Menlo Park almost lost its beloved Cafe Borrone to the shutdown. Then the community stepped in to save it.

Marina Borrone’s GoFundMe strategy yields a much-needed lifeline while on the brink of closure.

(Photo by Magali Gauthier)

The coronavirus shutdown nearly claimed one of the Peninsula’s most beloved eating establishments, Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park.

After temporarily shuttering the longtime cafe in March, Marina Borrone, whose parents opened the first Cafe Borrone in Redwood City in 1979, worked every angle she could for relief. She called her credit card and insurance companies; she applied for a federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan (and didn’t receive one), knowing that any loan would be putting a band-aid on a deeper wound.

Several weeks into the closure, the business had lost $150,000. She called her siblings and her parents and told them: “I’m losing the cafe.”

“I just thought, this is happening,” said Borrone, who took over the family business as a 22-year-old college graduate. “We’re going to be one of those places.”

But then she remembered when the community rallied to save the adjacent Kepler’s Books from closure in 2005. Reluctantly, and after much thought, she decided to ask her customers for financial support and launched a GoFundMe campaign.

“As a family we’ve weathered plenty of setbacks, but this one is unprecedented. With no way to generate income for an extended period of time, our cash reserve has dwindled to next to nothing,” she wrote on the campaign description. “I am humbled to say that I need your help.”

Donations poured into the GoFundMe campaign, which quickly raised more than $100,000. To date, nearly 900 people — residents old and young, former customers who no longer live in the area, former employees — have given $130,000, many leaving emotional comments and memories about the cafe.

Because of their donations, Cafe Borrone has managed to stay afloat. Borrone was able to pay off some of the cafe’s bills and reopen for takeout in late April. For the first time in its 41-year history, Cafe Borrone started offering delivery last week. About 20 out of 70 total staff members are back at work, albeit not at their full hours.

(Image via Yelp)

Cafe Borrone’s dining room and iconic patio, usually packed and buzzing with tables of people, children and dogs, are eerily empty. Borrone set up the takeout operation on the other side of the cafe, where Borrone MarketBar once was, planning to continue takeout even when in-person dining is allowed to resume. (She does plan to open up the cafe side soon to serve to-go espresso drinks, pastries and a limited menu.)

Despite the fact that takeout isn’t profitable right now — the labor costs exceed sales so far — Cafe Borrone will likely remain a takeout-only operation for an extended period of time, Borrone said. Even when she and other local restaurants get the green light from San Mateo County to reopen with restrictions (which could be stricter than the state’s), she’s wary of what that would actually mean on the ground at the usually bustling cafe.

She’s considered setting up a limited number of tables only outside and using paper plates. The kitchen is small, so with social distancing requirements for staff it would mean a smaller menu than customers are used to. She’d have to have someone stationed at the door to manage occupancy. It was hard for her to picture employees wearing masks and gloves constantly cleaning the outdoor tables and chairs. Will customers want to return to that kind of a setting? What if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus, and the cafe has to close again.

“It’s not impossible,” she said of reopening for in-person dining. “My energy is better spent on all the other pieces rather than cleaning tables and chairs and making tables available in what is still a very fragile time.”

(Images via Yelp)

I asked Borrone if she can picture the day when Cafe Borrone is again full of crowds of people meeting over sandwiches and Belgian waffles and frosted mochas or listening to live music on Friday nights. A self-described optimist, she said she can — but she’s not letting herself think about that day yet.

“I miss my chaotic restaurant. I miss it so much. But that’s not where we’re at,” she said. “I’m just in the moment. I hope that day comes and I know what that day feels like but I’m more just trying to get through this right now.”

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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