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DEVRA FIRST

So many Boston restaurants have closed. It’s just the tip of the iceberg

With PPP money running dry and the outdoor dining season coming to a close, the industry is on a precipice.

Empty tables in the closed Whiskey's on Boylston Street last week.
Empty tables in the closed Whiskey's on Boylston Street last week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Artu in Beacon Hill, the Automatic, Bar Boulud, Bella Luna, Bergamot, Coda, Cuchi Cuchi, Dante, Deep Ellum, the Friendly Toast, the Frogmore, O’Leary’s, Parsnip, the Pour House, Stella, the Table at Season to Taste, Tango, Wit’s End. . . . These are just some of the Boston-area restaurants that have closed since coronavirus began to decimate the dining landscape. Many were around so long they felt like old friends. We grew up in these places. We gathered there as college students, went on dates and got engaged, celebrated life’s milestones.

According to Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, 3,600 of the 16,000 restaurants that existed in the state on March 1 — or about 23 percent — have not reopened. This is just the tip of the iceberg, say many who work in the industry. The number is only going to grow in the coming months, affecting not just business owners but employment levels. In July, Massachusetts had the highest unemployment rate of any state at 16.1 percent. “Ten percent of jobs in Massachusetts sit inside the four walls of a restaurant,” Luz says. “And that does not include everybody that provides us with goods and services.”

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Bessie King and her mother, Julie King, at Villa México Café in June.
Bessie King and her mother, Julie King, at Villa México Café in June.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“I fear we’ll see a lot of closures,” says Bessie King. She owns Villa México Café with her mother, Julie King, who founded the business 20 years ago, relocating it from Woburn to Beacon Hill to the current Financial District location. “Once snow comes, other than people making deliveries and third-party delivery services, who is going to go get takeout, sit outside, eat at restaurants?” Julie is keeping the restaurant running while Bessie works an office job to bring in additional income. “Right now we’re just trying to keep the restaurant open and going, for almost a moral duty to our community and our industry,” Bessie says. “If the haters didn’t close us down, if the debts didn’t close us down, if the relocations didn’t close us down, if crooked landlords didn’t close us down, we don’t want to let COVID do that.”

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“There are a lot of really good restaurants that are not going to make it,” says Chris Coombs of Boston Chops in the South End and Downtown Crossing, dbar in Dorchester, and Deuxave in Back Bay. “I’ve been talking to a lot of friends who are done with the industry altogether or taking a couple of years off. Really, really talented chefs and restaurateurs are getting completely gutted. The wave of places hasn’t even started yet. October through March is going to be so bad.”

The downtown branch of Boston Chops is likely to close for good, he says. When he tried reopening, about 130 people came the first week; the restaurant’s previous worst week had been around 1,300. The restaurant was built with a focus on events, with several private rooms. But events have disappeared for the foreseeable future, along with hotel guests, office traffic, and the ballet and theater crowds. And many residents of the neighborhood’s luxury buildings have decamped to second homes. Coombs’s rent is about $32,500 a month, and running utilities alone costs $10,000-$15,000 a month in the summer. “It’s really expensive to keep that restaurant closed,” he says.

Tim and Nancy Cushman made their name with the acclaimed O Ya, near South Station, and went on to open branches in New York and Mexico City, along with Hojoko in the Fenway and several other concepts. They were about to open a new restaurant, Bianca, when the pandemic began, but pivoted to a pizza business called Mr. Roni Cups in the Chestnut Hill space. They plan to reopen Hojoko this week, and they’re trying to figure things out for the Boston branch of O Ya. “If anybody says their restaurant is not in jeopardy right now, they’re lying,” says Nancy Cushman.

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Each restaurant faces its own set of challenges: location, business model, landlord relationship. But there are commonalities that make the situation facing the industry increasingly dire. Federal Paycheck Protection Program money is running dry, and additional government aid has not materialized. And the outdoor dining that helped many get through spring and summer is about to meet the realities of New England fall. It remains to be seen how willing the public is to return to indoor dining, but even if restaurants are full, they will be operating at restricted capacity, while still trying to pay the rent and keep the lights on. In the best of times, the restaurant business runs on average margins of 3 to 6 percent.

Chef Jose Duarte at Taranta in 2015.
Chef Jose Duarte at Taranta in 2015.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“When you only sell 9 percent of what you normally sell on a month, the numbers don’t work,” says Jose Duarte, who closed his North End restaurant, Taranta, at the end of August after 20 years in business. “We had PPP. It was not enough. We tried to do takeout, and then we reopened, and there was no one. It was very, very quiet. They only allowed us to put in four tables. We were operating at 30 percent capacity. Even on a Saturday night, we could fill all the tables and we would do 50 or 55 [diners]. At the end of the day, that doesn’t really help with payroll. We used to do 130 to 150.”

