In February 2019, chef Ari Miller opened Musi BYOB on the corner of Morris and Front Street in Pennsport, turning the tiny space into an unpretentious restaurant focused on what Miller called “relationship cuisine.” There, you could eat buttered noodles, tortellini in brodo, and two-toned gazpacho, all made with local ingredients sourced from other small businesses just like Musi’s and served in a space that felt a little like someone’s home. Not long after it opened, Musi gained national recognition and acclaim for its dinner service as well as its pandemic cheesesteak pop-up, Frizwit.
But as has been the case for countless other restaurants across Philly and the world, the fallout from two years under a global pandemic was hard on Musi. Combined with the specific challenge of running the restaurant as a BYOB (most restaurants, especially in Pennsylvania, make a significant portion of their profits from alcohol sales), Musi struggled to stay afloat. This week, a little under four years after they opened, Miller and co-owner Nicole Suanlarm team announced that the restaurant will be closing for good.
“It’s been months and months of deliberation, preparing for the possibility of this scenario,” Miller says. “Look, we struggled to make payroll a couple of times. At the end of the day, that’s it.” Including Miller, Musi has a team of six people — director of operations Nora Vaughan, sous chef Emily Horner, cook and creative director Ariel Tobing, and servers Kris Aman and Leo Dowd — so when the restaurant began struggling financially, Miller says the writing was on the wall. “We start all our employees at $15 an hour and we’re BYO,” Miller says. “For all intents and purposes, what that creates is — best case scenario — we’re a nonprofit.” It was only fair to his talented staff, Miller says, to allow them to move on to other opportunities.
“There’s a frustrating aspect that I wont get to see how this current group of people grows professionally because they’re phenomenal. They’ll continue to be phenomenal elsewhere,” Miller says of his staff. “It befits talent like that to be in an environment that is able to see it flourish and foster it.”
Though Musi was not immune to the inflation and rising food costs that have defined the past two years, Miller says they were already paying a premium on their ingredients because it was in the restaurant’s DNA to support local, non-industrial producers like Primal Supply, Lancaster Farm Fresh, and Third Wheel Cheese. But when the restaurant’s fridge went down, there was hardly enough in the coffers to fix it.
While Miller says that it’s “hard for me to wrap my head around anything past the closing itself,” he is focused on being a resource for his staff as they take on their next positions. He says he wants to help them “find places that are good and healthy and valuable for them to operate [in] professionally.”
Musi reservations will be open to the public until October 15, and the restaurant will continue to hold Sunday Frizwit pop-ups through October 9. After that, Miller is going to play everything by ear, travel for a bit, and “take a few moments to breathe and process.” But as he waits out his next move, he encourages diners to continue to support the places they love.
“Everyone knows the mantra of the razor-thin margins of a restaurant,” Miller says. “In Philly, those razor-thin margins for a BYO that’s trying to pay its employees well? Those places need to be supported. The places that are buying and promoting other small businesses at the same time — it’s so important that those are the places that get visited.” It’s no longer a casual identity that you support small business, Miller says. You have to do it.