It was March 1, 2020 and the cavernous bar area at Maggiano’s D.C. was crowded, as was the norm. Mo, a Moroccan immigrant, was the waiter covering all the dining tables in the space. And he was making good money.
Successful restaurants always have people like Mo who generally know their customers, and they know them because their customers are regulars. I was one of those regulars, along with my then 3-year old daughter. Mo had literally watched Claire grow up.
Mo took care of us during each visit, and we always took care of him. He would have presents for Claire each Christmas (as would we for him through tips), and when he returned from a visit to family in Morocco, he brought back a dress for Claire. He was this way with all of his regulars.
March 1, 2020 is seared in my mind because it was on that day that my wife delivered our second child. By that night I’d returned home to relieve the babysitter, at which time Claire and I went to Maggiano’s. Mo had followed my wife’s pregnancy and we went to eat plus deliver the news to him. He was very excited for us (recently his wife had delivered their second child), and he comped our dinner that night. Memory says my tip that night reflected the comp. I certainly hope so.
That is so because March 1, 2020 was the last time Mo waited on us in person. As most know, the lockdowns reared their ugly head not long after. March 1, 2020 wasn’t the last time we ever saw Mo, but it was the last time we saw him without a mask. We still ordered takeout from Maggiano’s, but pasta-style dishes don’t travel well in the way that pizza does, for instance. What was a weekly habit soon wasn’t.
Which calls for a brief pause to think about Maggiano’s, the chain. As anyone who’s been in one knows, the restaurants are huge. Please think about that for a second. Every new business that succeeds is a bit of a miracle when it’s remembered that a new business is opened based on the rather optimistic view that there’s an unmet need to be filled in the marketplace. Not only did Maggiano’s fill an unmet need when it opened its first doors in Chicago in 1991, it did so in size fashion. As evidenced by how large its restaurants are (52 as of this writing), Maggiano’s found a very sizable need that hadn’t previously been met. As an Italian-themed restaurant despite the ubiquity of Italian restaurants across the U.S. Yes, Maggiano’s success is a miracle.
At which time it’s worth considering the makeup of the typical Maggiano’s location. As previously mentioned, Mo covered the dining tables in the bar area, and covered them well. But as those of us who always ate in the bar knew well, there was an even bigger dining room behind the bar. We knew this because Mo would always try to intercept the customers heading toward the back, and did so even when he didn’t have an extra table. Always hustling, he figured a new customer offered the potential for a regular customer, and the regulars paid his bills.
And then there were the private rooms upstairs. All manner of companies would rent them out for private gatherings, not to mention individuals celebrating all kinds of momentous occasions. Better yet, the best months of all for the private rooms were just ahead of March 1. Think proms, think graduation parties.
Yet not long after March 1, 2020 Washington, D.C. was locked down. The restaurants were allowed to remain open, but only for takeout. It staggers the imagination to think what this did to receipts at Maggiano’s D.C. A massive space that was routinely full had been reduced to takeout. This didn’t matter to the authoritarians running D.C. They “granted” restaurants the right to offer curbside service in order to remain alive. Can we stop and contemplate how insulting this was? It presumed that prior to the lockdowns Maggiano’s had built out these sizable spaces wholly unaware that the latter was just excess; that they could ring up similar receipts at the curb…
Oh well, and as mentioned previously, we ordered takeout more than a few times, but it didn’t measure up. In truth, we ordered it more than we wanted to out of loyalty to Mo. My already big tips grew, but it didn’t take a CFA to see that Mo was doing a tiny fraction of the business he’d been doing before. Mo kept offering to deliver dinner to us at home, but I wasn’t going to allow him to lose other customers in order to help us.
At the same time, Mo’s expressed desire to offer home delivery speaks to a tragic aspect of the lockdowns that requires routine repeat: they (meaning the restaurants) never even got the chance to innovate around the virus. These miracle businesses were never allowed to do what they do best; as in meet the needs of a customer base that was perhaps more nervous. No, allowing innovators to innovate would have been too logical. Instead, the very people who gave us the DMV would decide how restaurants would operate.
So much could be written about this, so much has been written, but the punchline is that Mo is no longer at Maggiano’s. While we text, while I tell him my daughter, wife and I miss him, he hasn’t indicated where he ended up. One guesses he received a PPP check, which on its own was insulting. $1,200 in return for the booming business he’d tirelessly built? That’s all he was worth? It’s sickening to think about.
The main thing is that market share is hard won. Habits are hard won. A visit to Maggiano’s on August 18, 2021 revealed this truth in spades. Not only was Mo no longer there, neither were his regulars. Empty table after empty table throughout, and no sightings of parties going to the dining room or upstairs.
The lockdowns have, at least for now, visibly wrecked what used to heave with patrons. It was for our own good, say politicians. No, a business is just a collection of individuals. Maggiano's lost a big business to political panic, and so did Mo lose a business he worked feverishly to build. Again, how sickening.