After 12 years in North Berkeley, lauded Tuscan trattoria Corso (1788 Shattuck Ave.) has permanently closed due to financial strain caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Co-owners Roscoe Skipper and Wendy Brucker made the announcement Thursday, and said they have also sold their first restaurant, 26-year-old Solano Avenue Cal-Mediterranean restaurant Rivoli, which will remain open. Skipper sent emails Thursday morning to their loyal customers before agreeing to speak with Nosh about the details, explaining, “I had to let my customers know first.”
The beginning of the end for Corso came with the dreaded shelter-in-place order that closed restaurant dining rooms in March. Corso began losing money at a fast clip, Skipper said. While it had retained its reputation over the years as a dining destination in Berkeley, that esteem didn’t translate into takeout and delivery sales. Still, three months into the pandemic, he and Brucker did not want to give up and hoped things would eventually turn around. They kept paying the salaries of their managers and the health insurance premiums for all their employees.
But in May, when the partners — who were once married, but are now just business partners — had gone through all their working capital, they decided to change course. They had received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but decided Corso was the weak link dragging the company down. They closed Corso on June 1, in the hopes it would be a temporary hibernation, and focused their efforts on Rivoli.
While Corso suffered, Rivoli was breaking even, at times even making a little money. Although lesser known than its sister restaurant, Rivoli — a neighborhood eatery on the Berkeley-Albany border that Skipper and Brucker opened in 1994 — has a staunchly devoted following that Skipper credits for keeping the restaurant afloat during these tough times.
“Our customer base at Rivoli was very vocal and aggressive about keeping us open,” Skipper said. “People would wait on the phone for hours to get through [to order takeout].”
When August came to a close, the co-owners realized they had to let Corso go. Skipper and Brucker settled the lease and handed the keys over to their landlord.
“We couldn’t see a path to opening Corso again,” Skipper explained. “Our staff was gone by then. A couple of our managers had already gotten jobs somewhere, so we were just like, we have to hire a whole new staff. If we could’ve kept it going enough through the takeout and delivery phase, maybe we could’ve gotten to the parklet thing when Berkeley finally allowed parklet dining.”
(Berkeley greenlit outdoor dining in July.)
But Skipper seemed doubtful that a parklet would have been the answer for Corso. The cost of building a parklet (the PPP money could not be used for this project) along with the hurdles to clear it with the city, he said, didn’t seem worth it to him. “For what? Two parallel parking spaces, that would have netted us three tables. We couldn’t see that as the thing that would take us over the top, given how much we were operating in the red before.” (Kieron Slaughter, the chief community development officer at Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development emailed Nosh after this story was published to say Skipper and Brucker had never contacted his office about a parklet. Had they done so, Slaughter said, the owners would have been given the resources and options, including pro-bono architectural support, to create an affordable and quickly set-up outdoor seating area.)
After closing Corso, Skipper and Brucker swallowed another bitter pill. This time about Rivoli.
“Because of what happened at Corso, it drained our financial resources. The PPP loan came and we were doing OK once we closed Corso, but the loan period came due in October, so we couldn’t use that money anymore and we were faced with laying off our managers and operating Rivoli ourselves. We are too old to do that and not very healthy. We had to do something else.”
Skipper and Brucker, who are both 62 and dealing with health issues (Brucker has had two open-heart surgeries; Skipper has had chronic pain for two decades since undergoing hip replacement surgery), arranged a deal with their landlord for Rivoli’s general manager, Blake Peters, to take over the restaurant.
When Brucker was owner, she was also the executive chef of the company and chef du cuisine at Rivoli. In her place, Corso’s former chef Louis LeGassic has stepped into her shoes at Rivoli. According to Skipper, LeGassic is tinkering with the idea of bringing some of Corso’s dishes with him in his new kitchen.
With Corso closed, a new start for the partners
Skipper said he’s devastated to no longer be in the restaurant business. He and Brucker had hoped to keep working for another five years before they retired, but they just couldn’t make it.
“We couldn’t do it physically. We could manage it pre-COVID, but once that thing hit, it just exposed all our weaknesses,” Skipper said. “It would take younger bodies and younger minds to negotiate all that’s happening now.”
While Skipper and Brucker have walked away from their restaurants, they’re leaving the door open for a comeback of sorts. Starting in January, they hope to start selling meal kits made by Brucker and, once it is safe to do so, to cater private dinner parties in customers’ homes. (Those who are interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org for updates).
Said Brucker: “It wasn’t the choices we would make, but we’re going to do our best.”