Saturday, March 14th was the last day my life felt somewhat normal. I say somewhat because the writing was already on the wall, and the pending chaos looming in the air like cigar smoke when it curls and just sits.
I am a third generation restaurateur and entrepreneur. My grandfather Gene started our first restaurant in 1941 (more on that later). 5 years ago we opened our second location, and we also have an event & wedding venue. In addition to being a managing partner of all things Gene & Georgetti, I own and operate my own event and wedding planning company, Michelle Durpetti Events, for about the last 13 years.
I am based in Chicago but have had the privilege of producing weddings & events in places like Hawaii, Boston, Miami and New York here in the states and outside of the country in amazing locations like Mexico and Italy. Below is actually a photo from a wedding I produced in Umbria last year.
I am also an amateur equestrian, an only child to two incredible parents, and married to an incredibly talented wedding photographer who helps me run the restaurants in addition to running his own business. The other thing that is really important to note for the sake of this piece is that I am also of Italian descent. My family lives in Lucca, a quaint medieval town in Tuscany about an hour from Florence. My grandfather Gene who I mentioned earlier, loved returning to Italy whenever possible. I went for the first time at 6 years old. I was given the incredible opportunity to make my holy communion there a few years after that first trip, because my grandmother’s cousin was a priest. The celebrations were such fun, and endless. We spent many a day throughout July at Viareggio, and enjoying family, with fresh watermelon cooling in the well, and herb gardens throughout the back yard. As I grew older, Italy became a place I loved spending my summers whenever possible. I attended three month summer school courses in high school, and eventually attended university in Florence. I met some of my very best friends in Florence at that time in my life, and am forever leaving my heart in that beautiful Renaissance city, and home to some of western civilization’s most brilliant contributors.
Over the last 8 weeks, it became apparent that CoronaVirus was a grave thing in Italy. At the onset, I sent some texts, and called my loved ones but did not really think much of it. Especially not in terms of how it would directly impact my clients, businesses and personal life. I took it entirely too casual until my friend Sara said in conversation, “be careful Michelle and be prepared, because this is coming to you…” Something worth noting – Sara is a pharmacist in Italy, and still considered essential. She is working 14 hour days working tirelessly to make sure people have access to prescription medication that they need to maintain health. She is at risk every day. Her colleague recently tested positive for the virus, and I waited 3 long days for Sara to come back with results on her test. Thankfully, she was negative. It is not a feeling that I would ever be comfortable describing waiting to see if this person who I have known and loved for over 20 years had this awful virus.
Gradually I started going from normal check ins with loved ones there to hourly communication via whatsapp. Sara is in Emilia Romagna now, which was rapidly becoming one of the more impacted parts of Italy.
I am lucky. Because I speak Italian fluently. So I can watch the news and read it too. I’ve done this for years to keep in perpetual practice with a language that I love. Learning it was in fact an homage to my grandfather Gene, who I lost very young. And this skill has helped me cultivate incredible friendships, grow meaningful relationships with my cousins, and in my career, plan weddings and events in Italy. The reports coming out of Italy were upsetting. Unsettling even. But I never once thought I’d be where I am today, living through a waking nightmare that hits me from every possible angle. For some reason initially it did not hit home. That quickly changed when I heard Sara & Serena both selfessly giving me valuable insight and advice on how to protect my dad who lives with interstitial lung disease. I am forever grateful to them for having the conversations that they did with me because they are the reason why I understood what was happening. What is still happening.
I was in Wellington, Florida that last normal week of life. My horses and I were finishing a week of competition, and I had a trip home planned. I arrived home Monday, March 9th. My horses are a grand love, and immense privilege in my life. They are also a huge responsibility, and I have learned how to balance all that I consider a privilege in my life; my wedding clients, the restaurants, and the horses with mindful care and a LOT of communication and organization. It actually gives me immense satisfaction to work as hard as I do, knowing it earns me this incredible privilege. I was traveling home because I do that every three or so weeks during the winter while I am competing. This way I check in with wedding clients in person, and I do the same at the restaurants. We were also very close to announcing our plan to reopen our Chicago restaurant location.
Worth noting: I produced an incredible wedding in Umbria last September. On October 4th I arrived home and was walking on air because it was truly gorgeous. What a dream it is to speak Italian and produce weddings. I LOVED it. We landed late at night, around 9:30 I believe? I was exhausted. The next morning at 6:00 am, our 77 year old steakhouse had a grease fire that has had us closed for going on 6 months. So we have already down our biggest grossing restaurant since October, which is also our original location, started in 1941 by my grandfather Gene and his partner Georgetti.
We have been working diligently, fervently even to get this place open. Our target date was March 26th.
