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RESTAURANT DIARIES

Lost wages. Broken dreams. Tales from inside the restaurant trenches

Restaurant Diaries captures the stories of the owners, chefs, and staffers upended by business closures.

Mike Sheridan of Chelsea Station.
Mike Sheridan of Chelsea Station.MAKPHOTO/handout

New entries to this online diary are added regularly.

April 14, 2 p.m.

Mike Sheridan, 51, is a former doorman at the Rattlesnake Bar & Grill. He opened Chelsea Station in October 2016. He worries that the welcoming gathering place that he created in a city hit disproportionately hard with COVID-19 might never be the same.

Sunday, March 15, was the last day we were open. I have a friend in the CDC, and I knew stuff was coming before it happened. I don't even want to make things too political, but it was a case study in how not to handle a crisis situation. It hurts.

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The reality is, we chose a community that’s economically depressed. We opened a restaurant, the first of its ilk. We were the whipping boy for everybody. By Chelsea standards, we’re an expensive restaurant. We weren’t trying to make money off the backs of hard-working people. We wanted to bring something welcoming. I grew up next to Chelsea; I know how it operates. I’m now seeing it go through what’s hopefully its best. But restaurants are segregated. There’s the Anglo side, and the Latin side — mom-and-pop Latin restaurants without a social media presence.

We wanted to open a place, not Anglo, not Latino, just a restaurant where everyone felt welcome. It took a while. Chelsea isn’t a walking neighborhood yet. We’re a few years behind Somerville. Over the last year, we saw a significant turn, not just for us, but we wound up inspiring other restaurants of our ilk. Jose Duarte just opened Tambo 22 weeks before this nonsense started. The longer this drags out, the less confident I become.

I’ll go on the record saying 50 percent of Boston’s back of the house all lives in Chelsea, and it’s saying something. They do the prep, cleaning, they get up early and do all that stuff. Chelsea is densely populated. There’s a reason people settle there. It's inexpensive, and it’s why many young professionals move there now.

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Come in for Sunday brunch and you see what Chelsea is:. Multi-racial, multi-economical, multi-cultural. Within our restaurant, all that stuff was left at the door. None of it mattered. Gay, straight, white black, it didn’t matter. That’s the point of a neighborhood place. I miss that.

South Boston, the very first night it reopens, it’ll be packed. Chelsea is different. There’s no way we’ll open up to what we once were.

Restaurant diaries: 'Pandemic isn't covered in many insurance policies'
The Boston restaurant community has been upended by the coronavirus outbreak. Three owners describe what closures mean for an industry that feels like family. (Video by Caitlin Healy/Globe staff)

April 7, 10 a.m.

Michaela Ritcey, 33, owns Watertown’s Ritcey East. The restaurant is just two years old. Due to the pandemic, she’s revamped her comfort food concept and switched to takeout burgers.

This is something that has been my livelihood. It’s something I always wanted. My parents owned a restaurant in Waltham — Ritcey’s Seafood Kitchen. My dad, being in the industry, said, “Out of everything I had to deal with, this is more difficult in your 2.5 years than in my 60 years.” For us, right now, we’re lucky to have neighborhood support. People bought $10,000 worth of gift cards. For someone open 2.5 years and a small place in a neighborhood, not in Boston, my heart was full.

We’re a 55-seat restaurant, and I’ve had all my staff from the beginning. I have 13 employees. Seven are full-time. The kitchen staff is the most vulnerable group. Chances are they live with a bunch of different people. Someone in that house has to work to survive. Most of the time, they take public transportation. I had to lay everyone off.

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We have volunteers working with us right now, people who are happy to, and I only have four people. My fiancée works with me. I have someone on the line, and two people in the front, one behind my fiancée, helping with online ordering, and someone running the food out to a table. It’s completely contact-less.

Michaela Ritcey of Watertown's Ritcey East.
Michaela Ritcey of Watertown's Ritcey East.

I have a lot of sleepless nights. Financially, we’re at a point where we have to put ourselves on the front lines in order to survive. There’s not much more of an option than that. My loan is from my parents remortgaging their house. Staying afloat is a big part of this. How do you do this and still be an owner who is being a humanitarian and supporting their staff?

We don’t do a whole menu. I redid our concept. We had 100 burgers sold in 13 minutes. Not even McDonald’s could do that — but the people who ordered at 5 p.m. couldn’t [pick up] until 7:30. I’m wondering what’s next; how do I provide for people? We get groceries for all our staff members and drop them off every Tuesday.

Not knowing how long this will last is the scariest part. It’s going to change how we operate.

I’m paying rent right now. This month, I talked to my landlord and said it would have to be late, and she was OK with that. She owns a lot of properties. But there’s no reprieve. We have to see what happens next month. People need cash now. The bills keep coming.

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March 23, 9 a.m.

Kelly Mackin, 37, owns Beverly’s Half-Baked Café and Bakery with her husband, Tim, and Cakes by Erin in Haverhill with her sister, Erin Erler. She’s shuttered both businesses and isn’t sure when they will reopen. In the meantime, her sister has suffered a devastating health crisis due to stress, Mackin says.

My business in Beverly is half café, half bakery. We do sandwiches, salads, burritos, tacos, breakfast and lunch food, served all day. Then we also make baked goods, donuts, muffins, scones, cookies, cinnamon rolls, things like that.

We’re open seven days a week, 7 to 3, Monday through Friday, 8 to 3 on weekends. I only have a staff of seven people. It’s a very small operation. Mostly full-time employees. I think six of them are full-time and one is part-time.

