‘We are emotionally drained’: Restaurateurs consider the possibility of another economic shutdown

"Without the PPP funds available or any kind of bailout or economic relief, there’s just no way to pay the workers," said Joe Cassinelli, owner of the Alpine Restaurant Group.

Bessie King at Villa Mexico Cafe
Villa Mexico Cafe's Bessie King said that they are "emotionally drained." –Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

For restaurateurs across Massachusetts, operating during a pandemic has required the ability to constantly adjust to state guidelines.

An initial shutdown in March closed restaurants for dine-in service, prompting many businesses to launch takeout or delivery for the first time. A series of rolled out phases slowly brought restaurants back but left bars shuttered, and subsequently prompted a new rule that only allowed alcohol to be sold if accompanied by food prepared on-site. The latest adjustment? On Nov. 2, Gov. Charlie Baker mandated that restaurants must stop providing table service at 9:30 p.m.

But there may be more changes on the horizon. Earlier this week, Mayor Marty Walsh brought up the possibility of another economic shutdown as the city’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests increased to 9.6 percent during the week of Nov. 12.

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“I don’t want to be standing in front of this podium three weeks from now shutting down restaurants and retail shops and businesses and sports and schools and everything that we’ve done,” Walsh said at a press conference Tuesday. “We don’t want to go backwards.”

The prospect of another shutdown has prompted a range of reactions among restaurant chefs and owners in and around Boston.

Emily Vena and Rachel Trudel opened Cobble, a BYOB restaurant in Brookline, in early September, offering diners a chance to eat a multi-course meal within a dining room that maxed out at 12 seats. It seemed like the best-case scenario for indoor dining during the pandemic: a 500-square-foot space that encouraged socially distanced dining with people you know.

Now, Vena and Trudel are considering what a second shutdown might look like for the restaurant industry.

“If restaurants were to shut down and we were forced to shutter Cobble, we will absolutely pivot back to offering Cobble at Home,” Trudel told Boston.com, referencing the takeout branch of Cobble. “With so many amazing and established restaurants in the area, however, we can only assume that it’s going to take some extra creativity on our part to compete for space at the dinner table.”

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While some operators in the restaurant industry have likely planned for every scenario, others don’t have the emotional capacity right now to play “what if.”

“We take [Walsh’s] comments with a grain of salt,” said Bessie King, who runs Villa Mexico Cafe in downtown Boston with her mother, Julie King. “At this point, it’s been eight months of the same, and sincerely we are emotionally drained. Not just physically tired and economically exhausted, but emotionally we are drained.”

Still, King said that if another shutdown were to take place, the restaurant would have to once again rely heavily on takeout and delivery.

“We are going to need special parking spot assignments from the city and any other city across the state,” she said. “We need to ensure that they’re prepared to grant us both permits. For example, we have over $300 of [parking] tickets in one car and $400 of tickets in my mom’s car. It’s almost very tongue-and-cheek, slap to the face — oh yeah, do your own delivery, but you still need to be given tickets during the pandemic.”

Anthony Caldwell, chef and owner of Dorchester’s 50Kitchen, which opened in February, is taking a more go-with-the-flow approach, sharing that he’s living things day by day.

“If the mayor or the governor decides to shut down the city or the state, would that hurt the industry?” he said. “Of course it would. But then we have takeout — we have Grubhub, we have Uber Eats, we have DoorDash, we have Caviar, so I guess it would hurt the restaurants that are doing fine dining or the more upscale cuisine where carry-out doesn’t make sense for them.”

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Caldwell said his food, a fusion of Southern American and Asian American cuisine, is better suited to focus on takeout. He shared that currently 70 percent of 50Kitchen’s customers order takeout from his restaurant, while 30 percent dine in.

Arguably the most immediate impact of a second shutdown would be the reduction of staff, particularly those in the front of house who serve dine-in customers.

“I trust that the mayor and the governor are studying how the virus is spreading, and in other comments have been pretty clear that it’s through gatherings and not at school or not in restaurants,” Ana Sortun, chef-owner at Oleana, Sofra Bakery & Cafe, and Sarma, shared in an e-mail. “However, it seems like a good threat to folks and motivation to cooperate. But if we got shut down, we would need to lay off most of our service staff. All of our servers.”

Joe Cassinelli, owner of the Alpine Restaurant Group, said that a second shutdown without the availability of the Paycheck Protection Program, which closed on August 8, would inevitably mean layoffs.

“Without the PPP funds available or any kind of bailout or economic relief, there’s just no way to pay the workers,” Cassinelli said. “If they’re going to shut us down, that’s fine, but they need to give us aid and they need to protect us. … Shutting us down means that we’re laying people off. Most of the people working have used up their unemployment. So without an extension of the employment, you’re really going to feel it this time.”

He said that for the restaurant owners who have purchased heaters, tents, and igloos, the money they’ve spent on winterizing their space is now gone. Instead, Cassinelli said, the restaurant industry continues to wait on help from the government.

“What’s the government going to do to step in and help all those people — where’s the help?” he asked. “I feel like shutting us down and giving us protection from creditors and landlords and giving us funds to help us get through the winter is a perfectly suitable situation. Keeping us open with two hands tied behind our back and our shoelaces tied together puts us in an impossible situation.”

King, at Villa Mexico Cafe, is also waiting — but said that she will believe in government assistance when she sees it.

“I would rather have the realistic answer and know what I’m up against than be given false hope and continue hearing ‘we’re going to help you, we’re going to help you,'” she said. “I’d rather have the realistic cutthroat reply of ‘yes, we’re going to shut down and this is what we’re facing’ than Band-Aid answers and solutions.”


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