The Other Columbus: It's not me, Valter's, it's you
Valter Veliu, owner and chef of Valter’s at the Maennerchor, recently posted several Facebook videos in response to not being able to be open for regular dine-in service. He was frustrated with the “stay at home” orders and concerned that his business might not survive being closed for so long, which puts him in the same boat as every other business owner in the country right now.
Veliu’s restaurant has appeared several times in my columns, but more, I talked this business up in my actual life. The food is a singular delight to eat in a town saturated with restaurants. The Rhein Trio bratwurst sampler is powerful and balanced, especially when it comes behind the 4 Polish Brothers, an appetizer of pierogies with onion, green peppers, mushrooms, sauerkraut and pork belly. The Matterhorn short rib burger should run for mayor. I patronized Valter’s in every sense of the word, and sent many people to experience it.
Columbus has no identifiable cuisine, so the pinnacle of any relationship I have with a local eatery is the moment when I suggest that a given restaurant or cook is capable of generating a unique, Columbus-based dish. If I express the belief that a given restaurant has the ability to create an as-yet-unknown staple, it means their menu is not only outstanding, but singularly so. For several years I have mentioned Valter’s at the Maennerchor as a venue capable of such a feat.
And then I watched his videos.
There is an arcto the Facebook videos, which Veliu shot himself between April 27 and May 1, that, taken collectively, would be funny if it didn’t feel so much like a break-up. At first, he is defiant. He is filming at his restaurant, stating he will be open on May 1, telling us where tables will be for distancing purposes, and how he will open whether he’s approved or not. He is a man with a plan. In the second video — shot 15 minutes later — he takes things a step further by conflating the very legal choice of smoking with the very state-ordered safety precaution of not allowing dine-in at restaurants.
“It’s just smoking," he said. "When you see on a pack that you buy, it says just don’t smoke. If you’re a growing adult, you smoke, you go to hell, or whatever you want to do . The same thing with my restaurant. If you don’t agree, just don’t come to my restaurant. ...You’re a growing adult. You decide.”
This is where I became less concerned for the business I had been trumpeting for years and more concerned with Veliu's motivations. He was starting to veer into territory with which I was familiar, platforms that smack of dismissive statistic juggling to justify a questionable decision.
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April 29 is when the gloves came off. Veliu appeared on a television news program, proclaiming once again that he was opening on May 1 for modified dine-in service, and that he did not care about the consequences. He did not care if the state took his liquor license or put him in jail. Even at this point, I thought it an unwise course of action, but one that came from a relatable place of fiscal desperation. It is a gut-wrenching thing to watch your dream wither on the vine, able to work but not allowed to.
The kicker for me came in his fourth video, shot at home shortly after his television taping, flush with bravado and what was, in Veliu’s mind, perfectly reasonable math.
“Why don’t you cut off tobacco, save lives," he said. "No thank you. You got no argument on that.”
Later he added,“If you were about saving lives … on the freeway you will do 30 miles per hour. ... Why don’t you actually change those speed limits? Because people have to leave. People have to go somewhere. They have to continue their life. Great argument right?”
No, Valter, it’s not a great argument.
At this point we had arrived decisively in the land of AR-15 logic and Statehouse invasions, tossing park rangers in lakes for trying to break up crowds and menacing doctors at their homes. In this place, where the inequities of power and race and class are so apparent as to be actionable, we can no longer simply agree to disagree. We have to break-up.
Any argument against the reasonable safety of your fellow citizens is an exercise in selfishness. That’s fine if you want to debate about how you vote, but that’s not what this is. This is the kind of behavior that spikes infection rates, which could kill people. And a lot of the people dying look like me. I cannot divorce that fact from the selfish act in front of me.
I get that you want your business to survive. I wish you didn’t want it to do so at the expense of my actual survival. I own a business that relies on audiences and ticket sales and the value-add of well-wrought events. But I don’t want to do any of those things so long as the curve in Franklin County still has a bend in it.
Because of quarantine, I have to find other ways to fulfill my mission statement, to stay relevant in a world constantly distracted by fearful survival. That is what I have to do as a business owner. But as a citizen who cares about the next person over, I want to contribute in ways that make people respect and trust my business, not that fly in the face of science, common sense and personal safety. I care about people more than I care about my business, and I understand that if people know that, they will support my business even now.
James Baldwin famously said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” If you want to open a business against an order of the state, I don’t take that personal. But when you don’t care about how your business contributes to the possible infection of your fellow citizens, how it maintains a flattened bell curve, all while using the language and logic of deplorable people who make no secret of their hateful agendas and for whom actual democracy is never a bullet item, I take that personal.
Owning a business for most is less like a job and more like a dream with a work-ethic lining. I know running my business is like that: everything I wanted and more than I asked for. What’s more, I don’t get to cook on my job, which would be a perfect distillation of my loves if I could swing a pan worthy of my palate. I imagine his business is a lot like that for him. His passion is clear. His love of cooking comes through in the food that he serves. But something else came through in his numerous videos, and that is a mission by which I cannot abide.
Watching Veliu’s last video recorded on the morning of May 1, I was reminded of the truly great Mike Tyson quote: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” The chef shared that he had talked to his lawyers and that he was going to follow their advice and not resume dine-in service, largely for fear of losing the liquor license he was perfectly willing to lose two days prior.
I imagine that he caught a lot of social media drag, that he was called every name in the book, and that people were posting that they would never go to his restaurant even when it was safe to do so in the future. According to him, he read every comment and post, and if that’s true, I’m sure that ended up being one long, dark night of the soul. He looked it. All of the bluster he had a few days before was gone, and the apologies were spilling out quick. By May 5 he was back on television, apologizing profusely to the city for what was being treated as a breakdown of desperation.
I’m not one for kicking someone when they’re down, but I will point out that we condemn people for acts done in desperation all of the time. As I type this, too few people are motivated to condemnthe way jails and detention centers are handling the pandemic because, to most of us, the conditions of desperation that put many of those people behind bars in the first place aredifferent than monied desperation, or political desperation, or white desperation. To many of us, the fact that COVID-19 is ripping through prisons is a form of natural order justice.
A week ago Veliu was supposedly willing to go into those same prisons because he wasn’t allowed to open his business, was still calling this virus “the flu,” was questioning the value of bothering to save any lives so long as we still get to drive cars at 65 miles per hour and smoke cigarettes while doing so.
Forgive me if I don’t extend him every sympathy in this moment. You don’t get to pick the statistics that apply to your situation and ignore the ones that put my life in danger. COVID-19 isn’t a matter of opinion. Some of us are fortunate to not know anyone affected by the disease, or have to watch a loved one’s chests heaving for air. His notion that if I don’t like his rules that I can just not come is spot-on. I don’t usually go where my health is not a consideration, and I don't make it a habit to spend my money with someone who does not see my life as more important than his business.
It is unfortunate that things have come to this, and yet, I appreciate knowing how I am seen. It is important not to confuse commerce with caring, and it is good to truly understand how committed businesses are to being a healthy part of this city, and where those lines are drawn.
Maybe we’ll see each other again. I don’t know. Sometimes a break-up is a good thing. I hate that I have to shuffle this restaurant out of my personal rotation and remove it from further consideration as a cultural light. You cannot be the things I believe a cultural institution should be and put your bottom line over the well-being of the citizens you serve. No short-rib burger is worth that.