Ben Sukle is Closing Birch Restaurant in October with a Proud, but Heavy, Heart

After trying to make takeout and an outdoor patio sustain the business, the time has come to move on, learn from the pandemic and inspire change.
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Ben Sukle is closing birch for good. Photo by Jamie Coelho.

It’s a Friday night around 8 p.m. in early September, and five tables each with four folding chairs are set up in what once were parking spots outside of birch restaurant on busy Washington Street in downtown Providence. They are sectioned off by portable white picket fences and giant tin planters that look like horse troughs filled with soil and massive green shrubbery to block off the traffic whizzing past. Twinkle lights hang overhead and the ambiance is quite nice, very much like what you’d find outside a charming European sidewalk cafe.

Black Lives Matter posters are taped to the front windows of the restaurant along with a child’s drawing featuring the local bycatch scup, posted on the front door. Meanwhile, birch’s interior with its eighteen-seat, horseshoe-shaped counter, surrounded by cardboard boxes instead of guests, sits virtually empty save for owner and chef Ben Sukle and team working in the small kitchen. They are hustling out plates of heirloom tomato and tuna toast on housemade sourdough bread and thinly sliced cantaloupe on a bed of cultured cream and sprinkled with spicy pumpkin seeds, fennel and sprigs of lemon verbena picked from their kitchen garden at Roger Williams Park Botanical Center. And oh, the lobster rolls; one hot with warm butter, and one cold with lovage mayo, nestled in toasted housemade brioche rolls and flanked by the best fries I’ve had in awhile. The sidewalk version of birch is a more casual experience without all the courses of a tasting menu, but it’s damn delicious.

The dishes arrive in a parade by a masked and gloved server on compostable paper plates with plastic-wrapped utensils (both because they are short-staffed due to layoffs and also to protect the team). As diners enjoy their meals with wine in plastic cups, a man pacing on the sidewalk asks if anyone at any of the tables has a lighter to fire up his cigarette. The guests respond with a unanimous but cheerful negative and he says, “How much you want for a light? A buck?” then shuffles away when no one can produce a flame.

So much work has gone into trying to keep birch alive in the age of coronavirus. But it’s not enough. Nothing is enough. Not laying off staff. Not a grant from Restore Rhode Island. And definitely not the five outdoor tables that are only seated with one to four people at a time from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Thursday through Monday. And so, as of October 19, after seven and half years, birch will be no more.

As summer stretches into fall and then winter, more local restaurant closures are inevitable, but this shuttering just hits differently. Sukle opened birch with his then-wife Heidi Sukle in 2013, and it was one of those restaurants that truly put Providence on the national culinary map. After working with Matthew Jennings at Farmstead and then leading the kitchen at the Dorrance, Sukle was just twenty-seven years old and went out on his own, launching a restaurant that was different than anywhere else in the city and everything he ever wanted it to be. The tiny, eighteen-seat “anti-fine-dining” restaurant helped him become who he is as a chef and restaurant owner today. The then-couple opened a second, more casual restaurant, Oberlin, in December of 2015.

“There is a certain numbness I need to take on with something like birch closing because otherwise it’s so many different emotions,” Sukle says. “It’s sad, it’s angry, it’s happy and proud.”

He let the restaurant speak for him. “I got to personify birch as me and anything that happened on the day to day or with the food and the message, that was 100 percent me,” he says. “It was a feeling of expression that I never had before.”

Birch earned many accolades over the years including several James Beard Award Best Chef: Northeast nominations for Sukle, as well as a spot on Bon Appetit’s list of “America’s Best New Restaurants 2014.”

In the Bon Appetit article, food writer Andrew Knowlton wrote: “Dinner here is essentially a private show. Just eighteen customers can squeeze around the sleek, U-shaped wood bar, where chef Ben Sukle, breaking out on his own after presiding over the sprawling grandeur of The Dorrance, a previous Top 50 Nominee of 2012, turns out food that’s as ambitious as it is personal — Wagyu beef from a good friend of his in Vermont, say, or a gussied-up Rhode Island johnnycake. Go for the four-course prix fixe, a deal at $49.”

Sukle and team, including chef de cuisine Ed Davis (who was with him from the start and now serves as chef at Durk’s Bar-B-Q) worked with local farms and fishermen and foraged their own ingredients for the menu that was uniquely Rhode Island. “Birch was one of those places that deeply cares about its producers,” Sukle says. “While I am deeply sad birch is closing, I will be forever grateful for the chance it gave me to connect and establish deep friendships and partnerships with local producers, including farmers and fishermen, winemakers and the potters who made all of our plates.”

It was Sukle’s goal to make fine dining more accessible, and that is what he achieved. None of the accolades matter to him at all anymore now that he is shutting its doors for good. “There’s a lot of anger I feel about it because this is something that, although maybe not avoidable, this is being allowed to happen and I am one of countless others,” he says. “I want it to be known, there are missteps and failures that I see as items that could have helped many along the way.”

