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Jody Adams, a star in Boston’s culinary scene for years, takes on a new role: activist

The longtime chef contemplates an industry ravaged by COVID-19 and vows to make a difference

Chef Jody AdamsKen Rivard

For years, Jody Adams, 63, was the doyenne of Rialto restaurant in Cambridge — the chef and hostess who ushered people through life’s milestones. She toasted alongside them during anniversaries and birthdays and sat with them in times of crisis. When Rialto closed, she opened new restaurants: Porto, Saloniki, Trade. She’s been a star in Boston’s culinary firmament for years, but she’s never endured anything quite like this.

Her restaurants initially shuttered on March 13; now, Back Bay Mediterranean restaurant Porto and the Fenway branch of Greek sandwich shop Saloniki offer takeout. (Trade, in a now-quiet downtown, remains closed.)

How’s business?


Saloniki is doing well, all things considered. We’re doing a third to a half of what we normally do. Porto is just getting started. We’ll never get up to the scale we did at full-service.

How do restaurants survive? What do interventions look like?

A national organization emerged out of the restaurant rubble: the Independent Restaurant Coalition. They’re advocating and pushing for a $120 billion stabilization fund, and it’s making its way to the White House. In fact, Will [Guidara] from Eleven Madison Park, the head of the IRC, is one of the main voices. He’ll be there with the National Restaurant Association on Monday [May 18]. We’re asking to carve out $120 billion fund for independent restaurants, which aren’t publicly traded.

What are you doing to save restaurants on a local level?

A handful of us formed Massachusetts Restaurant United. Our asks were big and bold. Closing restaurants would be a huge big deal and hurt in a way that other businesses don’t. We’ve been meeting three times a week, advocating for ourselves, aligning with the Independent Restaurant Coalition and supporting the work they do. They work at the federal level, and we’re working at a state level. We’re advocating for delivery-fee reduction, forming a task force with landlords about rent, pushing for business interruption insurance. It’s important that the state understand what we contribute: In Massachusetts, we generate close to $19 billion a year in sales and employ 350,000 people. When you think about two-thirds of restaurant workers losing their jobs — the statistics are staggering, and what’s been really encouraging is that people are starting to listen. Our reps in Washington, D.C., are starting to listen, and that’s encouraging. Ayanna Pressley gets it; Elizabeth Warren does as well.


What’s next for restaurants?

Unless we get some serious help from the federal government with a Restaurant Stabilization Fund, unless business interruption insurance is honored, unless the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] goal post is moved — those are the big questions. We need grants, not loans, and we need them from restaurants like ours down to the pizza shops and the taquerias and the little Ethiopian restaurants. We all need help, and if we don’t get help, the personality of our neighborhoods is going to change. Imagine if only 20 percent of restaurants reopened, which is what some people are projecting.

What does the city look like without restaurants?

Start walking from Harvard Square down to MIT, and imagine what you would see. Empty storefronts all along the way. A dead zone. A place like Central Square — the culture, the personality of that square is dependent on restaurants from the Middle East, to Little Donkey, to Clover. The whole gamut. It’s so vibrant and diverse. That’s what is just truly concerning. And beyond that, all of the other industries: farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers who depend on us. I think that it will be a different place if something isn’t done to recognize the importance of small, independent [businesses].


How can people support this effort?

Buy takeout from restaurants that are open. Then, beyond that, let your politicians know that you want to save restaurants. It’s critical that we save restaurants.

How are you doing emotionally?

No one asks me that. It’s hard. It’s heartbreaking. There’s a sense of grief for the community and the industry that I grew up in and have been so proud to be a part of building here in Boston. Restaurants are the places — certainly for Rialto — people called it the hearth of Harvard Square. It’s the place where people went to feel at home when they weren’t at home, where they celebrated big events and sadnesses and losses. I can’t tell you how many people I sat with who were experiencing a divorce, or a death, or a birth, or a graduation. It ran the gamut. I got to know families in intimate ways, and also, I love to cook. I think everybody feels just emotionally connected to what we do and the communities that we serve and the responsibility to that community.

What will customers want and need to feel comfortable eating in restaurants again?

Customers want to trust that the restaurants are following all the protocols that will keep them safe, and restaurants want to know that customers will follow all the protocols. We’re in it together, and the optics have to work. We need standards. We don’t have standards from the CDC, federal government, from the state level, or from the local level … It’s definitely coming. We know [ Governor] Baker will release information to set us on a path forward.


What will happen in terms of space? How can we reconfigure our restaurants to account for social distancing in this transition period? How do we make them financially viable? It’s a huge question. I think some people [won’t open] their restaurants at 50 percent capacity.

I was just Zooming with my business partner Eric Papachristos. He’s in Greece. The lockdown was just lifted. Bars can serve. It’s amazing. People are going up to the bars, getting a drink, standing on the sidewalk, socializing. You can’t stop people. The question is, most people are wearing their masks on their chins. What’s going to happen? We’ll see in two weeks. I think people are aching to be hugged. I know I am.

I don’t know what the future is going to look like, but I think people will want to be in restaurants. Young people like my daughter’s boyfriend in New York, he said, “I miss restaurants.” These are kids who work in restaurants. You might think getting a break would be a good thing. But they miss restaurants.


What are people ordering for takeout?

At both our venues, menus are simplified. We’re selling everything from a rack of lamb to hamburgers. Not as much pasta as we thought, lots of salads, and what we heard is that people are looking for fish because they don’t want to cook fish at home. They’re not comfortable cooking fish at home.

What are you going to do when Boston reopens?

I’d go visit people. I’d connect with people. Go sit in a coffee shop. Go to Forge Bakery and sit in that wonderful cavernous space and have a great cappuccino and a croissant. Or a ramen place, the ramen places where you sit really close to people in Harvard Square. I don’t know when that’s going to happen, not in the next six months, but eventually.

What’s your go-to stress snack?

It’s always potato chips. I like them with sour cream and onion, or cheddar. I hate salt and vinegar. Even just saying it makes my mouth turn inside out.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Kara Baskin can be reached at Follow her @kcbaskin.