Like many people forced to work from home these days, Jeff Gates is glued to his computer. He is not so much keeping up on life during the pandemic, as after it.
What do the streets look like? Is everyone still wearing masks? Are people eating out?
“The visibility of safety is what is going to bring us back out again," said Gates, whose company operates seven restaurants in the Boston area, including Aquitaine and Gaslight. “We now not only need to win the battle, we need to plan the peace.”
The state’s 15,000-plus restaurants and bars were the first to feel the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic, when Governor Charlie Baker ordered all table service to stop by March 17. Restaurants can do takeout and delivery, but most have chosen not to keep their kitchens open.
Restaurateurs know the shutdown is necessary to save lives, and at the moment they aren’t in a hurry to reopen. Consumers won’t want to eat out unless they know the virus is under control. Or as Steve DiFillippo, chief executive of Davio’s, puts it: “We got one shot to come back strong.”
And when the pandemic does ebb, and restaurants get the go-ahead to welcome back diners, they face a social as well as a business challenge: filling seats during an economic downturn, while courting a profoundly-changed consumer.
The latter is perhaps the biggest hurdle of all: How does an industry built around socializing convince people to break bread with each other again?
Dining out may seem like an absurd luxury right now with the pandemic in full force. But the restaurant industry serves as an important barometer of the public’s mood, an indication of how quickly the economy will bounce back from an abrupt and deep shutdown.
Restaurant owners are bracing for a slow climb out of the abyss. After being told the safest place to be is at home, some people may not be ready to venture out and sit in close proximity to strangers and eat food.
“The suffering will be the deepest and longest lasting in our industry,” said Gates, who is also chairman of Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “We’ll have the longest path back after this."
Coronavirus struck Boston restaurants at their most vulnerable time, as they came out of the lean months of January and February. With cash reserves running out, many restaurants now are trying to stave off financial ruin.
The federal economic rescue package, which provides $349 billion in emergency loans to small businesses, will help owners pay the bills. But it’s unclear how long it will take for that cash to arrive, and how far it will go.
“There’s no question there is going to be a shakeout,” said Boston bankruptcy attorney Harry Murphy, whose practice has been fielding an uptick in calls from worried business owners. “Some of them will never reopen.”
To survive, restaurants will need to constantly evolve safety protocols to ensure employees and customers don’t get sick. Think temperature checks, masks, and gloves for employees, and tables spaced far apart. Already, delivery and takeout during the pandemic has been designed as a “contactless” interaction, with online payments and food left at front doors or picked up curbside.
Aquitaine Group has kept three restaurants open for takeout and delivery, and Gates has thermometers on order to monitor employees. He’s not sure he will use them on customers, nor whether patrons will welcome safety measures in a place that’s supposed to be all about good food, good company, and no worries.
“Is that going to make you feel bad," he said, "or is that going to make you confident?”
Brian Moy, whose family owns the China Pearl restaurants in Boston and Quincy, worries the hiatus will reset the culinary pecking order. Chinese restaurants were the first to feel the financial fallout from the virus because COVID-19 originated in China, a fact that scared customers away. Business was so slow the Moy family shuttered China Pearl in Chinatown in late February. The Quincy location remains open for delivery.
As hard as it is to close restaurants, Moy finds the prospect of reopening just as daunting.
“That is one of my biggest fears. Who’s relevant anymore?” said Moy, who also runs ShoJo and Ruckus in Chinatown. “How do you get people back to your place? There are probably 100 restaurants we all miss. You can’t eat through 100 restaurants in a week.”
Raffi Festekjian, co-owner of Anoush’ella Saj Kitchen, worries that eating at home will be a hard habit to break for many people, forcing changes in restaurant designs and menus. In the post-coronavirus world, Festekjian said, "smaller cramped restaurants won’t work.”
Consumers will still crave a level of intimacy with friends and family, Festekjian added, but they’ll be more comfortable socializing at home for the foreseeable future. He’s got a lot on the line ― two restaurants in Boston and Lynnfield, plus an outpost at Fenway’s Time Out Market. He and his wife, Nina, are working on a new menu featuring more family-style takeout choices, thinking people will prefer to entertain at home than eat out.
Before coronavirus, the Boston restaurant business was in full bloom. Long gone were the days when the only place for a proper meal was at Anthony’s Pier 4 or a private club. Glitzy new restaurants, offering a wide range of modern and ethnic foods, cropped up in places from the Seaport District to Somerville.
When we come out of our COVID-19 induced hibernation, the marketplace will almost certainly be reshaped by a new reality. Working from home, for example, could be the norm. Suddenly places that rely on an office lunch crowd will find themselves with far fewer customers.
But that also invites ingenuity. Ed Doyle, president of RealFood Hospitality Strategy and Design in Cambridge, anticipates a rise in “ghost restaurants," eateries with no physical storefront — just online orders and delivery service.
“There will be restaurateurs who take this an opportunity to rethink what they’re going to do,” he said.
Among those is Michael Kristen Aviles, owner of Masa in the South End. Aviles shuttered her 117-seat restaurant March 13, a few days before Baker banned dining in, because business had dried up. She has had to lay off her staff of 30, giving them their last paychecks and telling them to take whatever food was left in the walk-in refrigerator.
Initially, Aviles wasn’t sure if she wanted to reopen, but now those doubts have given away to determination. She anticipates business will be slow at first, and she won’t be able to hire everyone back right away. Maybe she’ll do the cooking herself, and feature a simple menu of tacos.
Aviles credits her late husband, chef-owner Philip Aviles, with helping the restaurant survive the Great Recession a decade ago by offering $1 tapas. Now it’s her turn to figure something out.
“I need for this restaurant to happen," she said. "I need for this restaurant to thrive and happen because I want it for my husband’s legacy, I want it for my son.”
Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this article.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.