Not every restaurant that closes gets a headline. If that were the case, we’d spend 60 percent of our time talking about them. After all, those are the numbers out there. Similarly, not every restaurant that closes does so because of a lack of business, business acumen or issues domestic. No, sometimes the flame just goes out.
I got a phone call last week from a pretty distraught Kristen Sicilia, Chef and Owner of K Bella Gourmet Carry Out and Catering on Whitemarsh Island. If you know Kristen, she’s a tough cookie. New York girl. About as thick-skinned as they come when it comes to business. Her voice was shaking.
“I can’t do it anymore.” she said “I opened this place when my daughter was 1 year old. I named it after her.” “She’s 11 now and I’ve missed it all.”
Kristen isn’t the first, nor will she be the last, chef to dedicate an extraordinary amount of time to their craft for the sake of running a successful business. Especially if they are a chef/owner. She says she regularly worked 72-80 hours a week. Driving home this time of the year in darkness about 8:30 every night. She tells me she takes maybe one Sunday a month off. In her place? Her husband would run the shop for the day. He’s there, she’s here. She’s there, he’s here. Not exactly an ideal recipe for a smooth family dynamic. “He’s all for this.” she says when asked how her husband feels about her shutting it all down.
Legendary basketball coach Red Auerbach said once upon a time “Once your start thinking about retirement you are already retired.” A lot of truth to that, obviously, and it applied to Kristen as well. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while.” she says. “Finally, I came in here Thanksgiving morning to get my carry-out birds ready for pick up. It’s one of the three days a year I wear make up.” “I took off my hat and looked at myself in the mirror and I didn’t even recognize myself.”
A tiny nudge came from her situation with her lease in a strip mall near Publix on the island. It was coming up for renewal and she was looking at another 5 year commitment. Deep inside she knew she wouldn’t make it that long. Ultimately, it made a very tough pill a little easier to swallow.
“I’m going to miss the people so much.” she says. At the time we spoke she had yet to tell a few of her most loyal customers and she was having trouble figuring out how she was going to handle all of that. “We moved here and I didn’t know anyone.” she says “Now, I’ve cooked for their birthdays, christenings, funerals. They’ve all become my extended family.”
You might well imagine she’s developed a large and loyal following in 9 years. “Business is great” she says. “I’m very thankful for that.” “When I opened there was nothing around here like this. Now Whole Foods is down the street doing hot food. My goodness, have you seen what they’ve done with the Kroger out here? You can find anything there now. That didn’t exist when I started.”
Neither did Savannah’s explosive movie making industry. She got a nice bump from the production of “Baywatch” on Tybee Island a couple of years ago. “I provided breakfast, lunch and dinner for Zach Effron, Alex Daddario and Dwayne Johnson’s bodyguards for 3 months straight.” she says, adding that she kept their relationship entirely professional, so there were no selfies or gratuitous promotion on social media. “I’ve catered for some of the biggest names you can imagine when I was in New York.” she adds. “I’m not one to get very starstruck.”
She’s still got a few weeks left before she closes her doors for good on December 23rd. She’ll take a couple of days off for Christmas then get back to clearing out her space. “I need to get rid of all of this equipment. It’s all mine.”
After that? When I teased her and suggested she’d get the itch to start catering again in a year or so, she told me that was unlikely. She has no plans right now to keep any of the equipment that might facilitate her coming out of retirement. Who knows, certainly Kristen doesn’t. She tells me there are no plans beyond more time with her family. Well, except for one thing.
“I started painting my house 3 years ago. I want to finish it.”
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