Chefs and restaurateurs reflect on a year of the coronavirus pandemic

"The only way restaurants and bars will recover is money," said Larry Jimerson, owner of Larry J's BBQ.

Vegetarian subscription box at Oleana
Vegetarian subscription box at Oleana. –Lane Turner/Globe Staff

On the evening of March 15, 2020, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that bars and restaurants would be required to suspend indoor dining for three weeks, starting March 17. 

“With respect to restaurants, I’m ordering that any restaurant, bar, or establishment that offers food or drink shall not permit on-premises consumption,” the governor said. “These establishments may continue to offer food for takeout and for delivery.”

One year later, we now know that those three weeks turned into more than three months, and that, even after restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms, offering takeout and delivery would become fundamental for every restaurant fighting to stay open throughout the coronavirus pandemic

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When Boston.com sent out a survey asking chefs and restaurateurs to reflect on the past year, we heard stories of frustration, resilience, and determination. Their descriptions of a year spent keeping their restaurants afloat were encapsulated in words like “unpredictable,” “chaotic,” “intense,” “demanding,” and “beyond challenging.” From their biggest hurdles and victories to new skills gained out of sheer necessity during this past year, here are what some restaurant industry leaders shared about the first year of the pandemic — and what they see as a turning point for recovery.

‘It’s been harder to build a rapport with our guests’

From the moment the shutdown began, chefs and restaurateurs were forced to continuously adapt to changing restrictions, all while keeping staff and guests safe.

Jason Bond, owner and chef at Bondir in Cambridge, said the biggest hurdle this past year was “managing a completely different financial business model, as well as thinking through the ethics of operating our restaurant with the opaque data available.”

Daisy Chow, baker and owner at Breadboard Bakery in Arlington, said she had to run her business with a reduced staff of three full-time employees. Jamaica Mi Hungry’s general manager Aquila Kentish made the decision to temporarily take the restaurant’s popular food truck off the road in an effort to “rethink the way we do business.” 

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Restaurants that opened during the pandemic faced an added obstacle: How to connect with customers in a non-traditional way.

“Where normally as a new restaurant we would be participating in events and trying to pack our dining room, we have to take a different approach,” said Kate Smith, chef and owner at Thistle & Leek, which opened its doors in Newton in September. “We’re trying to build relationships with new guests who might only stop in for takeout. It’s been harder to build a rapport with our guests.”

Ana Sortun, chef and owner at Oleana, Sarma, and Sofra, shared that her biggest hurdle was “getting tested and knowing what to do if a staff member or roommate of a staff member tested positive.” She cited “medical expertise” as one of the new skills she picked up over the year. 

As restaurants closed and hibernated, it was hard to imagine any wins. But some victories were named: Soleil owner Cheryl Slaughter said her catering sales grew higher during the pandemic than in previous years, while Tempo Bistro co-owner Erin Barnicle celebrated “survival” at her Waltham restaurant.

“By supporting our community as they supported us, learning how to adapt every single day, keeping our incredible staff employed, determination, and staying positive, we found hope and have been able to keep our doors open,” Barnicle said.

Still, many found that it was hard to celebrate victories in the face of so much loss.

“The most difficult part of the last year was watching friends, colleagues, [and] pillars of the restaurant community go unemployed or underemployed,” William Moriarty, wine and spirits director at Rochambeau, shared. “Watching restaurants that made change in Boston go under; watching time-tested institutions and traditions unravel.”

A year of adaptation and learning

Earnest Drinks
Aaron Cohen, co-owner, left, and chef James Lavigne, at Earnest Drinks at Gracie’s Ice Cream in Kendall Square. —Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
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With resources stretched thin, the role of a restaurant owner suddenly expanded to include publicist, graphic designer, social media expert, grant applier, and delivery driver. Hospitality was flipped on its head, too: Those who were accustomed to getting acquainted with customers through repeated visits were suddenly forced to connect through plastic barriers, takeout windows, and masks. 

John Kessen, co-owner at Big Dipper Hospitality Group (State Park, Mamaleh’s, Café du Pays), said that one of the new skills he picked up this past year was “packing as much hospitality into the 10-second masked and distanced, ‘here’s your bag, get out’ atmosphere of COVID guest interaction.” 

Chow found that the pandemic developed her customer communication skills.

“For 18 years, I was always hiding deep in the bowels of a kitchen or bakery, not seeing customers or having any feedback,” she shared. “Now I know my regulars’ names, their masked faces, and even their pets.”

