Matt Leum never intended to open what he calls a âgroceraunt,â yet thatâs exactly what he did when his business plan was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 16, he closed escrow on Romaâs Ristorante Italiano â the same day San Francisco prohibited indoor and outdoor dining.
Originally, Romaâs was to be a 49-seat restaurant in a vibrant San Francisco district, but he had to change everything on the spot. Leum wasnât eligible for government assistance because the business had no history. So, he painted, refurbished floors and waited for July when on-site dining was supposed to resume. Instead, the ban was extended indefinitely.
âSo, I turned it into an Italian grocery with a full take-out menu,â says Leum. âOn August 1, we opened with great fanfare! We had a rainbow ribbon cutting ceremony on opening day.â
The name Roma has special significance. His friend of over 30 years is Sister Roma, one of the famed Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. âI called her up said Iâd name it after her,â says Leum. âSister Roma is an icon in this city. She emcees every gay pride weekend and does amazing outreach for charity, raising millions of dollars for good causes. I didnât realize it at the time, but with that decision, I harnessed the entire LGBTQ+ community â and they came out in force!â
Currently, Leum has two employees: a manager and a chef. Aside from the gourmet Italian grocery store products, Roma offers a to-go menu that includes soups, salads and pastas (the mushroom tagliatelle is their biggest seller).
Still, making it financially is a major struggle. To stay afloat, he uses a credit card â with considerable communication and charm.
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What was the beginning of your business like?
I was in technology recruiting and had never opened a restaurant before. So, I called on to my friend, Ryn Longmaid (who was Don Johnsonâs private chef), for guidance. Iâve been really blessed to have the right people around me. One helped me figure out how to transition to an Italian grocery store, and we spent a lot of time creating an inventory of hard-to-find, beautiful goods â from capers to cookies.
Because I donât carry around the baggage of having owned a restaurant before COVID, Iâm spared the drama of missing the past. This is just how it is for me and Iâm going with it. That doesnât mean itâs been easy. Iâve cried a lot. Iâm not usually the one to ask for help, I give it. But my friends have come out of the woodwork. I get choked up thinking about it.
Did any costs catch you off guard?
Well, yeah â everything in the entire store! Iâm the son of a grocer, but I didnât expect to become one.
Instead of a restaurant, I created a really fancy place with imported items and a huge wine selection. Stocking it cost me about $12,000; money I didnât plan on spending. I also have an avalanche of deferred expenses that Iâll have to pay in the future, like back rent. I didnât plan for any of this â it was all a surprise.
And youâve been using credit cards for the business?
Are you kidding? The cover of my credit card is peeling off! Seriously, the first layer of it is curled from all that swiping.
I use my credit card for everything, including the entire grocery stock. I charge recurring costs too, such as my alarm company, garbage and recycling, inventory. Everything I can pay with the card, I do.
When I set up my business, I went to my local Chase branch. My banker is phenomenal, he helped me set up a Chase Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card and a business debit card.
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You must be accumulating a lot of rewards. How are you using them?
Honestly, I havenât been paying attention to that part of the account; I just use the card. Iâm a savvy businessman, but there are things I want to worry about and things that I donât. Right now, Iâm not thinking about the terms of my credit card, but I understand itâs a good one!
Are you debt-free or leveraged?
Definitely leveraged. I took out a loan to buy the restaurant, so I have a large debt there. I havenât paid my gas and electric bill in four months and owe them about $6,000. I have invoices to pay for last month.Â Right now, Iâm maxed out with my credit card, but I do pay it down when I can.
A ball of debt is sitting on top of a hill and itâs about to roll down on me, but itâs not making me lose sleep. Iâll figure this out.
Do you have any regrets?
Iâm proud of every decision Iâve made so far. I havenât said that out loud before and itâs making me emotional! Iâm proud of what Iâve accomplished. Itâs helped me give back to the community. I just delivered 30 meals to a women and childrenâs shelter, that someone bought at full price. We are all working together during this tough time.
What are your plans for the business?
Sadly, the restaurant next door to me closed a couple months ago. They had an amazing business before COVID. My long-term plan is to open the restaurant I planned in this space, then use that space as the grocery store and to open a real Italian deli. Then Iâll have two businesses!