide behind cowardly online comments) do that.
What we are interested in is closure and some insight into this loss for our food scene. Matt and Rachel sat down with us to announce they would officially pull the proverbial plug and then, with emotions riding high, spoke about their decision, how it happened, its effect on them as a couple, and what it does and doesn’t mean for Worcester and its restaurant scene. (Spoiler alert: Despite his truncated quote in MassLive and the end of Kummerspeck, Matt believes in Worcester.)
Don’t Most Restaurants Fail in Their First Year?
No. Years ago, American Express cited a figure: 90% of all restaurants fail in their first year. That turned out to be a myth – a long-lived old wives’ tale equivalent to the “fact” that Dr. Pepper is made from prune juice. That 90% number has now been debunked through economic research (and really you just had to look around your neighborhood ya AmEx humps to know it couldn’t be true). Only 17% of restaurants fail in their first year, in line with other service businesses. Sure the number goes up for small independent restaurants like Kummerspeck but only to around 1 in 4 or 5 not 9 in 10.
So how did Kummerspeck end up on the short side of these odds?
Okay, first Matt reminds me: Kummerspeck did not fail in its first year. It was open for 15 months. And by all accounts Kummerspeck had decent, if not great, revenue in its first year. Was the problem in the execution? Well, it’s not like Matt and Rachel didn’t have a clear and compelling vision for their restaurant cumbutcher. They have passion for what they do and for each other. They didn’t get along with everyone (who does?), but they generally had great relationships with most of the people they worked with, who worked for them, and their customers and those within the community. They did everything they needed to do to keep the place running as business owners and chefs. Finally, they had resilience to burn or this story would have been written in April.
Those five things – vision, passion, action, resilience, and relationships – are the foundation for successful execution, according to Kim Perell in her bestselling book The Execution Factor, and execution is the difference between the dreamers and the doers. But sometimes execution isn’t enough, especially when you don’t know what you don’t know, and for Matt and Rachel that was about the cost of operations.
Opening a restaurant or any food business is expensive. Keeping it running can be even more so, which is why so many of them have money partners and investors willing to go in with them. Matt and Rachel had enough to get things up and running but were told they needed anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 in the bank when they opened to sustain themselves. They had about $20,000. And it was gone quickly.
Simply put, little things add up to big things.
“I knew how difficult this was going to be. I’ve been on teams that opened a bunch of restaurants. When I was 19, I was working 110 hours a week as a sous chef for $12 an hour. The stress, the employees not showing up … None of this phases me,” says Matt. “Cost of operation snuck up on me. Just keeping the doors open. We didn’t have that money in the bank. People still told us we would make it but to be careful. Then every other day there is another $700 bill, $1,200. We would make it a week and then a $3,200 ‘fuck you’ bill! It hammers and hammers and hammers you. We didn’t have that $200,000 but even if we did it might have eaten us up.”
And even then Matt and Rachel thought they could make it. Because all small businesses – especially the amazing people who own and run restaurants and work their asses off to serve us great food – always know they have to push even when making payroll is in doubt. When the rent is due. When you borrow from Peter to pay Paul, Paula, and everyone else. When prudence says quit. Because you believe in your vision. You feel it. You can’t play it safe. You know there is always the risk things could fail. So you push harder and keep believing even in the darkest times.
Until you can’t.
There is No Such Thing As “Just Health”
We all know ya gotta have heart to win, but Matt’s literal heart couldn’t match his figurative one: He had open heart surgery at the start of February and came back two weeks later to work the “pass.” During his absence, Rachel held down the kitchen and the line, attaining newfound confidence in her abilities. And it stayed that way for a while until it was clear Matt was not getting better and could not take the time to properly recuperate. Still they pushed forward.
But there is no such thing as a sick day in small business.
“We made it through the winter thinking, ‘Could we make it through spring?’ Then it was just make it through summer. Then we were in fall and looking to the holiday season: one more. ‘If we can just get there,’” says Matt. “I’ve been too stupid to close this place until now. But we can’t get there. I literally cannot get enough people in these seats every single day even if I am open through January to float me through another summer. Do I think there is one more roll of the dice in this place still? Sure. That’s why we’re open right now. Rachel would have closed three months ago. I could push it a little bit further. Maybe it would work out.”
But those of us who follow Matt, Rachel, and Kummerspeck on social media know that they were waging a multi-front war on battlefields many of us didn’t see: “I can’t get ahead of paying for the entire basement no one sees and waiting for the door to Harding Street being more important than the front door now,” Matt says “I don’t want to be pawning my stuff to pay my employees and lose myself and my marriage in the process. You are looking at two very unhealthy people right now. Our marriage is sick. Our minds are sick. Our bodies are falling apart. I am not getting better and this space is as sick as me.”
“I always thought owning my own place would allow me to focus on my own food. But because there is all this other stuff, I didn’t get to do that. It’s the other stuff that kills you. I feel everything chipping away at my confidence, my sanity, and my health,” adds Rachel. “I can’t wait anymore. I know I am not going to make it through next summer. I know where our debt is right now. If I push it through December, I could do a little bit better but that wouldn’t be fair to us or our staff, which is our family, and this place is not built to last. I find a new leak every time I am in here. I’m serving cocktails at 11 and back at 5am to make biscuits. And there is no one else to do that but us.”
Maybe the saddest thing I heard during our conversations is that Rachel has lost the joy in eating, and Matt, maker of some of the best sausages you will ever have, has lost the joy of making them. “I haven’t made a sausage in two months,” he sighs. “I make excuses. Maybe I’m not cut out for coming in and checking the alarm at 3 in the morning and finding floods in the basement at 7 in the morning. But the food? I may not be making sausages, but we didn’t mess that up.”
