Not only is Michelle Durpetti of Michelle Durpetti Events an event planner, but she also has two family restaurants and a wedding venue to manage while dealing with the way COVID-19 has challenged the hospitality industry. She’s also spent these last weeks staying in touch with her family members who live in Italy, and making sure her father – who has interstitial lung disease and is therefore in the high-risk group – is safe and healthy. With so many parts of her world affected by the pandemic, Michelle shares her story with us on how she’s coping with the effects of Coronavirus on her life, her family in the US and Italy, and her business – all while doing her very best to stay positive and help her clients do the same.
Read on for Michelle Durpetti’s story, which may help inspire you – whether you’re a bride, groom, or wedding professional – to continue staying informed and hopeful throughout this worldwide pandemic that’s affecting and uniting human beings around the world.
Saturday, March 14th was the last day my life felt somewhat normal. I say “somewhat” because the writing was already on the wall, and the pending chaos was looming in the air like cigar smoke when it curls and just sits.
I am a third-generation restaurateur and entrepreneur. My grandfather Gene started our first restaurant in 1941. Five years ago, we opened our second location and also have an event and wedding venue. In addition to being a managing partner of all things Gene & Georgetti, I have owned and operated my own event and wedding planning company, Michelle Durpetti Events, for about the last 13 years. I am based in Chicago but have had the privilege of producing weddings and events in Hawaii, Boston, Miami, and New York, as well as outside of the country in Mexico and Italy.
I am also an amateur equestrian, an only child to two incredible parents, and married to an incredibly talented wedding photographer [Collin Pierson of Collin Pierson Photography] who helps me run the restaurants in addition to running his own business. Another thing that is really important to note is that I am also of Italian descent. My family lives in Lucca, a quaint medieval town in Tuscany about an hour from Florence. My grandfather Gene, who I mentioned earlier, loved returning to Italy whenever possible. I went for the first time at six years old. I was given the incredible opportunity to make my holy communion there, because my grandmother's cousin was a priest. I eventually attended university in Florence. I met some of my very best friends in Florence at that time in my life, and I am forever leaving my heart in that beautiful Renaissance city home to some of Western civilization’s most brilliant contributors.
When it became apparent that Coronavirus was a grave thing in Italy, I sent some texts and called my loved ones but did not really think much of it in terms of how it would directly impact my clients, businesses, and personal life. I took it entirely too casual until my friend Sara said in conversation, “Be careful Michelle, and be prepared because this is coming to you...” Something worth noting – Sara is a pharmacist in Italy and still considered essential. She is working 14-hour days working tirelessly to make sure people have access to prescription medication that they need to maintain their health, and she is at risk every day. Gradually I started going from normal check-ins with loved ones there to hourly communication via WhatsApp. Sara is in Emilia Romagna now, which was rapidly becoming one of the more impacted parts of Italy.
I am lucky because I speak Italian fluently, so I can watch the news and read it too. I’ve done this for years to keep in perpetual practice with a language that I love. Learning it was in fact an homage to my grandfather Gene, who I lost very young, and this skill has helped me cultivate incredible friendships, grow meaningful relationships with my cousins, and in my career, plan weddings and events in Italy. The reports coming out of Italy were upsetting – unsettling even. But I never once thought I’d be where I am today, living through a waking nightmare that hits me from every possible angle. For some reason initially, it did not hit home. That quickly changed when I heard Sara giving me valuable insight and advice on how to protect my dad, who lives with interstitial lung disease.
I was in Wellington, Florida, that last normal week of life. My horses and I were finishing a week of competition, and I had a trip home planned for Monday, March 9th. My horses are also a grand love and an immense privilege in my life. They are also a huge responsibility, and I have learned how to balance all that I consider a privilege in my life: my wedding clients, the restaurants, and the horses with mindful care and a lot of communication and organization.
Also worth noting: I produced an incredible wedding in Umbria last September. On October 4th, I arrived home and was walking on air because it was truly gorgeous. What a dream it is to speak Italian and produce weddings. I loved it. We landed late at night; I was exhausted. The next morning at 6AM, our 77-year-old steakhouse had a grease fire that has had us closed now for over six months, so we were already down our biggest-grossing restaurant, which is also our original location that opened in 1941. We have been working diligently, fervently even, to get this place open. Our target date was March 26th.
When the realities of COVD-19 really started to arrive at my door, I realized right away that this Coronavirus has no preferences or biases. It impacts everyone. It was the 15th-ish, maybe? We were 10 days out from an opening that was just not happening. And then, Tuesday of that week: 80% drop in business. People were refraining from going out. Rumors were swirling like crazy and mixed messages were everywhere. I was fortunate enough to have Isabelli Media Relations as a part of my crisis management team, who began educating me on what fellow restaurants were experiencing. I immediately sat down with our managers and chefs.
We increased our delivery range on DoorDash, we signed up for GrubHub, and we began offering phone-in ordering with curbside pickup, so people could get food brought right to their cars – a much safer option than dining in restaurants at that time. That week the governor in Illinois took decisive action and ordered the closing of restaurants throughout the state in an effort to contain the spread of this terrible virus, and because public health is our main concern, we all prepared ourselves for being a carry-out and delivery location. While we did pivot to this rather quickly, the options have been slow in terms of sales. We had to make the difficult decision to lay off employees, allowing them to apply for unemployment and allowing us to safeguard our 78-year-old brand so that when this passes, everyone has a job and home for which to return. We have begun a Go-Fund-Me account for those employees as well.