Four weeks ago is when the realities of COVD-19 really started to arrive at my door, I realized right away that this Coronavirus has no preferences or biases. It impacts everyone. It was the 15th ish,of March maybe? We were ten days out from an opening that was just not happening.
And then. Tuesday of that week. 80% drop in business. People were refraining from going out. Rumors were swirling like crazy and mixed messages were everywhere. I was fortunate enough to have Isabelli Media Relations as a part of my crisis management team who immediately began educating me on what other fellow restaurants were experiencing. I immediately sat down with our managers and chefs and did the following: We increased our delivery range on DoorDash, we signed up for GrubHub, and we began offering phone in ordering with “curbside pickup” so people could get food brought right to their cars – a much safer option that dining in restaurants at that time. Thanks to BMP film co., and my friend Ben Mahoney for helping us get a film out the very day all of this started. We did our utmost to try to keep the business going, but we knew what was coming. Restaurants would be closed. Events & Weddings not happening and eventually a shelter in place with all non essential businesses not operating.
That very week, the governor in Illinois took decisive action and ordered the closing of restaurants throughout the state in an effort to contain the spread of this terrible virus, and because public health is our main concern, we voluntarily complied, and prepared ourselves for being a carry out and delivery location. But while we did pivot in to this rather quickly, the options have been slow in terms of sales. We had to make the difficult decision to lay off employees, allowing them to apply for unemployment and allowing us to safeguard our 78 year old brand so that when this passes, everyone has a job, and home to return to. We have begun a go-fund-me account for those employees as well. Our second location in Rosemont was just not viable as a carry out location, so that location is currently shuttered. Being based in a hub of hospitality, with more hotel rooms than residents it was very difficult to be a restaurant that people wanted to order from, or pick up from out there.
And, I also had all of my wedding clients to think about too. Despite everything happening, I made sure to keep in touch with our wedding clients – to encourage them to think about alternate dates. We are in constant communication with fellow industry creatives in an ongoing effort to preserve what is left of the events industry. Like restaurants, it has been decimated. Many are out of work, with no income and are still working to accomodate the hundreds of thousands of couples across the country so have been placed in absolute upheaval with their weddings. I am so lucky to work with vendors who do not even let joblessness impact their efforts to help clients. And am equally as fortunate to have clients that have been kind, calm and solutions oriented.
In my lifetime, I never expected to experience something like this, I don’t think anyone did. As this unfolds, I feel that I am in such an unusual position, as I am watching our beloved restaurant brand fight for survival. I am doing my utmost with my team at my planning company to comfort my couples, and provide them with the most current information that I can on how the industry is reacting to this and adapting to this so that they may make good decisions for their weddings. I am in contact with my loved ones in Italy every day, waiting to hear from them and have them check in to know that they are still ok. My dear friend Sara still goes to work every day at great risk. My cousin Maurizio is a butcher and still working as well, again at great risk. I don’t sleep much at night, and I spend my days on the phone with as many experts, advisors and colleagues as much as I can to continue to stay educated, calm and focused. I feel at times like these that concise and clear information makes a huge difference. I try to keep our managers and chefs calm. Our Chef Cristiano Bassani is from Bergamo, the most impacted place in Italy and we have had conversations that include tears on both sides. It is heart wrenching.
My parents, who I mentioned earlier are also a concern. My father has interstitial lung disease and uses oxygen. He lives on immunosuppressants every day for the last seven years because after an idiopathic infection caused traumatic lung injury, leaving him in a coma for nine days (from which he recovered, miraculously) – but, he was left with severe scar tissue in his lungs. His immune system attacks that scar tissue, hence the suppressants. He has been sequestered in his house for almost a month with my mother caring for him. My father is one of the most resilient, tenacious human beings that I know but as I mentioned before, this virus has no preferences, and in fact hits people like my father that much harder. The idea of him coming in to contact with this has actually given me nightmares.