Great Food Can’t Save You
Kummerspeck has stellar ratings on Facebook, Google, and even Yelp, a site that Matt describes with language that would make this article NC-17. People loved the food at Kummerspeck, and Matt and Rachel are proud of what they served.
“Rachel said the other day that the one thing we didn’t fuck up was the food,” says Matt. “Food was always great. At the end of the day, I’m a chef. I’m a butcher. That’s what I’m most responsible for. But all those reviews, nominated a bunch of awards and nominations after being open for four months and what do I have to show for it? A cult following. What the fuck?”
Matt looks out the window as a woman passes: “This woman has no idea what we do! Not a clue!”
“People are saying to us, ‘That was quick!’ But we were here for a year!” Rachel says exasperatedly. “So many people are saying to us, ‘Oh I already meant to get there…’ so why didn’t you?”
This is where Matt and Rachel get real – they still believe in themselves and their vision despite the beatdown they’ve given themselves. So, would they do it again? Rachel says it is tough to say, but Matt immediately says yes as long as they could right the wrongs: have a partner whose job was to run operations, have a money guy and have the capital to cover what they didn’t know (which is what other restaurants have), and invest in marketing so passersby would have a clue.
Rachel gives him a sidelong glance and Matt smiles before continuing, “But I’m a fucking moron. After all, part of me still wants to push this until January. But I’d absolutely do it again right now. Maybe we are not owners. Maybe we are just valuable as chefs. There are a lot of variables to running a restaurant, physically, emotionally, mentally. And great food can’t do it alone. It doesn’t save it. We definitely should have had a different marketing strategy from the beginning. Looking back, I might have been a bit pubbier from the start. I would have put a burger on the menu sooner. I waited until Hoy Toy closed to put wings on the menu. But if we had made those decisions, I might still be talking to you about closing. Sometimes you just don’t get it done.”
What’s next for Matt and Rachel now that they decided to move on? Food truck? Pop up? Back as a chef in someone else’s kitchen? High tail it down to Ashville, North Carolina, where they cut their teeth before returning to Massachusetts where both of them are from (Matt from Spencer, Rachel from Harvard)?
“All I know about what I will be doing with my life is that my life is with Rachel,” Matt answers. “Three days since we decided to close was three huge steps to being happy again. It’s off our chest and backs. We know we have to pay our rent and bills. We’ll get there. But no worrying about what happens when the ceiling caves in on my pig. That’s a huge relief.”
“Yes, we are behind on rent,” adds Rachel, “Taking care of our staff took precedence over taking care of our own bills. I would definitely make that choice every time. It sucks. I look like a deadbeat because I did not pay my rent, but I paid my employees every cent they were owed. In the end, whatever is next, this was like my MBA, and when we pay everyone we owe, it will probably cost less than a degree.”
Okay, so one last question: What do they think is next for Worcester?
This Is “The End”?
Following Mass Foodies’ announcing Kummerspeck’s closing, Matt found himself talking to another online publication and something about too many people just wanting to eat at Friday’s every weekend. The story implied that he was saying Worcester is not ready for a food renaissance and simply cannot sustain it.
Wrong. Matt absolutely believes Worcester can. He and Rachel believed it when they opened, which is why they came here, and they still believe it as they close. Kummerspeck opened with a concept unique to the city and in line with the other terrific restaurants that have opened here since Armsby Abbey made a case for a food-forward future on Main Street a decade ago. No, the city’s restaurant scene is not dying, he says. And there is a place for chains, especially the locally owned ones and fast-casual ones that try to up the quality. He certainly understands some people are on budgets and restaurants and purveyors like Kummerspeck will always be for a special occasion for some.
Matt and Rachel hope that by admitting their screw ups – from lack of capital and marketing to not preparing for known and unknown unknowns – others just starting out will not make the same mistakes. They also hope that customers surprised by their closing will pack Armsby and Lock 50, deadhorse hill, Volturno, Maddi’s, Nuovo, DaCosta, Buck’s, Queen’s Cups, The Hangover and Broth … and keep them full even in the deadly summers when the students clear out and residents head to the Cape. These places, unlike many chains, make everything with their hands and use high quality ingredients, but as Matt and Rachel know great food is not enough. Nor is “I meant to get there” enough to sustain the food scene our city wants and deserves.
“I hope the Woo Sox change everything,” Rachel says. “Worcester needs more things to support what we have. We are a seasonal town that needs more big seasonal activities, especially in the summer. The colleges are great, but students are not going to support a restaurant scene like we have. Do they like a dry aged steak? Their parents might when they pick them up from college. Please support the people who work so hard to serve you with a smile and remember why it can be so hard to smile sometimes.”
In the end, Matt and Rachel feel Worcester will be more than fine and so will they. They still love the city and each other. Rachel is leaving on a high note, having won the second annual Worcester Chopped competition to benefit Jeremiah’s Inn. They have their sense of humor back and love of food back. As I get ready to leave, they are fighting over the nature of lamb burgers, specifically as to whether they count as a burger. Yep, this may be the end of Kummerspeck but not for them. They may have failed in this effort, but they are not failures. After all, according to an article published on Bloomberg.com, people who have previously failed have doubled their chances of success in the future.
Whatever grief we have over the loss of a restaurant whose name translates to “grief bacon,” may it be short lived. There is a lot to enjoy out there.