‘That was very fragile’: J.J. Gonson on Closing ONCE Somerville, and Refocusing on Cuisine en Locale

Photo by Jess Benjamin.

“I’m really sad,” says JJ Gonson, president and “proprietrix” of Cuisine en Locale—a Cambridge-founded, Somerville-based personal catering and delivery service that focuses on fresh and local ingredients. “I miss my staff.”

A few weekends ago, she and that staff were hosting an event at ONCE Somerville, the two-room event hall that’s also part of her business. It was business as usual. But by Thursday of the following week, she says she started wondering “what the hell was going on.” The following Monday she started making sure they were wiping down all the surfaces with disinfectant.

And then, about two weeks ago, she made the hard call: ONCE Somerville had to be temporarily closed and the staff put on furlough so they could qualify for unemployment. It was a heartbreaking decision, given that they’d been holding out hope until the very last.

“We actually thought for about a second, not having all the information and understanding what was going on exactly, that when they said no gatherings over 250, since our room is for 375 then we could let in a hundred, or maybe we could get a temporary liquor license and do outside music,” says Gonson. “Your first thought is how you can save your business. But it was really quickly that we realized that wasn’t an option. Like, in a day. “

Now Gonson is trying to ramp back up the Cuisine en Locale side of the business, and since it’s a meal delivery program, it actually answers a need among Somerville residents. But even though she’s been doing that for 15 years, ONCE had been commanding the larger portion of her time and attention. So, Gonson has to figure out how to scale up from the few meals a day she has been providing for customers. And that means finding sources for the local ingredients she focuses on, which initially she worried would be a challenge.

“One of the things that’s a bizarre side-effect of this is the farmers. When I realized what was going on, I got in touch with them because I thought they wouldn’t be coming in,” she says. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get vegetables. But they’ve been really vigilant about bringing in food.”

Indeed, a number of her regular suppliers are coming into the city and creating what are basically pop-up farmers markets, in places like Bow Market and the Armory, and are selling directly to the public.

“I feel like that’s being really good for them because maybe they wouldn’t be selling as much as they are, otherwise,” says Gonson.

Gonson says she’s seen a slight uptick in the Cuisine en Locale business—from three deliveries a week to four—and she’s hoping she can be helpful to more local families, not to mention keep money coming into the business until she can reopen ONCE and return her staff to paid work.

“I’ve got the ability to cook more if more people want it,” she says, though she admits she still has some shifting of gears to get into full-time meal preparation mode. “I’ve been so focused on ONCE and Taco Mondays and all the stuff we do there, so I haven’t been focused for a while on meal delivery.”

There’s been a response from the communities she’s worked with, says Gonson, and an influx of donations that have helped her offset some of her expenses and be able to pay her staff something. But, she says frankly, there’s no way she can raise enough money through donations to keep everyone employed. 

“In 15 years, I’ve never not done what I said I would do for an employee,” she says. “It’s just so hard to not be able to fix things.”

Right now everything is day-by-day, she says, and she is willing to admit she’s “very, very scared.”

“Maybe even to the point of being excessively scared,” Gonson says. “I feel very sad. I’ve been working on building first Cuisine en Locale, and then ONCE, for a very long time. I’ve been through so much shit I can’t even tell you, and so much stress, and so many moments of feeling like it was touch and go. All of these things I’ve worked so hard and given 60-hour work weeks to make things work. It just feels almost like a waste of time. But it is not a waste of time, we have rocked and I’m proud of us!

“I have great memories and I’m very proud of everything we’ve done,” she says. “But I get this feeling of, wow, that was very fragile.”

To read more of Scout Somerville‘s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This story was updated March 25 to reflect the fact that ONCE Somerville’s closure is temporary due to the pandemic, not permanent; and that its employees were furloughed, not laid off.

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