MeMe’s is a beloved neighborhood diner in Brooklyn, and it’s also a nationally recognized beacon of an emerging queer dining culture, whose house-made cakes and patty melts were the foundation of a unique and genuine community for a generation of queer people who love restaurants as much as bars. Before the pandemic, the restaurant was a place that ran on regulars, where people ran into friends at the bar and knew their servers, all of it run by two queer owner-operators, Libby Willis and Bill Clark.
On Thursday, the co-owners announced on Instagram that MeMe’s would be closing for good on November 22, which led to an immediate outpouring of sadness and support across the food world. Over the weekend, the restaurant was inundated with patrons, who stood in line for over an hour and a half for takeout orders.
I spoke with Willis and Clark about the decision to close, the challenges of running a small business before and during COVID-19, and what needs to change to keep neighborhood restaurants alive.
What have the past few days been like since you announced your plans to close?
Libby: It’s both painful and also incredibly powerful to see the amount of people that thought of us as an important place in their lives, not just a restaurant they went to and had a good time. We’re doing record breaking numbers this week with a record small staff, and at the end of a day slinging patty melts, I sit at home on my phone and look at 100s of posts of people saying goodbye to us.
Bill: Coming to MeMe’s wasn’t just about food — people wanted to eat patty melts and cake, yes, but they knew they would see friends at the bar, staff they’d seen a million times, we were going to have a drink they liked and music they wanted to hear. Our version of hospitality can’t exist right now, and no one’s offering the support you need to pivot out of that. We clearly had such a huge family out there in Brooklyn. That we still weren’t able to keep our doors open — that’s a testament to the lack of support that restaurants have received from the government.
Libby: Running a takeout restaurant saying goodbye — it’s mind boggling
Bill: With the empty dining room behind the glass.
What is the scale of people coming out and showing support?
Libby: On Saturday, over 400 people waited in line.
Bill: The line was averaging around an hour and even an hour and a half, and because we have a kitchen of 3 people, you had to wait another hour or hour and a half for your food. It’s hard to explain how crazy that was. On Saturday, we sold around 80 patty melts — typically on a busy brunch we might sell 20.
Libby: And we sold about 20 full cakes this weekend.
Bill: People want whole cakes!
How did you come to the decision to close?
Bill: We brought it up to ourselves for the first time in July? We had to at least think this might be a possibility.
Even before the pandemic, we were doing busy weekend brunches, we had an hour and a half waits, and our margins were so so slim. One of the things that has come out of this whole pandemic is people aren’t blind consumers of restaurants any more. Before, people were supporting restaurants going out to eat once, twice, three times a week, but nobody quite understood how fragile the whole structure was. I hope people who love MeMe’s understand that if something doesn’t change, these restaurants won’t be here.
Libby: We have a very small restaurant with a very small outdoor footprint for our outdoor seating, and the idea of having to invest thousands of dollars into making it hospitable for the winter seemed impossible, and the unknown of winter was really staring us down. We set out to open a restaurant owned by the people who operated it, not owned by a bunch of faceless investors, and we don’t have deep pockets to pivot.
Bill: We knew if we kept going we were going to start digging ourselves a huge hole.
Libby: You have to make the decision in order to protect your future. To make it so that Bill and I can—
Bill: Live. When we were owner-operators, there never was a safety net.
Libby: There were PPP loans and one small round of forgivable disaster loans and that’s all dried up and so if we borrowed money or looked for investors, we didn’t want to be in the position of taking money and not knowing that it would contribute to our community. It’s not just about popularity — there’s so many things that go into surviving one day and not surviving the next.
Bill: There were weeks and months in the first two years we were open, if we’d had a bad two and a half weeks, we would have had to close. To know that’s a possibility with the fact that the restaurant we really wanted to run was so much about people and community and staff and that’s not coming back any time soon — if we did make it through the winter, what would we want the restaurant to be next year?
Libby: I think there will be plenty of people that read this and say there’s a lot of community still there, but it also has to do with being safe. We refuse to do indoor dining because we would then have to have staff, and asking staff to risk their lives to serve people patty melts felt unimaginable.
Bill: Small restaurants have been put in this impossible position where we have to be open to survive, and if we are open and we do have a staff and are taking customers, we’re putting ourselves at a massive risk, we’re putting our staff at a massive risk, we’re putting our families at a massive risk. There should have been help. There should have been pay for people to stay home, there should have been pay for business to survive and stay closed until it was safe to again. We don’t have the resources to do this safely.
Libby: I think why we don’t have a clear answer on when and why we decided to close is it’s so multifaceted. For me, it’s different every day. What do you see the future of restaurants being? How do you figure out the future of restaurants when you have this restaurant?
Bill: The inequity between back of house and front of house is something we’ve always struggled with and it can’t be put upon the individual owners — it needs to be an industry-wide shift. We’re so lucky that people want to support us, and it’s important people have perspective on industry, which is underpaid workers, super long hours, and unpaid owners. It’s not sustainable.
MeMe’s is one of the most beloved queer spaces to open recently in New York, and queer spaces are very much under threat due to the pandemic. Was that a factor in your closure?
Bill: Queer spaces are extremely independently owned, and don’t have huge pockets. The first things to go are small restaurants and bars, and queer spaces are in that space.
Libby: While our physical location of a queer gathering space and all other queer gathering spaces are in a fragile place and disappearing, I do think our community is so strong and it’s not going to go away. We are continuing how to support each other in new ways and hopefully in the future because we’ve always been familiar with organizing. I feel hopeful about our legacy — we have seen our queer food community over past three years just come up.
Bill: We were lucky to be part of queer food movement. Really lucky. Nothing is a given at this point. We’re going to have to continue to organize to maintain these spaces.
Do you have any sense of what the future holds for you both?
Libby: Everyone is asking us, and there are no grand plans, no secret plans right now.
Bill: We’ve been single-mindedly focused on maintaining the business and figuring out what we needed to do to survive and grappling with the decision to close, and how we can wind this down in a way that feels right.
Libby: I have been so fulfilled by the community we’ve created, and now we’re gonna have more time to figure out how to take care of our community, in a way we haven’t been able to since we’ve been trying to keep a business under capitalism open. I know that personally I have grown a lot by owning this restaurant and from learning how big our community is and how much support there is and that what’s important is putting yourself out there, saying what you stand for, and staying true to your word. People respond to that, and I’m going to take that with me.
Bill: I hope people know we’re going to miss everyone. We’ve missed everyone since we’ve had to stop our normal operations. MeMe’s has always been about the people that come in and the staff we’ve had. That’s the hard part.