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What America Loses With Every Shuttered Main Street Restaurant

small restaurants in coronavirus

After the Wuhan coronavirus killed any hope of a standard birthday party a few weeks ago, my wife tried to comfort our soon-to-be 11-year-old son by reminding him that he could pick anything in the world for his birthday dessert — scoops of cookie dough, banana splits, or even one of those massive Coldstone ice cream cakes we’ve always vetoed in the past.

I nearly wept when my son bypassed all these options and asked his mother, “Can I have Marina cake?”

In the quite likely event that you’ve never heard the term before, “Marina cake” is not the name for a confection invented by Canadian bakers on the coast of Halifax. Rather, this particular cake is named after a woman called Marina — co-owner, with her husband Patrick, of Le Petit Café, a small restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana that the couple has owned and operated since coming to the Midwest from Paris in the 1970s.

A Home Away from Home

Housed in a converted garage with their family home perched atop the restaurant, Le Petit was my place of employment for three years while I attended Indiana University. While I was there, Marina and Patrick taught me many things: how to use an industrial dishwasher, prepare salads, and fold brie pastries.

More than this, Marina and Patrick taught me what it means to be content. They taught me what it means to be warm and open, what it means to treat people like family even when you don’t have a biological connection.

Marina, a self-taught cook, is the most talented chef I’ve ever known. Patrick, Le Petit’s maître d’ of sorts, is among the most entertaining and charismatic men I’ve met. With their combined talents, they had unlimited potential for culinary upward mobility. I have no doubt they could have run incredibly successful restaurants in America’s greatest restaurant districts.

But they loved their humble life in Bloomington. Instead of using their talents to amass fame and fortune, they used them to build a home-away-from-home for their college student employees. After serving their loyal customers on Friday and Saturday nights and closing for the evening, Le Petit’s owners would share dinner with their employees.

Marina would cook steak and rabbit for her gaggle of poor college students who otherwise subsisted on a diet of saltines and off-brand Lucky Charms. Patrick would entertain us with stories that were funny enough by themselves, but became hysterical when Patrick cracked up midway through them, clapping his hands and guffawing in a French accent that was marvelously undiluted despite decades of living in America.

Despite his charm, Patrick always wanted to make us the center of attention. He would ask us myriad questions about ourselves — how we were doing, what our families were like, what we wanted to accomplish, who we wanted to be. He never lacked for advice or encouragement.

Just before winter break, they would invite us to their annual Christmas party, where we’d listen to selections from Patrick’s wide-ranging record collection and gorge ourselves on Marina’s world-class panna cotta and flourless chocolate cake. We also exchanged gifts. I still have the Harris Tweed sport coat Marina gave me the year she was my Secret Santa. Each year, Marina teased me for bringing my friend Duncan as my plus one since I could never find a real date.

In all of this, Marina and Patrick loved their employees like their own children. And I never forgot this.

In the years after I graduated, I always stayed in touch with my favorite French couple. I introduced them to my future wife the night we got engaged, and every time we have visited Bloomington with our sons, Marina and Patrick have always made time to invite us over for a feast. That’s where our 11-year-old first had Marina cake, a confection that immediately became a staple of my family’s celebrations once Marina gave my wife the recipe.

Another Friendship Forged

This wasn’t the first time I developed a life-long friendship with the owner of a small, family restaurant.

In high school, I got a job working at Things You Love, a nostalgia-laced little lunch restaurant in my hometown of Zionsville, Indiana that served soup and sandwiches, milkshakes, and vintage candies. Things You Love was owned by Beth, a funny and friendly German Catholic farm girl who joyfully slaved away in the kitchen while I ran hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches to customers.

Like Marina and Patrick after her, Beth taught me countless lessons beyond how to scoop ice cream and work a cash register. When she swept floors and washed dishes, she taught me the value of never believing any job is below you. She taught me how to drive bitterness away with laughter after a day poisoned by few customers or bad tips.

She taught me how to be merciful when she refrained from murdering me after I accidentally broke all three of her very expensive sundae bowls the day she bought them. Perhaps the most selfless person I’ve ever known, Beth taught me how to push myself to the side in conversation to ask people about themselves, how to be endlessly curious about the lives of strangers to make them your friends.

Likewise, my friendship with Beth continued after I moved away. She attended the baptism of my oldest son and occasionally stopped by my parents’ house for cocktails and conversation. Just as Marina cake became a feature of Fiene family feasts, Beth’s tomato soup and chicken salad (genuinely the best in the world) have made frequent appearances in our kitchen and at church potlucks for years.

The Lessons I Learned

Despite these wonderful experiences working in restaurants, I didn’t enter the food service industry. I decided to enter the ministry. In my life as a pastor, my parents were, of course, the biggest influences on me. My father taught me how to preach. My mother taught me how to pray. They both taught me how to read my Bible, sing hymns, and forgive, live, and love like Christ.

But my parents weren’t the only ones who taught me the skills I’ve relied on since I entered the ministry. Beth taught me how to listen to people, how to humble myself and swallow my pride in service of my neighbor. She taught me how to be patient with idiosyncratic and demanding people to win their trust and their hearts.

Likewise, Marina and Patrick taught me how to be content with where God has placed me, how to make a home in a foreign place. They taught me how to make hospitality second nature, how to welcome anyone to my dinner table, and how to love people as your own flesh and blood even when you don’t share their DNA.

Beth moved on from the restaurant business a number of years ago, and Marina and Patrick are near retirement. But I’ve been thinking about them constantly in the days since the coronavirus has shut down so much of our economy, including the kinds of small, family-owned restaurants that were such a meaningful part of my life.

A Prayer for Small Restaurants

Keeping small restaurants open during good times is hard enough. For a huge percentage of them, the Wuhan coronavirus shutdown will be lethal. According to Business Insider, “[T]he restaurant industry lost an estimated $25 billion in sales and more than three million jobs in the first 22 days of March, as the coronavirus outbreak swept the US.” Likewise, “Roughly 30,000 restaurants have already closed for good across the country, with more than 110,000 expected to shutter in the next month.”

For many, staying open for take-out or delivery will not be enough to pay their rent and utilities. And whatever relief the government offers, it won’t offset the costs of being forced to shut down regular operations. Perhaps this is necessary for the greater good. Perhaps it’s not. Like everyone else, I don’t know.

What I do know, however, is that our communities will be immeasurably poorer without places like Things You Love and Le Petit Café. Our towns will be less unique without restaurants that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, without being fed and served by those who help form the culture of their towns with their culinary gifts and quirky personalities.

Our main streets will be a bit sadder when the places we first shared hot-fudge sundaes with our grandparents or crème brûlée with our girlfriends are gone. Even more so, our young men and women will be robbed of the life-changing lessons and friendships that people like me have gained from these establishments and the humble folks who’ve owned them.

Countless people need our prayers right now. Chief among them are those who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus, those who are suffering from it, and those in the medical industry that are tending to the sick and seeking a cure.

But when you fold your hands at night and pray for those who are suffering, don’t forget about those owners of little restaurants throughout the country. Ask God to preserve them, to have mercy on them, to let them open their doors again once the plague has subsided, and keep blessing their communities with food and friendship. Pray for these things, because Happy Meals we’ll always have with us, but Marina cake is not far from extinction.