The family owns two businesses, now closed, on the North Shore.
The family owns two businesses, now closed, on the North Shore.Handout (custom credit)/Handout

My husband has chronic Lyme disease as well as some other underlying conditions. And there are a couple people on my staff who have underlying conditions. A couple of them asked to be laid off as soon as this became a pandemic. As things went on, we were taking things day by day. I talked to every single person and said whatever they want to do, if they want to keep working, I’ll keep them working and work with them, and if they want to be laid off and more comfortable, I was willing to do that as well. I didn’t want to force anyone to work.

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My sister mainly runs [Cakes by Erin]. She’s been on the Food Network nine times. She does really, really extravagant cakes, cookies, and cupcakes. She’s got a very good business. She’s very well-known.

Last Tuesday, she spent the entire day refunding people’s money who were canceling orders and postponing events. And she actually had a stroke on St. Patrick’s Day.

It was stress-induced. Her blood pressure was through the roof. She spent four days in the hospital. She’s also diabetic. She’s home now. She still has neurological issues. She’s very tired. She physically can’t work. She can barely get out of bed, but she is out of the hospital. What happened to her was very, very severe. She’s weak.

Our landlord has already called looking for rent and just told us to take things day by day, but doesn’t really know what we’re supposed to do.

We will be closing the cake shop. We’re just finishing up a few orders this week for people who wanted to keep them. Then at Half-Baked, last week after my sister had the stroke on Tuesday, I met with my staff. By Thursday, I was down to one baker, one counter person, and one cook. We decided on Friday to close at 3. My customers were more than supportive. I actually had a record-breaking day on Friday. It was really, really, really sad. I had a line wrapped around the building for the entire day that we were open. We were very short-staffed.

It was just me on the counter. I had another girl doing baking prep and just one cook. People were being very patient. We let two people in the store at a time, and they were social distancing outside. I didn’t implement that. People did that on their own as the week went on, which was really great.

I don’t know if I’m going to be able to pay my bills or if we’re going to be able to freeze my rent. I’ve put seven years of blood, sweat, and tears and finances into my business. Half of my staff had been with me for years and years and years. I think I cried six or seven times on Friday over that.

It made me realize how much a part of people’s daily lives we are. Maybe it’s not just a food place. It’s part of their routine and part of their culture. People have wanted to donate money and buy gift cards and help, whether we’re going to reopen or not. They’ve offered to buy gift cards just to help support us. Places become a home. I’m part of a community. I never realized how much they stood behind us until Friday.

March 20, 8:30 a.m.

Danielle Ayer, 34, runs Huron Village’s fine-dining restaurant Talulla with her husband, Conor Dennehy.

Obviously, what we do isn’t sustainable for the current climate. Last Saturday night, or maybe Friday night, we tried to come up with ideas and bounce topics off each other on what we could do to have some sort of income coming in. We wanted to give back to the community, so we came up with Casseroles for a Cause: large-format, freezable, re-heatable meals, comforting food and soups for a time like this when people are staying indoors.

Basically, for each casserole purchased, we donated 10 bag lunches to Fletcher Maynard Academy in Cambridge. We have dropped off 1,500 bagged lunches so far. We know we're doing something good and helping people. We wanted to work with a school in our community. The superintendent got back to us really quickly and had expressed to us that there were families we could work with. We were going to try to do takeout for people in the neighborhood, but it’s literally just Conor and me at the restaurant, and we can’t sustain both.

Talulla's Danielle Ayer and family deliver casseroles to customers.
Talulla's Danielle Ayer and family deliver casseroles to customers.Handout (custom credit)/Handout

We're devastated for our staff. We have seven people who work for us, and they rely on us. Being forced to close puts us in an awkward position; ensuring their livelihoods, it breaks our hearts. At this point, we feel so lucky we’re so small. I fear for a lot of other restaurants that aren’t in our position. We have 1,600 square feet, our rent is super cheap, and our numbers are low. Our cost of goods is really low. We can luckily bring in tiny amounts of money each day and gift cards and things like that, and donations, and can probably ride this wave.

Can we defer payments? Will our landlord let us miss a month of rent? Will a relief package be evaluated eventually? That’s taking too much time. But being as small as we are, we’re in a better position to manage the money compared with a larger restaurant. It’s Conor and me on the front line every day doing the QuickBooks, writing the checks, and right now we’re not writing any checks. It's a Band-Aid on a gaping wound about to explode. More action needs to be taken. There has to be some kind of camaraderie and olive branch.

We did layoffs immediately: Get on mass.gov; apply for unemployment right now. All of our staff members have applied. We’re still paying their health care. And as a mother of a three-year-old child, I am devastated. I just want to keep this business successful for my family, and most importantly, what I really want to do is protect my child and make sure it’s all rainbows and unicorns. But the reality is, I am at the restaurant from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s posing a risk to my family. It’s frightening. You want to do the right thing for everybody.

Conor does delivery from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., delivering casseroles, and our daughter sits in the back seat and rides with him. We have nowhere to keep her. Her day care closed. Who’s going to watch your kid? He makes 100 lasagnas on Tuesdays and Thursdays and delivers Wednesdays and Fridays.

I’m writing down orders, packing up food, and practicing my social distancing skills when people pick up their food. We schedule people so only one person picks up at a time. When you come in, you get your food off one table and put a credit card on another table. It’s very awkward, and we’re trying to make people feel comfortable at a very uncomfortable time.

Interview has been edited and condensed.


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