Brian Treitman, 43, runs B.T.’s Smokehouse in Sturbridge. It’s a destination for barbecue-lovers across the state and beyond, a meaty salve not far from the congestion of the Pike. He started the business with a roadside trailer in 2007 and settled into a brick-and-mortar in 2013. He also has plans to open in Worcester (which are temporarily on hold due to the pandemic). Right now, he’s worried for his staff, grateful for takeout business, and hopeful that people will stop ignoring social-distancing rules. He also doesn’t think his business will get back to normal — whatever normal means — until August.
How did you decide to switch to takeout?
I’d been paying a lot of attention to what was going on in Italy prior to it really hitting here. I was trying to anticipate where we’d end up. The Thursday before we got the shutdown order, I started working on finding the right platform to put our menu online so we could do 100 percent online ordering. . . . I wanted us to be as safe as possible for as long as possible and provide work for my 21 employees. They’re my number-one concern at the moment. We announced it, and then five hours later, the governor announced it.
We opened again that Tuesday, where we served out the front window of the dining room for takeout. The first few days were really scary. I had a couple breakdowns. I knew I would be OK; I knew B.T.’s would be OK. But I feel I have this responsibility to the 21 people who work for me and they kept coming to me, asking questions.
What did your staff ask you?
They were scared. They were scared about the virus. They were scared about their health. We put up signs all over the restaurant asking people to respect each other’s distance. Three times during the course of the day, we had to ask people to get out of the restaurant if they were waiting, and my staff was really freaked out. They didn’t know if they’d been exposed over the weekend. I would walk into the restaurant every day and get questions from my staff, asking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ basically.
I was straight with them . . . I don’t see this going away any time soon. We’ve shut down until April 6 or whatever it is, but my guess is August. I said, ‘I’m not trying to be alarmist, not trying to scare anyone, but I see this as our new reality and I’m doing everything I can to make sure you’re employed and as safe as we can possibly be. I need you to go to work and go home.’
I pay for their food: fruits, vegetables, meats we order through our purveyors. We get a case of chicken breast in, they split it up. I try to keep them out of grocery stores.
We’ve been surprisingly busy. We do 70 percent of what we used to do. I stopped paying myself for now because [my staff is] more important to me right now. I’m OK for now. I am hoping with the paycheck protection, the CARES Act, I can start paying myself again.
What’s your ordering system now? How do you keep customers safe?
We normally have a counter. People walk up normally, order, and then wait for their name to be called. So we pushed that process outside the building. There’s a window at the front of the building, and I have someone set up with a phone and an iPad. The window is closed, and there’s a shelf outside the window. The [customer] presses a doorbell, and we have a loudspeaker we put up so we can call their name. They order online or over the phone, and everything is paid for ahead of time. We call the name, they start walking up, we open the window, put food on the shelf, and they take it.
But people are sitting eating together in the parking lot. Large groups aren’t taking this seriously. For those of us working, in this reality, this isn’t vacation. We’re really scared. If one of us gets sick, I have to shut the restaurant down, and we’re all out of work.
How are you doing financially?
For right now, I’m lucky. I planned well. I’m eating away at my savings. I know I have enough saved that I can get through a couple months of stuff, and hopefully I qualify for these loans.
What are you worried about?
I keep thinking about what will it be like afterward. Are people going to be afraid of sitting at a movie theater? A baseball game? There will be PTSD. We all crave human touch and friends and family. I couldn’t give my mom a hug on her birthday.
Going forward, I’m curious what the new normal will be. Will we shake hands again? Will we sit next to someone in a crowded restaurant or a bar?
Also, people really need to be kind. For us in the restaurant, we’re doing the best we can. And for the most part, customers have been really great. But I think there’s something different about what’s going on. Everyone is out for themselves and trying to protect themselves. We have to look after everybody altogether.