In an interview last week, Barbara Lynch mentioned something that not long ago would have been unimaginable: The chef-owner of B&G Oysters, the Butcher Shop, Drink, Menton, No. 9 Park, and Sportello would close all her restaurants temporarily in January.
Lynch is going into “hibernation,” the latest restaurateur to press pause, shut down, and pare expenses to a bare minimum in hopes of making it through the winter. A spate of such announcements came last week, from Somerville’s Highland Kitchen, OAK Long Bar + Kitchen in the Fairmont Copley Plaza, and Prezza in the North End, along with sister restaurants Blue Ox and Tonno, among others. Wine bars haley.henry and Nathalie announced they will do the same starting Dec. 24: “We hate the word ‘hibernating’… it sounds ‘cute’ ... and that’s not at all what this is,” their statement read in part. “It’s heartbreaking on every level.”
If you want to see a terrifying vision from the ghost of Boston future — one that could well come to pass — try getting takeout from your favorite restaurants in January and February. All closed? If help doesn’t come, and soon, this could be what the dining landscape looks like in the longer run: decimated.
According to a National Restaurant Association survey of 6,000 operators, 87 percent of full-service restaurants saw an average revenue drop of 36 percent in the second half of November. Eighty-three percent said they expect the situation to grow direr in the coming months. And 17 percent — more than 110,000 restaurants — have closed. Locally, 3,400 Massachusetts restaurants have gone out of business during the pandemic, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at a Monday press briefing, where he announced the city would return to a modified Phase 2, Step 2 with a 90-minute time limit on eating at restaurants and licensing board approval required for bar seating. And the hibernations are likely just the beginning. “I suspect by early January those numbers will exceed 1,000 and beyond, and a significant number will be in the Greater Boston area because of the total lack of traffic-drivers and overabundance of locations and seats,” says Massachusetts Restaurant Association president Bob Luz.
The numbers sound shocking, but what would you expect? This is an industry that has been operating under necessary constraints since March, when indoor dining was shut down; it returned in late June with restricted capacity. During the pandemic, restaurants have done what they could: pivot, pivot, pivot. “We made ourselves a whole new restaurant in five days. It was as hard as opening a restaurant,” Craigie on Main chef-owner Tony Maws told me back then.
Places with white tablecloths and sommeliers suddenly specialized in takeout. Kitchens adjusted menus so dishes would travel well and learned to navigate the world of delivery services, with their attendant fees. Bartenders created cocktail kits. Restaurants became markets, selling prepared foods and hard-to-come-by groceries. Teams came together to prepare meals for medical workers and others in need, including their colleagues. People started pop-ups, or hosted the pop-ups their friends had started. When outdoor dining was given the green light, the state became an al fresco food court, as civilians ate french fries and basked in the sun and operators spent money setting up pleasant patios, investing in heaters that would never be warm enough to carry them through the New England winter. This was all in addition to the increased costs of cleaning, Plexiglas barriers, gloves, masks — and, inevitably, COVID testing for the entire staff when someone tests positive, shutting the whole thing down for a few days.
You can’t say the restaurant industry isn’t resilient. You can’t say it hasn’t tried. “This is probably the toughest time I’ve ever been through in the 50 years I’ve been in this business,” says North End restaurateur Frank DePasquale, who runs Bricco, Mare, Trattoria il Panino, and others. “We’re used to changing as we move along, but it’s like a roller coaster. One minute you’re spending so much money for Plexiglas or outdoor heaters or barriers or umbrellas. Then the next minute it’s no longer there. We spent a lot of money trying to keep this thing going.”
So where is the aid? It is untenable for government to require an industry to all but shut down, then reinvent itself on the fly again and again, without offering significant assistance along the way. To an extent, this goes for all small businesses affected, from personal trainers to dry cleaners. But what makes the restaurant industry different is the sheer number of people to whom it offers a livelihood: 10 percent of jobs in Massachusetts, according to Luz, and that’s without taking into account those who provide attendant goods and services.