And yet with all of this – I don’t lose hope, and I don’t lose focus. Mainly because I can’t. I have employees in two restaurants and a venue to think of. I have clients to think of. I have my parents to think of. For better or for worse, I am the one responsible for all of these facets to our lives so I do not lose hope. I think it has been unbelievable to experience customers and industry friends show immense support for the restaurants but ordering and purchasing gift cards. Our regular customers are showing up daily, ordering, sharing on social media and texting their support. I am so lucky to be surrounded by industry friends who have been the place where I go when I need a little motivation. My dear friend Chris is also our Events director at the Estate (our venue) and he and my husband have been immense support. Our managers and chefs come in every day and dedicate themselves to any and everything that they can to keep everything going. And when people come to me for that same support that I sometimes ask of them, I tell them the following: The building that our restaurant in Chicago is in was built in 1874, with scraps of wood from the Chicago fire. My grandfather Gene and his partner, Georgetti opened that location in 1941 at a time of war. 6 months ago we experienced a fire that impacted the very heart of our livelihood and brand. So as a family, we know a thing or two about not losing hope, and the importance of resilience. And I now call on that daily as a reminder to keep going, keep hoping for state and federal government to offer aid to the industries and businesses owners like us who so desperately need it right now. Some of my best memories have happened in restaurants. From my own restaurants, to favorites in Chicago to my favorites in Florence, Italy beautiful meals are something my family treasures. I will not give up on the hope that I will return to all of those places in the future and enjoy meals. I will continue to plan weddings for clients as soon as I am able. I will return to my ancestral home, to my beloved Tuscany and cities of Lucca and Florence and hug my loved ones. And in the meantime, I will do my utmost. My utmost to shelter in place, my utmost to be kind to others knowing everyone is so impacted my this. My utmost to lead my teams through this, and make sure that this legacy survives this too. As a Renaissance art history major, I keep thinking about that time period and how full om genius it was. The explosion of contributions that shaped western civilization. From Michelangelo to Donatello to Botticelli and everyone in between. And I remember that before that golden era of accomplishment in the arts, architecture, education, literature and everywhere else – there was the middle ages. Also referred to as the dark ages by some. And look what followed.
So, in closing – I lean on history. I lean on my loved ones, my colleagues and I call on our state and federal lawmakers to do their utmost to help us navigate through this unprecedented time. I shelter in place, I send my love to the world, I send my heart to Italy. I do my job, and adapt to the new normal that I face every day – but I do not lose hope. In fact, I have such hope that three weeks ago, after 6 months of closure, we opened our Chicago restaurant location. While it was not the grand opening we planned for, this was almost more important because we knew our brand has been one that people have relied on for over 78 years. And we hoped that opening at this time might provide a sense of hope to many who so desperately needed it. In my family, we show our love through four generations of hospitality. From planning weddings to our restaurants to our venue, me entire life has been about providing our clients and customers a way to celebrate milestone moments, seek comfort in the familiarity, value and deliciousness of our food, and be a part of the hospitality industry that I love so much.
Our new normal is one we’re adapting to every day. Our venue and second restaurant location are currently closed, yet we remain in contact with many of our customers and clients. We have a small team working tirelessly in our open restaurant providing delivery & takeout in an effort to show our love to Chicago the only way we know how – from our kitchen. I have not seen my parents in over a month which is never the norm for us given we work together and are so close. My husband and I are sheltering in place in different cities. I have been in Florida (I returned before the mandate was in place) so that I could watch my horses while Collin stayed with the business. I have applied for unemployment and was lucky enough to get it because not everyone is. These are hard times, and scary times – and still I do not lose hope. I refuse to accept that there is not a way through this. At the end of the day what other choice is there? To give up? That is just not how I am wired. Do I get sad? Yes. Every morning I walk about three or so miles and I listen to music and sometimes I dance down the middle of the empty road, sometimes I cry my heart out. I think we are all processing as best we can. But a big part of what motivates me are the faces that I see before me every day; those of our 160+ employees, many of whom are without jobs right now. My family in Italy who cannot really leave their homes and have suffered such great loss. My dad, who I think about every day because of his fragile health, and my responsibility to now carry the family, and our businesses as he had done for the last 50 years. My couples, who are facing such surreal realities about postponing their wedding dates. These are all of my “why’s” that get me out of bed each morning. My horses are too, because it is not easy to continue to provide care when income is essentially eliminated is it? They need to eat, there are caregivers that they know and trust who also depend on me for their employment and I think of them too.
I also think of each of you out there, who may be lonely or scared. Uncertain or confused. I mean just yesterday our President was casually conversation about the possibility of a disinfectant injection. Of course the White House is today explaining the comment was taken out of context (and let’s be honest it was taken out of context, but it was ALSO a dumb ass comment. These two things are not mutually exclusive actually and can happen at the same time. I think of all of you, and I send my love, my resilience and my tenacity. We will get through this and guess what?
The most amazing thing happened in the 1300’s at the end of the dark ages and the Black Plague. (that is not the sentence you were expecting I bet, LOL). Do you know what it was? The Renaissance! The very period in time that I have spend my adult life studying. From Bocaccio’s Decameron to Dante’s Divine Comedy, literature exploded. From Michelangeo’s David to Brunelleschi’s Dome art and architecture were never more inspired by one another. And all that happened in between, from the creation of hospitals to the creation of banks – there was an explosion of creativity, ingenuity and ideas. And it all shaped western civilization that can still be felt today. All of which came after a plague. So we must hold on, and dig in, and stand strong because we know from history that when we do, we head towards something so incredible. I like to hold on to that thought every day so I hope it helps you too. ❤️