Personal chef JJ Gonson, 52, combines two of life’s essential pleasures: music and food. She runs Somerville’s locavore catering company Cuisine en Locale and the adjacent ONCE Ballroom performance space, known for a Taco Mondays buffet and an eclectic array of live music. But for now, the concerts are on hold, and there are no parties to cater. So she’s making chili for her neighbors, staging virtual concerts, and biding her time.
ONCE has been dark since Friday the 13th. Usually I don’t mind Friday the 13th. We closed a day or two before the official word came down that public spaces should close. We were already feeling nervous about the assembly of groups, and bands started to cancel. If bands are canceling, that’s because nobody should be here.
Catering is inactive. People aren’t gathering. This is when we’d be doing graduation parties. We’re not huge; we don’t do 1,000-person events. We don’t put quail eggs in little spoons. We’re more rustic, wholesome, home-cooking, hearty comfort food. That doesn’t mean high-carb. It’s warm, nurturing food to me. Right now we’d be booking anniversaries and backyard barbecues. Also, March is the biggest time to book weddings for the fall. This is when people are calling us. Now, one person is postponing a year. I haven’t heard from anyone else, but I’m sure I will. The hope is by September we can do something. I’m not planning anything. I feel strongly that we should stay inside and not push even though it’s hurting me financially.
How are you surviving without an income?
The bulk of our revenue comes from the bar at ONCE. The bar is closed. I am personally cooking in my kitchen, by myself, for a very small number of clients. Traditionally, we’d get through these months with deposits for fall and even people booking a year out. I’m not even hearing from them.
It’s hugely impactful that the bar is closed. And I’m not a restaurant. So Highland Kitchen, a place I adore next door, they announced they will do [takeout]. They have an enormous base and will get flooded with people. People love them, like me. I’ll order food from them. But caterers don’t have that advantage. We are behind the scenes. You only use us for specific events, so we don’t have that kind of established base to draw from. And you have to keep paying commercial liability insurance. There is no lenience on insurance.
I applied for the SBA PPP. I am nervous. I went on a huge tirade about it. I got my paperwork in, and then Ruth’s Chris steakhouse got millions! I am waiting. I am in line. I’ll give a big shout-out to my bank, who has been in touch. They sent me my forms immediately. I hear these stories about big banks. I work with Cambridge Trust, and they’ve been on it. They can’t do magic, but I’m not getting a press one, press two, press three option. I get a person who responds to me at 10 p.m.
Everything I ever had went into that business. I am on unemployment; I’m grateful I have been a salaried employee. A lot of business owners aren’t. I live frugally. I have for years; we have a small apartment. I don’t have a big house in Winchester somewhere. I don’t own my home.
How can the community support you?
Because I am a mom, and I have serious concern for my staff, I call them all the time and check on them. The day we closed, I set up a Go Fund Me. I thought this would just be a few weeks, and I worried about the tipped employees who don’t save money. I was worried about cash in their hands. I started a Go Fund Me to make sure they’d get what they expected to get over the next few weeks and made sure staff salaries were covered. I thought it’d be a short period of time; we all did. Just keep people coughing at home!
Go Fund Me is the only revenue ONCE has coming in right now.
What will happen next?
Nobody knows. We all pray there will be a cure that will appear. We also hear it will take four years to create a vaccine. Will we be purely takeout? Can we host small gatherings? People say, ‘Let’s open socially distant restaurants!’ But we have to wear masks. How are you going to eat? Your face is covered! How do you do that?
Massachusetts, I think, is going to be smart. I’m counting on that. I think the reality is that the places where people who gather tightly, restaurants, movie theaters, we are going to be the last places to recover. At some point, there will be some measures taken.
For now, I’ve launched OnceVV, a virtual venue. My husband is a musician. My sister is a musician with Magnetic Fields. I’ve been in music. I started to reach out to people and say, ‘Would you play something?’ I was watching what was going on online. We started to dig into what it would mean to be a virtual venue. We launch tonight [May 1]. We have Bingo, live music, prerecorded music. Ultimately we do want to ticket things. For now, it’s free.
What are you eating these days?
I have a terrific landlord and neighbors. I’m actually grateful that I have this personal chef company; I am feeding my house. I live in kind of a communal home with a bunch of apartments, and we’re in touch with each other. I have access to wholesale. I can buy 25 pounds of carrots; I am cooking for my family and my house. I have two teenagers. I’m cooking hearty, wholesome meals. My household is largely vegetarian. My daughter and my husband don’t eat meat. We eat a lot of vegetable dishes. We eat a lot of eggs, which we get from farmers. But I’m not eating garbage. I’ve lost weight. I feel like I’m eating better.
What could the city do to help you?
Shout-out to Somerville and Cambridge, who are working together. I feel they’ve done a great job of getting together. Somerville is in touch; I don’t feel left alone by Somerville. I would encourage people to support local businesses as much as humanly possible. Eat local, shop local, stay off Amazon. No, just no. Don’t buy from those big businesses because they don’t need it.