Italian cuisine with a heart of gold

Matt Leum never intended to open what he calls a “groceraunt,” yet that’s exactly what he did when his business plan was sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 16, he closed escrow on Roma’s Ristorante Italiano – the same day San Francisco prohibited indoor and outdoor dining.

Originally, Roma’s was to be a 49-seat restaurant in a vibrant San Francisco district, but he had to change everything on the spot. Leum wasn’t eligible for government assistance because the business had no history. So, he painted, refurbished floors and waited for July when on-site dining was supposed to resume. Instead, the ban was extended indefinitely.

“So, I turned it into an Italian grocery with a full take-out menu,” says Leum. “On August 1, we opened with great fanfare! We had a rainbow ribbon cutting ceremony on opening day.”

The name Roma has special significance. His friend of over 30 years is Sister Roma, one of the famed Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “I called her up said I’d name it after her,” says Leum. “Sister Roma is an icon in this city. She emcees every gay pride weekend and does amazing outreach for charity, raising millions of dollars for good causes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but with that decision, I harnessed the entire LGBTQ+ community – and they came out in force!”

Currently, Leum has two employees: a manager and a chef. Aside from the gourmet Italian grocery store products, Roma offers a to-go menu that includes soups, salads and pastas (the mushroom tagliatelle is their biggest seller).

Still, making it financially is a major struggle. To stay afloat, he uses a credit card – with considerable communication and charm.

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What was the beginning of your business like?

I was in technology recruiting and had never opened a restaurant before. So, I called on to my friend, Ryn Longmaid (who was Don Johnson’s private chef), for guidance. I’ve been really blessed to have the right people around me. One helped me figure out how to transition to an Italian grocery store, and we spent a lot of time creating an inventory of hard-to-find, beautiful goods – from capers to cookies.

Because I don’t carry around the baggage of having owned a restaurant before COVID, I’m spared the drama of missing the past. This is just how it is for me and I’m going with it. That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. I’ve cried a lot. I’m not usually the one to ask for help, I give it. But my friends have come out of the woodwork. I get choked up thinking about it.

Did any costs catch you off guard?

Well, yeah – everything in the entire store! I’m the son of a grocer, but I didn’t expect to become one.

Instead of a restaurant, I created a really fancy place with imported items and a huge wine selection. Stocking it cost me about $12,000; money I didn’t plan on spending. I also have an avalanche of deferred expenses that I’ll have to pay in the future, like back rent. I didn’t plan for any of this – it was all a surprise.

And you’ve been using credit cards for the business?

Are you kidding? The cover of my credit card is peeling off! Seriously, the first layer of it is curled from all that swiping.

I use my credit card for everything, including the entire grocery stock. I charge recurring costs too, such as my alarm company, garbage and recycling, inventory. Everything I can pay with the card, I do.

When I set up my business, I went to my local Chase branch. My banker is phenomenal, he helped me set up a Chase Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card and a business debit card.

See related: Business debit cards vs. business credit cards

You must be accumulating a lot of rewards. How are you using them?

Honestly, I haven’t been paying attention to that part of the account; I just use the card. I’m a savvy businessman, but there are things I want to worry about and things that I don’t. Right now, I’m not thinking about the terms of my credit card, but I understand it’s a good one!

Are you debt-free or leveraged?

Definitely leveraged. I took out a loan to buy the restaurant, so I have a large debt there. I haven’t paid my gas and electric bill in four months and owe them about $6,000. I have invoices to pay for last month. Right now, I’m maxed out with my credit card, but I do pay it down when I can.

A ball of debt is sitting on top of a hill and it’s about to roll down on me, but it’s not making me lose sleep. I’ll figure this out.

Do you have any regrets?

I’m proud of every decision I’ve made so far. I haven’t said that out loud before and it’s making me emotional! I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. It’s helped me give back to the community. I just delivered 30 meals to a women and children’s shelter, that someone bought at full price. We are all working together during this tough time.

What are your plans for the business?

Sadly, the restaurant next door to me closed a couple months ago. They had an amazing business before COVID. My long-term plan is to open the restaurant I planned in this space, then use that space as the grocery store and to open a real Italian deli. Then I’ll have two businesses!

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One sent me a check for $10,000, another sent me $1,000. It has to be organic, though, built on the foundation you’ve already created. When people needed help, I gave it, and connected a lot of people to each other. I participated in hundreds of Facebook fundraisers. Now, I’m relying on my network that I spent a lifetime developing. I never expected to ask for anything back, but now that I am, they’re going gangbusters.

Keep up the good will, too. You’ll be so glad you did. For example, Sister Roma and I deliver meals to firehouses. One day, a station had someone on their team die in a training session, leaving behind a wife and two small children. What was supposed to be a fun event turned into something much more important. They were so appreciative for the delivery. It was a great moment, and I don’t think any of us will forget it.

Can you share what you learned about borrowing money along the way?

I’ve learned how to juggle bills successfully. When you can’t pay all your creditors, put them all in front of you. Ask yourself which are most necessary so your business won’t be shut down. If one will put a lien on your property, pay that. Prioritize, then negotiate.

I stay in touch with all my creditors. I never ignore them. If I can’t pay, I call. They often thank me for explaining and go out of their way to help me find a solution.

Don’t forget that you owe those people. They provided you with a service or loaned you money. You have to communicate. One food company vendor called for payment and I said, “I adore you!” And he said he had never heard that before. I paid him with a credit card when I could. Trust me, they understand the times we’re living in. You can have a personal relationship with almost any company. When you do, the results can be amazing.


Same Walker