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Why it hurts so much when a favorite restaurant closes

Being a restaurant regular is “almost like a relationship," says one psychologist. Breaking up is hard to do.

Chef Valerie Erwin serving school students (from left) Maliyah Gregg, Jayla Reeves, and Kayla Reid at Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, her now-closed restaurant, in 2012.
Chef Valerie Erwin serving school students (from left) Maliyah Gregg, Jayla Reeves, and Kayla Reid at Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, her now-closed restaurant, in 2012.Read moreCharles Fox / Staff Photographer

Melrose Diner was bulldozed last week. Korshak Bagels posted its final “sold out” sign. Marco Polo is buttoned up.

Every day, food businesses open. Every day, they close — some after decades, and others after months.

What’s left for the customers are the memories — first (and last) dates, proposals, birthdays, anniversaries, funeral lunches, the buttercream cake that your mother had to order despite her blood sugar. At the Melrose in South Philadelphia, the memories date back decades — the middle-of-the-night meals, the odd celebrity encounters, or just your “usual” order of two eggs over easy with pork roll and well-done hash browns.

Social media has become a popular forum for grieving customers. In August, when South Jersey farm stand Sweet Amalia was ordered to close its indoor dining room, its Instagram post generated 181 comments, from cordial messages of support to anguish.

For employees, workplace memories are accompanied by immediate life issues: securing back pay, unemployment compensation, and new work. “There’s the initial shock of ‘l’m unemployed,’” said Alexis Ortega, who showed up to his bar manager’s shift at Sbraga in 2017 to learn that the restaurant had closed. ”You’re sad, anxious, nervous, confused but have to focus on what [you’ll] do next.”

Bagel shop workers at Korshak, in South Philadelphia, received a month’s notice of its closing last weekend, while the employees of Marco Polo, a once-popular Italian restaurant in Elkins Park that never reopened after a fire on June 18, still have not learned officially that it will not come back. (The restaurant is being offered for lease.)

Compare this with Tequila’s, a popular Mexican restaurant near Rittenhouse Square, whose 50 workers were idled last February by a fire. Other restaurateurs hired some of them, even while knowing that they will return to Tequila’s when it reopens in 2024. Meanwhile, benefits were organized to help them financially.

Owners face their own unique emotions at the prospect of closing, aside from the financial considerations and the jolt to their ego. In January, pastry chef Marqessa Gesualdi, 35, who has owned Aux Petits Delices bakery in Wayne since 2017, learned officially from her landlord that the building had been sold and that she would have to close. Its last day will be Christmas Eve.

“Initially, I was devastated,” she said. “I couldn’t stop crying every time I told someone.” She said she still has a $100,000 business loan and no place to go, as opening a new shop would cost $250,000.

She said she has been dealing with stress-induced eczema, “but I’m trying to live my best life and have a positive attitude and think about the silver lining because things could be so much worse. I’m still lucky to be able to have the business until the end of the year.” She said she is thinking of leaving pastry altogether and studying accounting.

When chef Valerie Erwin decided to close her Mount Airy restaurant, Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, nearly a decade ago, “in some ways, it was a little bit of a relief,” she said last week. After 12 years, business was off. The logistics of closing it left her emotionless — “kind of like when you have a funeral for somebody and you have so many things to do, you can’t think about the fact that the person is gone,” she said.

But after Geechee Girl closed in January 2015, and “after all the paperwork was done, I realized that I didn’t have some place to go every day,” Erwin said. “It was very depressing.”

Time has healed Erwin, 70, who now manages St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children’s produce-access program and caters the occasional event. She said she still hears from customers who miss Geechee Girl’s Low Country cooking and welcoming atmosphere. “I had more than one customer cry,” she said.

Grieving a restaurant’s closing is entirely normal, said Mark Adams, an Austin-based psychologist who has extensively studied mental-health issues surrounding the food and beverage industry.

“As someone interested in Buddhist psychology, I felt like there’s no better place than the restaurant industry to learn about impermanence — everything rises and falls,” Adams said.

Being a restaurant regular is “almost like a relationship,” Adams said. “You’re almost taking a risk that it’s going to close and all those years of experience will be gone.”