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Duarte continues to operate Tambo 22 in Chelsea, and he and his wife, Anna Duarte, are part owners of Trattoria San Pietro in Norwell. “Everybody has their own story,” he says. “I have three different stories. Tambo, where I own. San Pietro, where the landlord is super-helpful, and the story of Taranta. . . . My biggest issue was to try to meet my rent. I was trying to somehow negotiate from the beginning with my landlord to either get abatement, reduction, or some sort of relief. And I was not successful.”

The North End restaurant relied on a steady calendar of events — Celtics games, the Marathon, the seafood show, graduations, conferences — along with corporate entertaining and functions. When that all dried up, local clientele wasn’t enough to carry the business. Duarte loaded his equipment into a cargo container; he hopes to reopen Taranta in the future, maybe in a different neighborhood.

Abdullah Ashur, the owner of Ashur Restaurant and Dayib Cafe in Roxbury, underscores the importance of having a cooperative landlord. He was able to keep Ashur open throughout the pandemic, often working 12-hour days, with his sisters doing the cooking.

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"It wasn’t easy, but the good thing was the landlord worked with us and never pushed us, accepting whatever I had at that time,” he says. National Grid and Eversource were also helpful. They never shut off his gas or electricity. During the month of Ramadan, he received a grant from the Boston Resiliency Fund to deliver meals to seniors; that was then extended for another month. He offered delivery through third-party services. And as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, he has seen a steady stream of customers wanting to support Black-owned restaurants. It all adds up. “If you’re getting help from the landlords, then you can stay. You can keep the restaurant with National Grid and Eversource. Without those three, you cannot run a restaurant. The other thing is the community. The community supported us,” he says.

Rokeya Chowdhury with her husband, Solmon, in 2016.
Rokeya Chowdhury with her husband, Solmon, in 2016.Jessica Rinaldi

Rokeya Chowdhury — co-owner of Shanti Restaurant in Dorchester, Roslindale, and Cambridge, and Dudley Cafe in Roxbury — sees something different with each business. Dudley Cafe is a popular gathering spot in Nubian Square, but currently no one can gather; previously dependent on office traffic, it has added delivery to the mix. At Shanti, which serves Indian cuisine, they are focusing on takeout and delivery in their Boston locations. The Kendall Square branch remains closed: “Kendall is very dead,” Chowdhury says. Much of Shanti’s business is tied to local universities such as UMass-Boston, MIT, Harvard, and Northeastern. Back-to-school events and catering sales are largely on hold. They are waiting to see what October and November bring. “We have a better plan than what we had in March, so I think that’s one positive,” she says.

Restaurateur Tam Le’s Dorchester businesses, Pho Hoa (started by his father in 1992) and Reign Drink Lab, are both open for business, he says. He tried to do takeout at Pho Linh in Quincy, but it wasn’t worth it; that restaurant is closed for now. But on Thursday, he and a partner opened a new restaurant, Chashu Ramen + Izakaya in Worcester. He’s an optimist, he says.

Tam Le and his mother, Thao, at Pho Linh restaurant in 2015.
Tam Le and his mother, Thao, at Pho Linh restaurant in 2015.John Tlumacki

“I hate to say it, but it’s going to come down to a survival of the fittest. Those that are able to adapt, find innovative ways to make money, get their product to people, and have customers feel safe with coming in, I think those are the businesses that are going to survive,” he says. “My neighbors in Quincy, Balducci’s pizza, they’re [extremely busy]. They were primarily takeout and delivery to begin with. For finer, full-service dining establishments, it’s going to be really difficult.”

Luz of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association is an optimist, too. “I think part of the real story here is everybody’s choosing to eat outdoors, and I think everybody assumes they’re afraid to go indoors,” he says. “I don’t think that’s it at all. I think it’s because we never had the opportunity to eat outdoors before. Over 80 percent of the restaurants in Massachusetts had zero ability to have outdoor dining before COVID.” He is confident in restaurants' ability to keep diners safe indoors.

Chef and owner Chris Coombs at Boston Chops in Downtown Crossing in 2018.
Chef and owner Chris Coombs at Boston Chops in Downtown Crossing in 2018. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

We’ll know soon enough whether diners agree. It’s just one of the many unknowns that make it difficult for restaurateurs to plan ahead right now. Will schools be able to remain open? Will there be a spike in coronavirus infections, or even another shutdown? Will there be more government aid? On Thursday, a scaled-back coronavirus relief bill failed in the Senate, but industry groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition and Mass Restaurants United still have hopes for assistance, including a $120 billion RESTAURANTS Act, which is before Congress. On the state level, a Distressed Restaurant Fund, included in an economic development bill, could bring relief to some, along with proposed measures like capping third-party delivery fees.

Luz says he hopes no more than 33 percent of the state’s restaurants close over the course of the pandemic. But without another round of PPP, many restaurateurs say businesses will not survive in the short term. As for the long-term picture, many agree, there is only one solution.

“To be honest, if we don’t figure out rapid testing or a highly effective vaccine, I think every restaurant is at risk of failure,” Coombs says.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.