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Dispatches from the Edge

‘I have literally lost 11 pounds in the last week’: Trying to keep restaurants afloat during coronavirus

The view from the kitchen, in a restaurateur’s own words. Plus, a server suddenly out of work.

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Editor’s Note: This story is part of a Globe Magazine special report, appearing in print on Sunday, March 29. It was reported March 16-17. This restaurant owner was granted anonymity to protect the privacy of their financial information.

“We just closed [Sunday] night [March 15] for service and will do takeout. It’s been the absolute craziest, most challenging time I’ve ever had as a restaurateur and as a human being — the unknowns of it all. I have literally lost 11 pounds in the last week. I drank a Pedialyte on my way home [from the restaurant] last night. My wife put me in quarantine in a bedroom. She’s been sleeping on the couch.

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I have 85 or so people. The day leading up to the closure, everyone’s like, “What’s happening?” I was running in circles, telling people: “I’ve got you. It’ll be OK.” Then Mayor Walsh came out and was like, “We’ll close 50 percent.” It was incredible. So we put a plan in place, hopped on a call, managers, sous chefs, et cetera, to keep everyone going, go down to 50 percent capacity, putting people on rotating days — a doomsday squad to keep on for people I know who have kids. We made a choice, and we knew people’s financial situation. Two hours later: What the hell?

Then, a sense of calm washed over everyone. Everyone was unclear, and then it was like: A decision is made. OK, guys, call your landlords. Try to talk to them. Explain to them you’re in the service industry right off the bat. Try to explain you won’t be on time with your rent, and you may need to amortize it. You’d be surprised how many people own two-families. The rent is going into their kids’ college tuition. People can be understanding. Talk to your parents. Ask your parents. I was trying to dad everyone.

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People want food and meals, so if my staff wants to work, l’ll give them a job: “Would you rather go on unemployment or try to keep cooking and stay in the restaurant?” Let’s go. They still want to come to work. We’re trying to make a plan on what to offer and how, and we’ll meet up today on opposite sides of the room and figure out what makes sense for offerings and our community. Customers are buying $1,000 gift cards. Before we closed, we saw 30, 50, 100 percent tips. Everyone knew.

I have a business manager running numbers of how much to pay people hourly; how much can we pay if we do $1,000 a day or $1,800 a day? We’ll give all our profits over the next three weeks to staff. That’s it. I’m trying to be the best employer I can be. Not a chef, not a restaurateur — just an employer."

Interview was edited and condensed.

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I USED TO WAIT TABLES

Melissa Rosales in her uniform for waiting on tables.
Melissa Rosales in her uniform for waiting on tables.

By Melissa Rosales

I came to Boston from the Philippines to go to college at Emerson. Waiting tables at the Legal Sea Foods in Park Square, I’m used to busy shifts cracking lobsters and serving chowder to a steady stream of locals and tourists. At lunch I might make $120 in tips.

Our supervisors were quick to respond when the first Massachusetts cases of COVID-19 were announced, requiring bussers to wear gloves and sanitize tables and chairs after each guest, and all of us to sanitize our hands right after washing them. We took this seriously — in my job, I have to touch other people’s plates.

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As business slowed, I worried about covering my rent. My parents told me they were concerned about how my work brought me into close contact with many strangers. I put a tiny hand sanitizer bottle inside my apron.

On Thursday, March 12, I was scheduled for a double shift. I was sent home after serving only three tables, with $50 in tips in my pocket. My manager called an hour later and asked me not to come back for the dinner shift; they were expecting it to be slow. I wasn’t scheduled to work again until the following week, but then Governor Baker shut down dining rooms.

I’m blessed to have parents who can financially support me; I won’t lose my housing. My friend Pamela Espinoza is moving back to Puerto Rico after losing her restaurant job. She’s stunned. “I really want to believe that the US is going to give us always an opportunity to work, right?” she says. “This is what this country is about: working.”


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.