Sukle was one of the first restaurant owners to temporarily close his restaurants in early March once the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the area. He voluntarily shut down days before Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo mandated it, because he believed it was the right thing to do for both his staff and guests’ safety. He was forced to lay off employees and started an employee relief GoFundMe campaign for them even before he knew the Payment Protection Program (PPP) could be activated.

After the temporary closures and layoffs, he and other business owners were troubled when their monthly sales tax was still due at the end of that devastating month. They suffered sudden major profit losses due to unforeseen closure. “Twelve days passed and our sales tax was still due and that was a big deal for me,” Sukle says. “Ten to twelve days of being open at Oberlin or birch, that’s tens of thousands of dollars. For that cash flow to all of a sudden be halted and dry up, and for the state to still see it fit to take that money is what spurned me to reopen.”

He chose to launch takeout through birch at first, then reopened Oberlin for takeout. Once outdoor dining was allowed, he began planning outdoor patios for both locations, which involved getting his landlord to secure the use of the sidewalks and parking spaces and creating huge planters to section off the areas. Sukle did apply for a Restore RI grant thanks to expertise from his bookkeeper and accountant but says the $15,000 didn’t really cover that much. “It feels like getting an umbrella in a hurricane,” he says.

Sukle opted for takeout and outdoor dining, but avoided reopening the dining room for staff safety reasons. “You are allowed to go indoors or not, and it’s your choice as the restaurant. To leave it up to the small business owners leaves us with this moral gray area,” he says. “Like are you going to do the thing that’s right, and healthy and safe? Or are you going to do something to stay in business? The fact that that’s left up to us without any real guidance is the real thing that angers me.”

Sukle did not plan to open birch indoors because of health and safety concerns due to the airborne nature of Covid-19, but he says even if he did, the restaurant was not financially strong enough to handle another major shift in restrictions. Sukle is reeling over closing it, but he’s also using it as a teaching moment, one where he’s advocating that the restaurant industry needs to change.

There are exploitative labor tactics that go into any restaurant, but more so in fine dining, he says. His goal was to be able to provide more accessible high-end meals with a $49 four-course tasting menu, but he says that that affordability came with a price. “Most restaurants, especially fine dining have exploitative practices that have become the norm in our industry [not being paid enough or health insurance as a luxury],” he says, “looking back on our time at birch fondly also comes with the ability/need for hindsight and to acknowledge these ‘norms’ are not okay and we need to lay the groundwork for real change and new norms in our industry going forward.”

He says he learned how to become a restaurant owner, and that he needed to prioritize staff and the restaurant’s local following over national recognition. “I wanted it to be the anti-fine dining restaurant and my ego was on a national and international scale, which lacked focus,” Sukle says. “Birch initially was about cooking our hearts out and everything else came second and that needed to change”

In the beginning, it was just he and Heidi and a team of five running birch, which made the more affordable menu prices possible. But when they added a second restaurant, they needed more help. “When I opened Oberlin, it meant me leaving birch on the day to day, which required more staff on a fine dining budget, which is thin,” he says. “The fact that a chef/owner couldn’t be involved with the amount of staff that was required to inject into birch…looking back on it, that required a lot of people. I wanted to keep pushing that this is affordable fine dining.”

Sukle hoped that all walks of life would be able to come to birch and eat, but he also wanted to be able to pay his staff what they deserved to make. “There has to be a change. A lot of people read about putting your staff and employees first, but actually doing that is a completely different level,” he says. “It’s raising prices to be what they are supposed to be, it’s raising minimum wage across the whole state so people can actually afford to go out and not just alienating people and peddling the luxury to those who can afford it.”

While birch may be closing its doors, Oberlin will continue with its more casual atmosphere, offering outdoor dining and takeout. “I am very fortunate to have Oberlin, and what Oberlin is doing now is so much more employee-centric,” he says, noting that they’ve been able to retain most of the team. He is taking it day by day and trying to figure out a plan for winter. “We might have to adapt. We might have to add lunch. We might have to add other options so we can survive or close for the winter, and that’s a reality,” he says. “I am not going to go bankrupt trying to keep a place open.”

If we want our favorite restaurants, like Oberlin, to survive the pandemic, diners need to make every effort to support them now. “If you can go out and get takeout, do it, but it also matters how you vote,” Sukle says. “Find progressive candidates who want to increase minimum wage, who want to encourage universal healthcare. It’s crazy to me how it falls on the restaurant owner and its guests.”

As he reflects back on the closing of birch, he wants to focus on the positives, not the obituary. Sukle says he is not the same person he was when he opened birch, but he may be a better person because of it.

“I was twenty-seven and I wish everyone the opportunity to create and destroy in their twenties. Everyone deserves and should be given the chance to go out on their own at that very malleable age and become who they are,” he says. “It made me who I am as a business owner and helped me choose how I prioritize now.”

birch, 200 Washington St., Providence, 401-272-3105, birchrestaurant.com

FROM THE ARCHIVES

Food Critic Karen Deutsch’s review of birch from 2013

Coming Soon: birch

How to Help Rhode Island Restaurants With Relief

Check Please: The True Cost of Dining Out in RI

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