The federal Paycheck Protection Program brought some early relief, although its restrictions didn’t always work well for restaurants: Much of it had to be used for payroll, for instance, when other expenses were pressing. Rent due? Better hope you have an understanding landlord. And the program tended to favor big companies better able to navigate the application process, and with established relationships with banks, over small, independent neighborhood restaurants.
The Massachusetts House proposed a Distressed Restaurant Fund as part of an economic development bill, to be financed from proceeds from legalized sports betting. It would help restaurants with things like rent, payroll, and PPE, as well as capping third-party delivery fees. This, along with any other aid from Massachusetts, is much needed. But as Representative Aaron Michlewitz, the House budget chairman, pointed out when I spoke with him about the bill in September, “We can’t print money. Washington can. Our resources are very limited in terms of what we can provide in real dollars.”
And this is largely Washington’s dereliction of duty, on the watch of a president who himself is in the hospitality business. For months, industry groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition and Mass Restaurants United have been asking Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act, which would establish a $120 billion fund to help independent restaurants. Let’s see: Preserve an industry the IRC says employs 11 million people nationally, plus 5 million more via supply chains, or no? Save jobs now, or pay for it later? Every restaurateur I’ve spoken with has prioritized the ongoing employment of staff members. It’s not about profit at this point. It’s about ensuring the continued existence of workplaces until such time as they may become profitable again.
I like eating in restaurants. A lot. I care more about the people who work in them, whose livelihoods are on the line. The people who have put in years of labor to open them and stand to lose everything. The farmers and fishermen and other producers whose markets have dried up. The people who face the very real possibility of hunger and loss of housing. I care about cities and their character and how much of that will go away if restaurants fail.
The government is supposed to take care of its people. Yet in this country, we start GoFundMe campaigns to pay for funerals for people who died because they couldn’t afford health care. And now citizens are trying to do the equivalent to save the restaurants we love. In the name of all that is good, as you can afford it, please: Get takeout. Pick it up yourself, if possible, to avoid third-party delivery fees, which can be as high as 30 percent. Buy restaurant gift cards for everyone this holiday season. (For that matter, get your winter sweaters dry-cleaned and re-up your museum memberships and pay for that yoga livestream from your favorite instructor.) Every little bit helps. But it’s not going to save an industry that needs an industry-specific bailout created with industry input by people who understand how the business works.
Until that happens, state and local governments will continue to do the dance they’re doing, trying to balance public health and economic interests. For restaurants, this can result in measures that seem arbitrary, like last month’s requirement that they close their doors by 9:30 p.m. in order to get the public home by 10 per a new stay-at-home advisory. The earlier closing was punitive for many: Hector Piña said it could mean a loss of 30 percent at South End restaurant Doña Habana; Ed Kane said his Big Night Entertainment Group does 50 percent of its business after 9. It felt like security theater for a virus that, last I heard, can be transmitted any time of day.
New York City just closed again for indoor dining. If the Commonwealth as a whole doesn’t do the same, I suspect select cities and towns will as coronavirus numbers continue to rise — particularly after the holidays, when people will gather despite being told not to because of the risks.
For restaurants, it’s an impossible situation: death by 1,000 paper cuts or one swift blow. People are beginning to fray under the pressure. “There’s a lot of fear and anxiety with the unknown,” Kane says. “We saw it with employees and managers. The minute you lose hope or can’t pay your bills, it feels overwhelming.”
We can argue with the data, we can yell at one another about masks, we can debate the efficacy of restrictions. But the restrictions aren’t the outrage. The lack of aid is.
Restaurants need measures like the Distressed Restaurant Fund and the RESTAURANTS Act to move forward. They need a second round of PPP. They need things like rent forgiveness, insurance assistance, tax-free payroll relief. They need a bailout. Where is it?