COVID-19 be damned, Jason Santos is opening a new restaurant. B & B Fish will specialize in fried seafood and soft-serve on Pleasant Street in Marblehead, a departure from his flashier city spots: Abby Lane, Buttermilk & Bourbon, and Citrus & Salt. “People are more excited for this than my other restaurants. They’re excited to get a little taste of Boston,” says Santos, 44, who is also known for a bright-blue mop of hair and frequent TV appearances. “It’ll be a fun little thing.”
So you’re actually opening a restaurant right now.
We’re looking to open in August and starting construction next week, as funny as it sounds. My wife gives me [a hard time]: You had nothing to do, so you just decide to open a restaurant? Yes. I got to clear my head. I try to make everything positive as much as I can. It is horrible. People are sick. I get it. But I’ve never had this kind of time to reflect, think, and plan the next move for me and the restaurant and how to adapt. I’m generally super busy, and I lose track of time. It was a silver lining.
I looked at the space last year. It was an old gas station, vacant for 20 years, literally out of a movie. The roof was sinking in. I didn’t love it, so I passed on it. A year later, I was with my wife, deciding to go do some takeout and get some fried clams. We drove by, and the owner of the plot had revamped it enough to sell. I watched 1,000 cars go by. It was the busiest street in Marblehead.
It’s something I always wanted to do. I always wanted to open a little pizza place, a seafood place. So, yeah, it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for two months without working, but it’s not as reckless as it sounds. It’s small, it’s tiny. I’m surprised so many people are interested. It’ll be a little takeout place. I’ll try to do the nicest takeout place they’ve ever seen, but no TVs, no liquor. None of that. It’s a little fish and chips place, but slightly higher-end but not higher-end in the sense of dine-in, just in the sense of chef-driven.
How are your other restaurants doing?
They’re terrible. We closed right around March 15 when the city wasn’t sure what was going on. We decided to stop dinner. We were killing it with takeout, like nothing I’d ever seen. But then my assistant general manager at Buttermilk got COVID-19. We thought that he got it from a restaurant, or a patron, and we got freaked out. We just wanted to put everyone’s health first. It wasn’t worth the few thousand dollars in takeout. I shut all the restaurants down. I don’t want anyone dying on me. He was in the ICU for over a month. He’s now home and going to make a full recovery. He’s not coming back to work for another month. He has PT to do.
To be honest, the only reason I’m reopening now is to get some staff back on payroll and make them some money. We’re breaking even at best. Honestly, it was cheaper for me to stay closed. But some of these guys can’t collect [unemployment], or even with collecting, they can’t pay the bills.
How will the Boston restaurant industry change because of this?
I don’t want to make light of it by any means. We have had to adapt so many times in this business; we’re just going to have to change. People are always going to have to eat. They will just have to eat differently. We’ll change the way we do business. I think restaurants are already safe due to the sanitation we employ. It’ll be different, and at some point, it’ll inch back to quote-unquote ‘normal.’ Nobody goes out to eat now and references the avian bird flu anymore. We’ll adapt and change with the times. I’m concerned but not scared. We just do what we do.
How will you adapt to make guests feel safer?
I think everything has to change. We have to be more vigilant in terms of safety. We’ll have sanitizer out, sanitizer stations for guests. That’s something we normally we wouldn’t do. And spacing of tables. Takeout will be bigger and better. I frankly never had any interest in doing takeout. No matter how good the food is, I think it’s not as good as eating it in a restaurant. I’m concerned about super juicy chicken and a driver taking too long, and it’s not as good. It’s still a reflection of us, even if technically, we served it right. We’ll be looking at different packaging and ways of doing things.
How do you have the funds to open a new restaurant right now?
There are no taps, and the rent is reasonable, compared with Boston, where I have to do 80 grand a week to pay my bills. It’s a way to give some people some jobs and fun and make some money while doing it. I’ve never been driven by money, and it’s something I always wanted to do. I think it will all fall into place.
What’s the first thing you’re going to do when life goes back to normal?
I just saw my mom, and we sat on my deck for coffee. I can’t wait to be around people and just not worry about this. I can’t wait to go to Chinatown. I’m dying to get some dumplings and noodles.
What are you eating?
You would be disgusted. In the beginning, truthfully, I was so scared that I was ordering food from Amazon and Instacart and leaving it on the street. Don’t come near my yard! I’d go out in a hazmat suit. I wouldn’t even do takeout, but then slowly we did some takeout. Once a week, I got Frank Pepe’s pizza, my favorite pizza in the world. It’d be my last meal. A week later, we got some Chinese food. Before that, I was literally baking bread every day. I had nothing to do. What did I do? I cooked all day long. I made homemade tortillas one night, things I generally wouldn’t have time or energy for. I bought cod at Market Basket, made 20 variations for my wife and her sister, and had them pick their favorites. I was all over the place, from fresh pasta to Chinese takeout.
How can the City of Boston help you, policy-wise?
I think it’s about being positive. If we do have to have certain stipulations, it’s fine, but let’s spin it to be a positive thing. How great is it to go to a restaurant? Yeah, you wear a mask, that sucks, but you still get to do it. I feel like there’s light at end of the tunnel. I’m rested and reinvigorated. It hit close to home with staff and friends, but we have to keep going and make it better and bigger than before.