Restaurants

Not giving up: This is how hard restaurants fought to survive and give back in 2020

From continuous pivots to feeding frontline workers, local restaurants gave it their all in 2020.

Boston dining in 2020
Empty outdoor dining around Haymarket area. Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)

The message has been the same throughout the pandemic, but it bears repeating: In the past nine months, the Massachusetts restaurant industry has suffered a horrific blow. While a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association shared that at least 17 percent of eating and drinking establishments have closed across the country as of December 1, nearly a quarter of restaurants in Massachusetts haven’t reopened since the state shutdown. Amid rollbacks and new restrictions, industry leaders have repeatedly stressed the vital need for federal relief. Astoundingly, it hasn’t come. Instead, winter has arrived — and with it, a continued wave of closures and hibernations.

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If all this makes you want to crawl under your covers and hide out until 2021, it would be understandable. But that’s the last thing restaurants did this year: They fought to stay open, turning into takeout and delivery establishments on a dime and advocating tirelessly for government assistance. I found hope in stories of restaurants transforming their storefronts into art projects for local kids, in distilleries that began making hand sanitizer, and in chefs who devoted their time to delivering meals to frontline workers.

While we continue to support our local restaurants by ordering takeout, buying gift cards, and contacting our local representatives to ask for additional government relief, we should also take a moment to recognize all the ways in which restaurants fought for survival this year while simultaneously giving back to their community.

They fed first responders.

The immeasurable pressure that health professionals faced as the pandemic reared its ugly head became swiftly apparent as we heard stories of over-crowded hospitals and exhausted first responders. Despite their own adversity, countless restaurants immediately jumped in to help, setting up makeshift catering operations in their own kitchens and directing guests to buy takeout meals for health care workers on their websites. 

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The stories of generosity kept coming in: Tracy Chang (PAGU), Ken Oringer (Little Donkey, Toro, Uni, Coppa), and Natalie Guo launched Off Their Plate, feeding frontline workers and keeping restaurant workers employed; the organization has since raised almost $7 million. Anna’s Taqueria added “Hero Meals” to their menu, encouraging diners to buy a meal for hospital workers. The Farmacy Cafe founded Frontline Smoothies, a campaign that delivered nutrient-rich smoothies to hospitals around the region. Roxy’s gave customers the opportunity to purchase Feed Our Front Line packages, supplying health care workers with hot meals. To see so many restaurants jumping in to help while their own businesses floundered is a glimpse into what we might lose if the industry doesn’t receive additional help soon.

They took care of their own communities, too.

They had to, really. In the immediate days after the shutdown, restaurants swiftly set up Venmo accounts to help support their employees and colleagues. Bartender Naomi Levy launched the Camberville Hospitality Fund for Cambridge and Somerville area out-of-work bartenders, while the folks at Project Paulie delivered over 2,500 lasagna dinners to Massachusetts and Rhode Island industry workers. PAGU’s Chang and Mei Mei’s Irene Li helped start Project Restore Us, employing essential workers to package and deliver groceries to the families of other essential workers; they recently relaunched their fundraising efforts, with the goal of delivering one month of groceries to 200 families this winter.

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Boston’s Black-owned restaurants and bars were uniquely impacted by COVID-19, as the pandemic has disproportionately affected members of their own communities. Nia Grace of Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen and Royal C. Smith of District 7 Tavern founded the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition, launching Boston Black Restaurant Month and installing temporary beer gardens at Black-owned restaurants. Massachusetts Restaurants United went to bat for their local industry, too, forming a coalition of independent restaurants that advocated for economic recovery alongside the Independent Restaurant Coalition. In short: Restaurants fought for themselves when it seemed no one else would — and are still fighting.

Pivot after pivot, restaurants adapted. 

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year was ‘pandemic,’ but for restaurants, it might as well have been ‘pivot.’ They became takeout counters. Delivery services. Grocery stores. They changed their hours and set up parklets on sidewalks; they launched virtual cooking classes and pop-ups. After Gov. Baker announced that he didn’t want “bars masquerading as restaurants,” breweries started selling homemade food with their pints. 

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“I think we’re a resourceful bunch,” Kathy Sidell, founder of The Met Restaurant Group, told me in April, before most of us knew the magnitude of what was to come. Sidell had just launched a crowdsourced cooking show called What’s Cooking With You on Instagram; virtual classes would soon become a popular way to connect restaurants to their now-distant customers, with Joanne Chang teaching us how to make cookies and cakes on her Flour Love IG series, Jonathan Gilman at Brato Brewhouse & Kitchen leading us through beer pairing dinners, and the folks at Rebel Rebel offering online wine tasting classes on Sundays. Café du Pays, choosing to forego indoor dining completely, transformed itself into Vincent’s Corner Grocery, a neighborhood market stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, pizza dough, and pints of sauerkraut. Ania Zaroda and Michael Gurevich (Mike & Patty’s, Hot Box) teamed up with Tim Maslow (Whaling in Oklahoma) to create Seis Pies, a burrito pop-up at Hot Box.

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“It’s a really challenging time for everybody — everyone is kind of hurting, so rather than let something like that negatively affect us, we wanted to turn it around and use it to channel our artistic, creative juices and create a new concept in the midst of this depressing time,” Gurevich told me shortly before launching the pop-up.

They worked through Mother Nature’s whims.

Over the summer, diners saw Boston transform into a bonafide patio haven, as the city offered patio programs inviting restaurants to set up outdoor dining spaces in parking spots and adjacent sidewalks. While it didn’t make up for a full dining room, it gave some restaurants a fighting chance to stay open, employ workers, and resemble something from the Before Times.

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Then the rain, cold, and snow came — and still, some businesses soldiered on. Talulla and Charlie’s Kitchen in Cambridge built greenhouses, constructing makeshift snow globes on their sidewalks. Woods Hill Pier 4 in the Seaport installed heated igloos that overlooked the water. Alcove set up fire pits, Tawakal Halal Cafe built a parklet, and Loyal Nine erected an open-air shelter with heaters. These outdoor structures weren’t cheap — Kristin Canty, owner of Woods Hill Pier 4, told me that her restaurant’s igloos cost around $1,700 each. Many restaurants spent thousands of dollars in hopes of giving diners the chance to experience their favorite hangout, even as dining capacity was further restricted and time limits were added to tables. And when their patios blew away in a storm, as it did at Craigie on Main’s Craigie Next Door, restaurants built them back up.

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But as so many people in the restaurant industry have repeated throughout the pandemic, patios won’t save them. Neither will takeout cocktails, or converting dining rooms into grocery stores, or hosting virtual cooking classes. Congress is currently in the 11th hour of approving a second stimulus package, one that amounts to nearly $1 trillion and would offer a second round of the Paycheck Protection Program. If we want to see any semblance of our local restaurant scene return in 2021, we need Congress to pass this bill — and then some. If not, the restaurants we know and love — the ones who took care of first responders and their own communities, the ones who kept so many of us fed during this hellscape of a year — won’t be able to hang on for much longer.

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