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Amma’s Anju Sharma On Finding Consolation In Her Restaurant Family

What to do after the lights go out for the first time in twenty years.

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Anju Sharma is the founder and owner of Amma, a longtime upscale Indian restaurant in New York’s East Midtown. Amma closed in March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Right now, we have completely closed the restaurant and are sitting home watching the news.

We had opened the restaurant for delivery when they said the dining area had to be closed. But dining-in was our bread and butter. We were just thinking and rethinking, what should we do? We were concerned for this virus and the safety of our employees. And then we decided, let’s just do takeout and see if this works.

Most of our employees wanted to come and work, though not all. But I said no. Their safety is the most important thing to us. We have to see how we can do it. At the same time they want to come, they are panicking because they were listening to all types of bad things that could happen.

We did the takeout for a week, trying to balance and see how it goes. We had my delivery boys going out doing food deliveries, and some of the guests were coming in also. They’re scared about the longer-term effect of this disease, and who can get it.

And then me and my husband were talking. I said, “You know what? Closing is the best bet.” We were doing pick-up too, sure—but not very much of it. So we just decided on a Friday, let’s close the delivery also. We were panicking too. Tears in my eyes, because we opened this restaurant 18, 19 years back. I’ve never seen the lights off in that restaurant. So it was hurting like crazy.

Really it was safety that made us decide to close the restaurant. To open it, you are wearing gloves, you are wearing masks. After five minutes of washing your hands, you make sure everything is okay. That’s how my employees were doing it. But still we decided, you know what? Let’s close it. And it was very painful.

Almost every day, we are talking, we are texting, we are calling each other. We were a fine dining restaurant, so I had a sommelier also. We had so much wine there. He keeps saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll be okay one day.” And I’m just saying, “Yes, we’ll be okay one day, and then all will be good again.”

Where will we stand in the future? We don’t know, but it will take really a long time to go back and stand where we were.

Of all of our guests, like 90 percent are regulars. Some come only to Amma when they come to New York. We have a tasting menu, and we pair our food with our wine. Not many Indian restaurants do that. When guests are coming, they sit there for two hours talking to us and enjoying the food.

Every day, I’m getting at least 20 phone calls from our guests, because we are family to them, and they are family to us. They are consoling us—they’re saying, “We are here for you. Tell us what we can do for you. Let me buy a gift card and give to the GoFundMe.” I have so many emails from them. One man said, “Don’t worry, we love your food. We’ll be there. When you reopen, we will be there.” But only time will tell. I say, at this time you can just pray. And one day we’ll reopen, and they’ll be there.

I never thought that I would see a day like this. I never, ever thought we were going to go through this thing. I have employees working for me for 14 years, 15 years, or 18 years since we opened. It’s like a home.

We opened at the same time that Tabla opened, from Floyd Cardoz. We were very close to each other, talking to each other. He’d look at our restaurant and say, “You are doing a great job. I haven’t seen a restaurant the way you guys are doing it.” When I heard he died, I said, “Oh, my God, this is completely unbelievable.” I’m still not digesting that he’s not there. Very hurtful, very hurtful. He was a very great guy.

Even my employees console me, because I’m a mother to them. They say, “Amma, don’t worry. We’ll be OK.” I’m consoling them, they’re consoling me. We are family.