“Hey everyone,” the somber note begins on Instagram. This time the restaurant is Button Mash, Echo Park’s colorful five-year hangout for burgers, tofu balls, craft beer, and arcade games, announcing to its thousands of loyal followers that closure is imminent. This will, in fact, be the last weekend of service.
At least for a while.
For how long? Frankly, who knows.
The social media note, posted last night, says simply:
We have every intention of reopening sometime next year, when it makes more sense to do so. That’s the plan. But things are pretty fucked right now and the future is uncertain, so we’ll see what happens.
Restaurant closures these days come in two forms: The peaceful final pronouncement, publicly calling a halt to years of dedicated service as fans chime in with well-wishes in the comments. And then there are the quiet deaths, those hundreds or thousands of restaurants that see no path forward, run by tired owners who have likely exhausted all options on the business side of things. Maybe they’ll post their own goodbye note, maybe not; they may not know, or want to believe, the end has arrived just yet.
Button Mash co-owner Jordan Weiss is trying to plot a third path. His restaurant is indeed closing, he confirms to Eater, and he also hopes to reopen the restaurant next year, with the kind of safety measures and capacity that make staying alive as a small business, run by a skeleton crew, even possible.
“Button Mash is pretty unusual, as restaurant business models go,” says Weiss by phone last night. The Sunset Boulevard address has a fully-built kitchen, a long bar, a colorful dining room, but tonally it often feels like an arcade hall. It is a business built on gathering and standing in close proximity, drinking beers and sharing laughs and pushing tokens and, eventually, sitting down to eat, too. That’s excessively hard to recreate from a parking lot weekend-only patio.
“We’ve switched up the program a few different times,” says Weiss, who has spent months keeping his core customer base engaged with various promotions. It’s been enough, but barely and not always. “Even for well-positioned restaurants, business has been week to week. Frankly, the appetite for takeout had waned; I think the novelty has worn off. And I don’t think that’s unique to us.”
View this post on Instagram
Hey everyone, This coming weekend we’ll be celebrating our 5-year anniversary. We’ll also be running our final services of 2020. We have every intention of reopening sometime next year, when it makes more sense to do so. That’s the plan. But things are pretty fucked right now and the future is uncertain, so we’ll see what happens. You don’t need us to tell you that independent restaurants and bars and arcades are in rough shape. It’s never really been our style to get political on this forum, but the shameful way in which small businesses have been left hanging in recent months cannot go unmentioned. With each passing day the absence of leadership or even vaguely coherent guidance at any level has made an already grim situation impossible to navigate. We’re forever grateful to everyone that’s supported us over the years, especially those who’ve gone out of their way to help us stay afloat over the past seven months. Thank you. You’re the best. See you soon. Stay safe. Go Dodgers.
Sometimes lost in all the talk of ‘pivots’ for restaurants is the nuance of the human cost, the labor toll to recreate and to innovate. And so, with few moves left, Weiss and his partners are planning to hunker down for what looks increasingly like a long, unpredictable winter. Perhaps there is hope — a vaccine, a federal independent restaurant bailout — on the other side, but for now Button Mash is stuck on that dangerous third rail: They’re not going quietly away, but they’re not staying open, either.
“This is not a ‘throw in the towel’ closure, it’s more of a strategic closure,” says Weiss. “I don’t think there’s a general feeling of optimism on anyone’s part, as for how these next few months might look. Places need help. Desperately. Even the places that might be painting a different picture on Instagram, they are not doing well.”
Weiss agrees that even waiting is a privileged position, one that many small restaurants simply cannot take themselves. “We’re lucky to be an established place, and to have a lot of regulars who love us and want to see us survive,” adding that Button Mash is relatively “well-positioned” because of some frugal planning at the beginning of the pandemic and a desire from the landlord to stick around.
So with a contentious upcoming national election, few tools to forecast the future of any proposed federal aid package, and a global pandemic that is once again locking down entire countries, when might Button Mash be able to safely navigate a 2021 return?
Again, who knows. But for now, for one final weekend, fans can show up, support, and hope for the best.
“We haven’t been given any information,” says Weiss. “We’re dangling in the wind. Restaurants and other places to hang out are just not anyone’s sole focus anymore, at the local or state or federal level. We’re sitting and waiting.”