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With stress levels high, some Philly-area restaurants are closing for vacation

Anecdotally, restaurant owners are trying to stave off burnout as workers can take only so much after 16 months of pandemic restrictions and short staffing.

Chef Randy Rucker of River Twice and daughter Ruby on vacation in July 2021, her first beach trip.
Chef Randy Rucker of River Twice and daughter Ruby on vacation in July 2021, her first beach trip.Read moreCOURTESY RANDY RUCKER

Crave an egg sandwich at Middle Child in Washington Square West or a cocktail at The International in Kensington this week? Or did you want a bowl of mussels at Papaya Vietnamese Contemporary Tapas in North Wales over July 4 weekend?

You may have missed out because those restaurants were among the establishments that are taking vacation this summer.

Once the domain of small, often family-run businesses, the concept of a closing for a week has been embraced this year by larger restaurants, including at least one group in the Philadelphia region.

These restaurateurs taking time off are confirming at least part of the results of a recent Inquirer survey about the labor shortage and other problems roiling the restaurant industry — that found benefits, including paid vacation, are crucial to a happy workforce.

Private companies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are not required to offer vacation, paid or otherwise.

Anecdotes paint a picture of owners’ trying to stave off burnout, as workers can take only so much stress after 16 months of pandemic restrictions and long, often arduous days heightened by short staffing.

Instead of advertising a dinner special, Kitchen 519 in Glendora took to Facebook on July 11 to announce its first vacation since its 2014 opening. “We will be camping, with little to no service,” the post read.

Back on the grid on Thursday and somewhat rested, co-owner John Stewart said that closing “was kind of a necessity.”

After a stressful spring, he said, “we came together as a restaurant and said, ‘OK, guys. Let’s look at the calendar. What dates are good for everybody?’ And that’s what we did.”

The pandemic depleted staffing, and “we’re now down to five days a week — closing Monday and Tuesday — which is unheard of,” said Stewart, who owns the bistro with Diana Smarrito. The downsizing has one virtue: “It’s so great to be in a restaurant where five days [open] can be a reality.”

Randy and Amanda Rucker had planned to close River Twice, which opened in October 2019 in South Philadelphia, for a summer 2020 vacation.

That didn’t happen.

What did happen was the birth of their daughter Ruby on Dec. 14, 2020. The Ruckers spent a week at the Jersey Shore with her this month for a true family vacation.

“Our break was absolutely crucial to the well-being of the entire staff and restaurant,” said Randy Rucker, the chef. “After over a year of stopping and starting and all the dad-gum pivots along they way, we were tired. Everyone had a chance to relax, reflect, and recharge, which is huge.”

Matthew Cahn closed his popular Middle Child luncheonette in Center City for a week in 2020 for what he termed “a mental-health break” after feeding frontline workers. “Coming out of travel restrictions, we decided to let all employees take extended vacations if they wanted to,” he said.

The current shutdown is “a nice refresher before [a new location in Fishtown] opens and after a wild year,” he said.

William Reed and Paul Kimport decided to stagger the shutdowns of their three bars: The International (closed July 16 to July 22), Standard Tap (July 25 to July 31), and Johnny Brenda’s (Aug. 1 to Aug. 7). In an interview, Reed shared that they barely have enough staff, “so it’s almost impossible to let some of our people take vacations, as much as you want to. How were we going to pull this off? So what we decided to do is take a page out of the old South Philly restaurant book, and close for the week.” (Reed says he recalls that back in the 1990s, many South Philadelphia restaurants did the same.)

When Cheryl Wilder and partners Hal Nichter and Scott and Sabrina Wilder opened Bella Fiona in Harleysville in November 2020, they baked a week’s closure into the summer 2021 schedule, as the predecessor restaurant, Brazzo Italian Cuisine, had done. “It’s easier to close to give everyone vacation because we’re a small restaurant and that’s easier than trying to juggle schedules and be running without a full staff, especially because we’re not at full staff,” she said, adding that all salaried kitchen workers were paid.

Sam Mink, who owns the Oyster House in Center City, closed the Tuesday after Memorial Day and again the Tuesday after July 4 to give staff a paid day off. Since the restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays, it became a three-day weekend. Additionally, and for the first time, Mink will close for the entire week after Labor Day for a paid week off.

Closings do nothing, of course, to help the money issues that have beset many restaurants. “It was a tough decision to make because the need for revenue is still there,” said Carolyn Nguyen, chef-owner of Revolution Taco near Rittenhouse Square, which will close for its first-ever vacation July 25 to Aug. 1. “Since the pandemic, we’ve had a smaller core team that has been there with us every step of the way, so even though the need for revenue is still there we wanted to take a step back and so that we can rest and rebalance ourselves.”

Papaya’s early July vacation break wasn’t its first, “but this one felt the most needed,” said chef Patrick Le, also an owner. “With the whole COVID situation and limited seating, the family was feeling very stressed out.” His parents, Thuy and Hung, went to Houston while his sister, Patricia, went to the Caribbean.

Patrick Le stayed home and relaxed with his puppy. He also met a repairman at the restaurant because its refrigeration failed shortly before the scheduled start of the vacation. “The key was to keep the family positive so they could enjoy their time off,” he said. “I’m happy to absorb all the stress and stay home while everyone enjoyed and came home happy.”