‘My pipeline dried up,’ owner says as Harvard Cookin’ Girl faces closure after 11 years
Without an 11th-hour reprieve, La Jolla’s Harvard Cookin’ Girl is looking to close in the face of the coronavirus pandemic after 11 years in The Village.
The one-woman cooking school at 7441 Girard Ave., run by Bibi Kasrai, is in a unique position in that it doesn’t fall under classifications of businesses that are getting ready to resume shut-down services, such as restaurants. Nor does it have any employees; therefore, it doesn’t benefit as greatly from Paycheck Protection Program loans. And it generates most of its revenue from group events, which would be a challenge while trying to enforce social distancing.
Kasrai said she has until June 15 to come up with enough money to pay her rent or close her doors for good.
“If parents want to sign up for summer camps or book family events where I sanitize everything and they can come in, if a corporation wants to book an event or if people want to buy gift cards for later use or even pay for a Zoom cooking class, I’m alive,” she said.
If not, Kasrai said, “a big kiss and a hug, and keep cooking!”
The problems for Harvard Cookin’ Girl started in February, when clients started canceling and spring and summer events were not getting booked.
“My pipeline dried up and my phone wasn’t ringing,” she said. And when she realized she would not be able to hold events, she immediately refunded prepaid bookings.
Still on the hook for rent and with nothing in reserve, Kasrai worked with her landlord to have her March rent waived. She then applied for a PPP loan. However, only 25 percent of that can be used for non-payroll expenses such as rent.
“I took the 25 percent of the PPP loan I could use for rent and the rest came from my own pocket,” she said. “That bought me until June, then I will have to sell the kitchen or come up with a solution in the community to keep this train moving.”
While other food businesses such as restaurants are looking to reopen dine-in service in phases, Kasrai said hers would not be able to open until later.
“My entire business is about, literally, bringing people to the table and breaking bread,” she said. “How can I do that with the current restrictions? Unlike every other business that is day to day, people do not walk into my shop and say, ‘What’s cooking today?’ I do not have employees; I am an independent contractor.
“I don’t sleep when I think about it. I have cold sweats at night.”
She said she put her house up for sale to try to generate income.
Looking back on her decade-plus in La Jolla, Kasrai recalled the first night the cooking school was open and reflected on how the cooking culture has changed.
“During my first class, I thought there would be no one,” she said. “My knees were shaking while I hosted my first event of 10 people. I wondered what were they going to like, what were they going to hate?
“I got started with kids’ events like Girl Scout gatherings and birthday parties. From there, it grew to include family events, corporate events and so on. And always facilitated through word of mouth.”
In that time, she said, La Jolla has grown to appreciate food more and become more adventurous.
“During my first classes, I had to explain what spices were, what turmeric was, so I showed the children what the herbs were in my garden. Now people ask about classes for things like kimchi and I really feel good about being a tiny part of this growing food culture,” she said.
In addition to seeing food appreciation grow, she has watched her students grow.
“I was running errands not too long ago and this big tall football player recognized me from when I taught a class for his sixth birthday,” she recalled. “He told me he still likes to cook, and I hear that often. People tell me they learned about food from me. I’m proud of this community, so I want neighbors to help neighbors.”
Those who would like to purchase classes or gift cards can call (858) 888-3509 or email email@example.com. ◆