Engaging with customers in new ways also meant redefining the industry’s maxim, “the customer is always right.” Moriarty said the most important skill he learned this past year is how to say no.

“The hospitality industry prides itself on always being able to ‘make it work’ without telling guests no,” he said. “But in 2020, when safety was a paramount concern, we had to know how to say no if it meant keeping everyone safe. … Saying no was hard because it often shrinks our bottom line, but in the name of safety, it had to be done.”

Skills were gained in other areas, too. Barnicle said that the restaurant “learned an entirely new business with takeout and delivery” and “developed new products and created a pantry for our guests with necessities, take-and-bake items, and anything else guests seemed to need throughout the pandemic.”

Aaron Cohen, owner of Gracie’s Ice Cream and Earnest Drinks, said he had to teach himself “the most basic graphic design so I could make labels for our pints.”

And for Baramor owner Arpit Patel, cash flow management became the most important skill he learned during the pandemic. 

“Luckily for me, I have a background in finance, so this came to me more naturally,” he said. “I was grateful that I was able to leverage my past skills to be able to do almost everything [finance-related] without having to add extra expenses. Everything was out of necessity. Learning is always fun and often times forced by necessity. While the pandemic has been terrible and brutal for independent restaurants, I hope it did teach us all valuable skills that help us run our businesses better when the pandemic is finally behind us.”

Some pivots are here to stay

Throughout the past year, “pivoting” became necessary, whether it was implementing takeout and delivery services, offering grocery items, or connecting with customers through virtual Zoom dinners. Many of those pivots proved to be successful, and, some said, are sticking around — especially when it comes to takeout and online ordering.

“We’re definitely going to keep wholesale sales, the takeout window, and online ordering/payment,” Cohen said.

Chow shared that online pre-ordering has helped her bakery to plan ahead and reduce food waste.

“I think the move toward options for people to enjoy [food] at home is here to stay,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to a full dining room at some point, but I think that getting creative about what we offer will stick around. Some of our meal kits and other options outside of normal dinner service will continue to be popular with our diners.”

The proliferation of outdoor dining is another pivot that restaurateurs want to keep. On Friday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced that patio season would kick off on March 22 ahead of its scheduled April 1 date. 

“I’m certain many restaurants will lobby for extended patios in future summers,” Moriarty said. “We proved we could provide copious amounts of patio space that we [were] never allowed in the past. Going back to original, small patios or no patios at all for many restaurants, I’m sure, is not an option.”

Patel agreed, sharing that the pandemic revealed how the state didn’t have enough outdoor dining options. 

“This is going to be a permanent need,” he said. “We are hoping to work with our local municipality to be able to have some sort of permanent outdoor presence. We all have invested a lot of money to expand outdoors. On top of that, we are never getting back the sales we have lost due to the pandemic. Having the ability to seat more people well after the pandemic is going to be key for recovery.”

‘I do think brighter days are ahead’

Terramia
Terramia Ristorante in the North End. —Erin Clark / Globe Staff

With a year of the pandemic under our belt and a vaccination rollout underway, a sense of hope is on the horizon. But there is still a long way to go, especially when it comes to financial recovery.

“The only way restaurants and bars will recover is money,” said Larry Jimerson, owner of Larry J’s BBQ. “The industry needs to be looked at like the airlines, banks, Wall Street, and the auto industry.”

Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said that Massachusetts restaurants have lost nearly $7 billion in revenue over the last 12 months, calling the number “staggering by any stretch of the imagination.”

The latest federal relief package includes $28.6 billion to assist restaurants and bars, along with $1,400 in individual stimulus payments and a boost in child tax credit ($3,600 per dependent) that will provide temporary relief for out-of-work restaurant employees.

“The American Rescue Plan Act is a lifeline for struggling restaurants and bars across Massachusetts and for hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers and their families who have been hardest hit by the pandemic,” said Jody Adams, chef and founding member of Massachusetts Restaurants United, in a press release. “After the worst year in the history of restaurants, these grants are a shot in the arm for our small businesses and the communities we serve.”

In addition to federal relief, restaurateurs cited widespread vaccinations and warmer weather as a turning point for their industry.

“Vaccination will just get us all back to doing things safely, sooner,” said Chow.

Despite the incredibly difficult year, Luz said he feels like there is hope on the horizon.

“For an industry that was dropped out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, that hasn’t been able to see the shoreline for so long, you now have that shoreline in sight,” he said. “At the point where your arms and legs are so tired from swimming all that length, and you feel like you’re almost ready to give up, to be able to see that other side is really critical. … I do think brighter days are ahead.”

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