Chef Rich Landau was forced to close his restaurants. A visit to his ailing father gave him a boost.
“Watch the clock and know that every time the second hand ticks, you’re one step closer to the day everything will be back to normal.”
Rich Landau had just finished the deepest clean of his life. He’d scrubbed his kitchens, then closed three successful restaurants for the unforeseeable future. Unplugged all the equipment from the walls. Gave away the vegetables. Laid-off 150 hardworking hourly employees.
And the crushing news kept coming.
“We just found out the insurance company is not going to give us loss of business [money],” he said with a sigh. “I’m just going to breathe.”
What would he tell his dad, Mike?
“He’s been our rock, but he’s also a die-hard worrier,” said Landau, who was preparing Friday to see his wheelchair-bound father for the first time in eight days — albeit separated by a glass window at his long-term care facility. “I’m going to tell him what’s going on, but also let him know I’m optimistic. Otherwise he wouldn’t sleep a wink.”
It would be no easy task. Like so many other restaurateurs across the nation in an industry reduced to the rubble of takeout efforts and outright closures in the wake of the pandemic, the financial burden carried by Landau and his wife and partner, Kate Jacoby, is daunting. The $60,000 nut in monthly expenses for their trio of pioneering vegan restaurants, Vedge, V-Street, and Fancy Radish in Washington, would soon be due.
But the mere prospect of seeing his dad in person — once a weekly pleasure that’s now a major challenge due to recent restrictions to prevent spread of coronavirus — seemed to buoy his mood.
Rich, 52, and his younger twin sisters, Rue and Suzanne Landau, 51, had a plan to make a visit happen. Their father, Mike, 80, suffers from a rare neurological disorder called corticobasal syndrome, a degenerative disease that in his case has left the mind sharp, but sapped his muscles. The longtime commercial banker with the former Philadelphia National Bank, who taught his son a love of golf and shared the joy of Eagles games, can no longer chew food, sometimes even choking on the purees he’s now fed.
That’s hard for any child to watch, let alone a four-bell chef. But that’s why the visits have been so crucial. Mike can no longer speak, but when his children see his face they know he hears them: “He’s not expressive, but we know him so well,” said Rue.
And so the three siblings coordinated their schedules to convene Friday afternoon outside the Watermark at Logan Square, a retirement community with care levels for seniors ranging from independent living to skilled nursing. Like all such communities, the Watermark has abided a state edict restricting all but essential health-care personnel. Family members are not allowed.
But there are no restrictions prohibiting people from standing outside and looking in. And when Rich arrived a few minutes after 2:30 p.m., his sisters and father were already talking through a big glass wall along the 18th Street side of the building, an aid holding Mike’s phone to his ear.
They shared news about the Eagles’ new cornerback. His granddaughter Zara had sent him a hand-drawn heart. It was also the first time the siblings had seen one another since the outbreak, and they were careful to keep their safe distance from each other: “We had a four-way conference call just standing there,” said Rue, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.
For Rich and Suzanne, a marketing executive at Campbell’s Soup, there was the odd acknowledgment that they were on two completely opposite ends of the food-industry spectrum. His restaurant world is in tatters. But the canned-soup business has been revived, the public’s survivalist instincts stripping store shelves of durable foods.
“My brother is one of the most creative people I know who always lands on his feet," said Suzanne. “I have no worries about him, because he’s magic. I worry about his employees.”
So, too, does Rich, who abandoned efforts to do takeout after a few exhausting days.
“We hope to be the first restaurant open when all the dust settles,” he said. “But what can you really tell [the laid-off employees]? They have to get on unemployment right away. But there’s going to be kids who live paycheck to paycheck that are going to have to move back in with their parents. People that are going to suffer.”
He remembers all too vividly the days after 9/11, which happened shortly after he opened the third edition of Horizons Cafe, his original vegan outpost in Willow Grove. It took them three months to regain a sustainable following.
“I put every penny I had into that place. My favorite kitchen ever. And then I had nothing,” he said. “I had to ask my landlord to wait another two months for rent. And my dad lent me money to make payroll.”
His father also gave him some valuable advice to live by over the painful months that followed while he watched his business trickle slowly back to life. And Rich repeated them back through his phone at the Watermark window. His father couldn’t say the words himself, so Rich wanted him to know he knew.
“Watch the clock and know that every time the second hand ticks, you’re one step closer to the day everything will be back to normal. You need to do what you need to get by during this stretch, and we’ll get there."
Their eyes made contact, “and he knew that I got it," said Rich.
And then, as Rue put it, “the greatest gift happened."
With the sunshine beaming on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon, and multiple other Watermark residents coming and going to the public benches behind them, Mike Landau was suddenly wheeled outside for just a few minutes of fresh air before his children left.
They carefully kept their distance, said Rue, “but I saw him close his eyes a little and breathe it in.”
“It’s hard for everybody because this is so isolating and difficult," said Suzanne. "There’s just something beautiful about being in each other’s presence. We all got a dose of medicine today.”
For Rich, who for years has struggled with “the big emptiness" of his father’s decline, the spontaneous moment was a precious opportunity. With colder temperatures, rain, and potentially more restrictive virus-related precautions in the immediate forecast, who knows when his father will get outside again?
But on a day that also saw Rich Landau’s restaurant family ripped apart and dismantled for the great unknown, he still knew also exactly what he had to tell his dad.
“I never want him to see me upset, because he’ll get upset,” said Rich. “He needs to see his kids are OK, because that’s what he lived for, and that is what I told him.”