On Friday, the snow began to fall, early but inevitable. Winter was here, and with it the cold truth that the outdoor dining season would soon be at an end. Then, in a press conference Monday, Governor Charlie Baker announced restaurants and other businesses must close their doors by 9:30 p.m. as part of the effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. It was a one-two punch for the state’s bistros, brunch spots, and brewpubs, many of which are struggling to survive.
“Outside seating makes up for the seating we cannot do inside. When the outside seating is totally gone because of the weather, our sales are less and less,” says Boston restaurateur Hector Piña. Doña Habana, the Cuban restaurant he and wife Nivia run on the South End-Roxbury border, can usually seat up to 75 people outdoors. Number of people out on the spacious patio Friday: zero. “Nobody would dare to sit outside when it’s snowing or raining. There’s no way. We were down 30 or 35 percent from what is the new normal.”
Factor in the early closing time and the numbers look much worse, he says. The Piñas’ Roxbury restaurant Merengue shuts down at 10, so it’s not much of a factor. But Doña Habana and Vejigantes, in the South End, will be hurt. “On weekends, Doña Habana goes until midnight. You’ll be taking another 30 percent of the sales,” he says.
At The Porch in Medford, chef-owner Jonathan Post had been at work for several hours on Friday afternoon when an employee arrived and asked if he had looked outside. “He took me out front and the tents had just crumbled under the weight of the snow,” Post says. They were able to salvage one of the coverings, which gave them three outdoor tables instead of the usual dozen or so. “Friday was brutal, and we’ve been doing a lot of business Saturday afternoons on the patio. That was dead because everything was covered in snow. It was a rough week last week. Friday we dropped about 60 reservations.”
The Porch also closes at 10 and won’t be much affected by the new mandate, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. “The intentions are, I’m sure, good and well, but there just doesn’t seem to be consistency in these rules,” Post says. “Charlie Baker pulled the rug out from underneath us, and there was just a big hole under the rug. … I haven’t heard talk of any assistance coming from the Commonwealth. On a state level, Baker keeps handing down these restrictions and regulations, and there’s just been no relief.”
Jamie Bissonnette was at his South End restaurant Toro when he noticed the awnings were straining under the sleet and snow. He tried to push it all off. “When I let go, the weight of it split the awning and it dumped about 20 gallons of ice and slush on my face.” He went home to change, then headed over to Little Donkey in Cambridge, where he and business partner Ken Oringer spent two hours shoveling, salting, and getting ready to open the Central Square spot. “We went from 180 reservations to 60 pretty quickly. I don’t remember where we landed that night at Little Donkey, 48 or something like that, and it was the same at Toro and Coppa.” This past weekend, the weather meant the difference between $2,000 and $12,000 to $14,000 in sales at one of the restaurants, he says. Coppa, also in the South End, had a thriving outdoor dining scene all summer long. Friday, the festive turquoise chairs and tables on the corner of Shawmut went unoccupied.
“Patios did not save us. And now the snow is killing us,” Bissonnette posted on Instagram.
It is hard not to view all of these collapsed tents and awnings as a symbol of the restaurant industry itself, bowed by forces beyond its control. More than 70 local restaurants have closed since the start of the pandemic, and many others won’t make it through this winter. Industry group Mass Restaurants United has been lobbying for the state to pass an economic development bill, create a Distressed Restaurant Fund, and cap third-party delivery fees, as it reiterated in a statement released after Baker’s Monday press conference.
“Our members are in dire need of financial relief in order to survive this global pandemic that has sparked a crisis unparalleled to anything we’ve ever seen before,” read the statement. “Over the last six months, independent restaurants across Massachusetts have been forced to reinvent themselves many times just to keep the doors open.
“Winter is coming, restaurants are closing everyday, and we have been waiting since August for our lawmakers to pass an Economic Development Bill that would provide much-needed support for distressed restaurants. We urge the MA Legislature to pass this bill now.”
Without relief or greater guidance from the government, many restaurateurs say, they feel left on their own to make difficult decisions: Whether to hibernate for the winter, shutting down to control costs and reopening in the spring, as some are choosing to do. Whether to open for indoor dining, balancing potential health risks to staff with their continued employment.
Bissonnette says he and Oringer are weighing the merits of introducing indoor dining. Coppa and Toro have such small dining rooms, would a server even be able to make enough money in tips off so few tables? They ran the numbers for all of their restaurants, and it would make the most financial sense for them to use their savings to pay rent and utilities and close for the winter, he says. “But so many people rely on us for their livelihoods. They’re living paycheck to paycheck. We have people that we love, that we care about. It doesn’t feel for me like it’s the right thing to do.”
The staff is divided, he says. “Twenty percent want us to close and hibernate for the winter. Eighty percent are willing to do anything and keep a paycheck.” And the breakdown falls along lines of race and class: The smaller group is largely white people with support systems and resources, while the bigger is predominantly made up of immigrants and people of color. “I’m very conflicted. As the coach, when 80 percent want to play and 20 percent don’t, do you cancel the game or play without the 20 percent?”
Ed Kane, of Big Night Entertainment Group, echoes much of what Bissonnette is saying. His company, behind such restaurants as Empire, Red Lantern, and Scorpion Bar, was able to rehire 531 of the 1,300 employees it furloughed at the start of the pandemic. With a focus on nightlife, his restaurants will take a substantial hit with the 9:30 closing. “I do 50 percent [of business] before 9 and 50 percent after 9,” he says. “I’ll have to lay off maybe 40 percent of my rehired employees. I lose less money closed than open, but that puts more people on the street. ... We are trying our best to keep people who can’t pay their bills, who can’t feed their families, who live in communities where there are really high rates.”
Most restaurateurs are rule followers, Kane says. They understand inspections; they comply with regulations. Contrast that with the wild parties he sees documented on social media. Is sending people away early really the safest course of action? “If I have to have everyone out by 9:30, when’s my last seating, 8 o’clock? it’s so early. It’s hard right now dealing with clients. We’re the enforcement police. We put extra security at restaurants to make sure people are putting their masks on. Now we have to say: ‘You gotta eat up! You gotta go home! Even though we don’t believe you’re going home!’ ”
Restaurateurs are frustrated, he says. They want to comply for the greater good, but they need a clear path forward. “You can’t just tell people you have to take your last party at 8 or 8:30 and we’ll see you in the spring,” he says.
“There needs to be a plan. I’m sure the governor has a plan. I just want to know what it is. What is it? There’s an avalanche of repercussions, and at the end of this pile, there’s people.”