The Blackbird aftermath: Healing wounds, writing checks

I caught up with Blackbird Kitchen & Bar co-owner John Thacker on Thursday following the news that the restaurant closed suddenly and permanently on Monday — and that startled employees learned the news via email.

Following that uproar, Thacker met with many of the employees over drinks at Headhunters in midtown. He was peppered with questions about why he sent that email, why the employees were not told the restaurant was struggling, etc. There was some anger and some venting, too.

When a restaurant closes suddenly, one of the most pressing questions, however, is about money. Who is going to get paid? And when? I’m referring to employees and vendors who supply the food, beverages and a host of other products.

“I’m signing checks as we speak,” Thacker told me. “Everybody’s going to get their money quicker than they would if we were still open.”

Thacker also said vendors have also been notified that they will be paid in full.

“It’s a little bit hurtful for anyone to suggest that Blackbird isn’t going to pay for what I got from them,” he added.

The closing of Blackbird, an exciting, artistic and sometimes uneven restaurant on 9th Street, happened suddenly last Monday when the owners sent a mass email to employees announcing the news and thanking them for their service. Several employees said they were hurt by the email, noting that the owners had made them feel like a family, or as co-owner/chef Carina Lampkin liked to say, a flock.

Blackbird’s demise leaves a void just as downtown was building momentum on the heels of news that former Ella chef Michael Thiemann would open two restaurants nearby on K Street, including one that would be vegetarian. Like Blackbird, these kinds of singular ventures bring new energy to the area and, more importantly, give the city an identity that’s different than other cities. Farm-to-Fork is one thing, but restaurants that have their own style and sense of purpose make that marketing campaign something special for Sacramento.

Meanwhile, I’m told that several restaurants have reached out to Blackbird’s suddenly unemployed workers, referring them to job openings and offering interviews. The Eatery in West Sacramento, for instance, contacted me to say it is looking to hire servers and kitchen staff and wanted me to pass the word on to Blackbird folks before they put an ad on Craigslist.

Further, the fallout from the Blackbird ordeal has occasionally been unsavory, with some folks gloating about it on Facebook and in anonymous online posts. Say what you will about Blackbird, but it was doing something that stood apart from the crowd. Being willing to be different is its own challenge.

A few days ago, I came across a Facebook post by Chloe Henry, who distinguished herself as a server at Blackbird. In my review of the restaurant, I singled her out for her knowledge, attention to detail and the obvious passion for what she does. And now, reading what she wrote about the end of Blackbird makes me realize I may have understated my praise. I asked her permission to run her words in this space because it offers a glimpse of the commitment that many in the restaurant industry have and the loss they feel when their work suddenly ends.

She writes:

Yes, it’s true, Blackbird Kitchen & Bar is now closed.

Although I only worked at Blackbird for 14 months, it felt like a much more significant amount of time. I started as a busser, because it was all they had to offer me. I was so impressed by the menu and staff that I had no problem following my new co-workers around and cleaning up after their messes. I was just happy to be in a new and inspiring environment. In a short amount of time, I worked my way up to server, then to the title of “Sheriff” — which was just a fun way of saying, “person who is in charge of all the front of the house problems.” Being an unofficial manager has always come naturally to me and before I knew it, almost everyone looked to me for guidance. Here we are now, and I'm completely shocked.

During my time at Blackbird, I've made irreplaceable friendships, had my heart broken, got a shoutout from the food critic himself, improved my level of service, gained an appreciation for how beautiful food can be (from brilliant Chef Kevin O’Connor), all while meeting some truly amazing people. So while I read all these negative posts, where everyone has a seemingly “educated” opinion on why Blackbird is closing, I want to remind you how sad it looks to be gloating about people losing their jobs and livelihood. That is what people who don’t work in this industry can’t seem to understand — you spend so much time with these people, they become your family. Whether it is your kitchen staff, your loyal guests, or all the crazy, kooky regulars you gain along the way.

The Sacramento restaurant industry is a small family, and no one should be happy when an independently and creatively owned restaurant closes only to make it possible for unoriginal restaurants like Applebee’s and Chili’s to become more frequent. Blackbird was a beautifully original concept, and it’s a shame to see it end so soon. It breaks my heart to lose such an amazing family, but I know each and everyone of us will go on to better things. I love you all.

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