Despite everything happening, I made sure to keep in touch with our wedding clients – to encourage them to think about alternate dates. We are in constant communication with fellow industry creatives in an ongoing effort to preserve what is left of the events industry. Like restaurants, it has been decimated. Many are out of work, with no income, and are still working to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of couples across the country who have been placed in absolute upheaval with their weddings. I am so lucky to work with vendors who do not even let joblessness impact their efforts to help clients, and I am equally as fortunate to have clients who have been kind, calm, and solution oriented.
In my lifetime, I never expected to experience something like this; I don't think anyone did. As this unfolds, I feel that I am in such an unusual position, as I am watching our beloved restaurant brand fight for survival. I am doing my utmost with my team at my planning company to comfort my couples and provide them with the most current information on how the industry is reacting and adapting to this, so that they may make good decisions for their weddings. I am in contact with my loved ones in Italy every day, waiting to hear from them and have them check in to know that they are still okay.
My dear friend Sara still goes to work every day at great risk. My cousin Maurizio is a butcher and still working as well, again at great risk. I don't sleep much at night, and I spend my days on the phone with as many experts, advisors, and colleagues as much as I can to continue to stay educated, calm, and focused. I feel at times like these that concise and clear information makes a huge difference. I try to keep our managers and chefs calm. Our Chef Cristiano Bassani is from Bergamo, the most impacted place in Italy, and we have had conversations that include tears on both sides. It is heart-wrenching.
My parents, who I mentioned earlier, are also a concern. My father has interstitial lung disease and uses oxygen. He lives on immunosuppressants every day, for the last seven years, because after an idiopathic infection caused traumatic lung injury, leaving him in a coma for nine days (from which he recovered, miraculously), he was left with severe scar tissue in his lungs. His immune system attacks that scar tissue, hence the suppressants. He has been sequestered in his house for more than a month with my mother caring for him. My father is one of the most resilient, tenacious human beings that I know, but as I mentioned before, this virus has no preferences, and in fact hits people like my father that much harder. The idea of him coming into contact with this has actually given me nightmares.
And yet with all of this, I don’t lose hope and I don’t lose focus – mainly because I can’t. I have employees in two restaurants, a venue, clients, and my parents to consider. For better or for worse, I am the one responsible for all of these facets to our lives. I think it has been unbelievable to experience customers and industry friends showing immense support for the restaurants by ordering and purchasing gift cards. Our regular customers are showing up daily, ordering, sharing on social media, and texting their support.
My dear friend Chris is also our Events Director at the Estate, and he and my husband have been immense support. Our managers and chefs come in every day and dedicate themselves to anything and everything that they can to keep everything going. And when people come to me for that same support that I sometimes ask of them, I tell them the following: The building that our restaurant in Chicago is in was built in 1874, with scraps of wood from the Chicago fire. My grandfather Gene and his partner Georgetti opened that location in 1941 at a time of war. Six months ago, we experienced a fire that impacted the very heart of our livelihood and brand. So as a family, we know a thing or two about the importance of resilience. I now call on that daily as a reminder to keep going and keep hoping for the state and federal governments to offer aid to the industries and businesses owners like us who so desperately need it right now.
Some of my best memories have occurred in restaurants. From my own restaurants, to favorites in Chicago, to my favorites in Florence, Italy, beautiful meals are something my family treasures. I will not give up on the hope that I will return to all of those places in the future and enjoy meals. I will continue to plan weddings for clients as soon as I am able. I will return to my ancestral home, to my beloved Tuscany and cities of Lucca and Florence, and hug my loved ones. And in the meantime, I will do my utmost to shelter in place, to be kind to others knowing everyone is so impacted by this, and to lead my teams through this and make sure that this legacy survives. As a Renaissance art history major, I keep thinking about that time period and how full of genius it was – the explosion of contributions that shaped Western civilization, from Michelangelo to Donatello to Botticelli and everyone in between. I remember that before that golden era of accomplishment in the arts, architecture, education, literature, and everywhere else, there was the Middle Ages – also referred to as the Dark Ages by some – and look at what followed.
So in closing, I lean on history, on my loved ones, and my colleagues, and I call on our state and federal lawmakers to do their utmost to help us navigate through this unprecedented time. I shelter in place, I send my love to the world, I send my heart to Italy. I do my job and adapt to the new normal that I face every day, but I do not lose hope. In fact, I have such hope that after six months of closure, we opened our Chicago restaurant location. While it was not the grand opening we planned for, this was almost more important because we knew our brand has been one that people have relied on for over 78 years. We thought that opening at this time might provide a sense of optimism to many who so desperately needed it. In my family, we show our love through four generations of hospitality. From planning weddings to our restaurants to our venue, my entire life has been about providing our clients and customers a way to celebrate milestone moments, seek comfort in the familiarity, value, and deliciousness of our food, and be a part of the hospitality industry that I love so much.
Our new normal is one we’re adapting to every single day. Our venue and second restaurant location are currently closed, yet we remain in contact with all of our customers and clients. We have a small team working tirelessly in our open restaurant providing delivery and takeout in an effort to show our love to Chicago the only way we know how – from our kitchen.