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In February 2020, a car crashed through the bar of Café Borgia, an Italian restaurant in Munster, Indiana. No one was severely hurt, says co-owner and Booth graduate Karen Jesso, ’89, and the restaurant stayed open. Then, the next month, all of Indiana’s bars and restaurants were ordered to shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Jesso silently hoped to herself that bad things didn’t actually come in threes, because what’s next?

Jesso felt worried. Café Borgia had been open since 1986 and nothing like this had ever happened. Easter, a big sales day, was coming—now, there’d be no Easter sales. And what about the staff of 35 people? But Jesso wanted to stay positive, to move forward. “We had to accept it,” she said. “This is reality now. Instead of fighting it, let’s make the best of it.”

First, Jesso told the staff that most of them would continue to work and receive their full salaries. All staff, even those temporarily furloughed, would have their health insurance paid for by the restaurant. Their salaries and insurance plans cost Jesso $45,000 every two weeks, but she feels fiercely loyal to her employees, many of whom have worked with her for decades. “If what’s going to keep us afloat is me pocketing their pay, we’re hanging on by a thread and we’re not going to make it,” Jesso said.

Starting the day after Café Borgia closed, Jesso and the staff worked through a list of things they couldn’t do while the restaurant was open. The staff—working six feet apart—carefully cleaned the restaurant’s $300,000 collection of Lotton lamps. They de-weeded the restaurant’s garden, preparing it to grow for the chef’s summer menu. They power-washed equipment, re-grouted the kitchen, and fixed the damage from the car crash.

Multicolored glass celing fixtures in the restaurant

Jesso reopened on May 1 for carryout meals only, while she awaits the state’s approval to open for dine-in service. She and the staff meal-prepped days in advance, chopping onions and making sauces. They turned perishable items into freezable dishes, such as ravioli, soup, and pastries. The restaurant’s regulars called in with support, telling Jesso they’d order as soon as Café Borgia reopened. Jesso recognized many of their voices from years of serving them; she teared up hearing their encouraging words. “We have a diehard base,” she said. “I just appreciate them so much.”

Much of Jesso’s strength and confidence in running her business, even amid a pandemic, come from her days at Booth. She took classes on pricing, production management, and statistics that she still thinks about today. Café Borgia’s formula for moving daily specials resulted from Jesso learning about just-in-time delivery, an inventory management strategy. “What do we use as meal specials? What we have in inventory, what we want to move,” she said. “I am so proud to have come through that school.”

Initially worried by the pandemic, Jesso says that running her business through it has been a priceless experience. The restaurant’s menu and business model allow it to be successful amid tough times, she says, and the obstacle of closing will allow them to improve skills like inventory and ordering, better preparing the restaurant for the future.

“This is something that’s going to make us stronger,” Jesso said. “And that’s what makes it priceless to me.”

 

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