Order takeout. If you can afford it, it’s your civic duty.
Hear me out, because I’m being serious. We’re being serious. Today the Globe launches a campaign, Project Takeout, asking the public to do just that. Get takeout once a week if you can. Get takeout twice. Revisit a restaurant that’s an old favorite, or try a new one. (For inspiration, check out our online map at globe.com/project-takeout and follow the Food section, where in coming weeks we are amping up our takeout coverage.) Here is why this matters so much right now:
The story is the same everywhere, even as the details differ. Independent restaurants are on the ropes. The owners, chefs, servers, line cooks, bartenders, and dishwashers who animate them are fighting hard to survive. The pandemic may have slashed seating capacity for customers willing to eat indoors. Winter may have howled down outdoor dining. But these businesses just need to make it a little longer — to the warmer weather, to the vaccine’s full rollout. They just need to make it to the other side.
The beginning of April: “That’s our projection,” says Andy Husbands, pitmaster and owner of the Smoke Shop, a barbecue joint with branches in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. “Hopefully we’re rounding the bend on this. When you go through struggles, you’ve got to look forward.”
The beginning of April. That’s a fried chicken sandwich, saag paneer, handmade tagliatelle Bolognese, a juicy burger with fries, vegan pad thai, pulled pork with mac and cheese and greens, a bean burrito, jollof rice, mapo tofu, an Italian sub, and a steaming bowl of pho to you, if you order once a week. Plus to-go cocktails should you want them. For this enjoyable contribution, you receive the continued existence of your favorite restaurants. If it seems this kind of small action wouldn’t make a difference, think back to the Victory Garden movement of World War I and II, when at one point an estimated 40 percent of the country’s vegetables were being grown in home plots. “Will you have a part in victory?” as a pro-garden poster of the time asked.
Order takeout to support Taberna de Haro, the Spanish restaurant that chef Deborah Hansen opened in Brookline in 1998. It’s the kind of place everyone loves: unpretentious, reliable, a cornerstone of the neighborhood that happens to have an award-winning wine list. It’s also temporarily closed; Hansen plans to reopen Jan. 26. Like so many others, the restaurant has been hemorrhaging cash this winter. “I have to regroup and figure out how I break even and stay alive until April or May, when I can serve on the patio again,” Hansen says. “Order takeout. Order gift certificates. That’s how people can help.”
Order takeout to support Artú. General manager Gianni Frattaroli’s family opened the North End trattoria two weeks before he was born. Now 28, he grew up there, working his way from dishwasher to barback to his current position. On Saturday nights, Artú used to serve about 220 people. “Now it’s down to maybe 20 in the dining room,” he says. Other nearby restaurants are closing or limiting hours, and the streets of the North End are often empty these days, Frattaroli says. “We’re doing our best to make sure we’re open to provide the neighborhood with food.”
Order takeout to support Soleil. Chef Cheryl Straughter serves generous breakfasts, Southern specialties, and delicious wood-planked salmon at Soleil, which she opened two years ago in Nubian Square. “Takeout becomes important as one of the main revenue streams we have,” she says. “I err on the side of being encouraged and hopeful. That’s how I walk in faith. Of course there are times we are stressed if we have a slow day, but we always come in the door the following day hoping for more numbers.”
Order takeout for yourself, of course, too, because you just couldn’t bear to see the doors close at your favorite little bistro, your neighborhood Chinese restaurant, that friendly pub where they really do know your name, that special spot for celebrating life’s milestones. You just couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the restaurants that give us all a place to gather, which we will do again soon. We just need to make it to the other side.
(If you can, order directly from the restaurant rather than through a third-party delivery service such as DoorDash or Uber Eats. Although a pending economic development bill may ultimately cap their fees, for now these can be as high as 30 percent.)
But ordering takeout is about much more than investing in the future of your favorite places. Each restaurant is the center of an ecosystem, its impact radiating outward.
Before the pandemic, the restaurant industry accounted for 1 out of every 10 jobs in Massachusetts. Over 2020, the state lost 132,800, or about 35 percent, of its leisure and hospitality jobs; according to a December survey from the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, 39 percent, or 99,450, of the 255,000 restaurant workers furloughed in March have never been recalled. Under current COVID restrictions, seating capacity is capped at 25 percent statewide until at least Jan. 24. It is impossible for many restaurants to staff at their usual levels. It is impossible for many restaurants to make a profit. Profit is simply not why they are open at this point. Every single operator I’ve spoken with stresses this: They are open to keep people employed.
With all of the current restrictions, is it still worth it to seat customers indoors? “I have people who need to feed themselves, who have families, who need to pay rent,” says Husbands. “This isn’t about me and my bottom line anymore. This is about getting our teams to survive through the winter. Is it worth it? Yes. As a business, it wouldn’t be any model that I’d want to follow.”
In many cases, staffers are like family, with bonds that stretch over decades. Three of Taberna de Haro’s employees have worked there for more than 20 years. “How do I just leave them for dead? I can’t. I can’t,” says Hansen, who gave the trio three weeks’ paid vacation during the restaurant’s closure. One line cook has worked at Artú for 27 years. Frattaroli has known him his entire life.
At Soleil, Straughter employs nine people. “I have amongst my staff single people, I have single moms with children, I have a young gentleman just trying to make his way in the world. My staff is diverse, both in culture and ethnicity,” she says. “I’m carrying that and happy to do so, but it becomes challenging if we have a slow week.”
There are also the livelihoods based outside the four walls of a restaurant that nonetheless depend on what happens within: farmers, fishermen, bread companies, food distributors, linen services, graphic artists, interior designers. “We don’t stand on an island alone,” Straughter says. “There are all these tentacles that support the restaurant industry. It’s Cheryl’s Nine plus. It’s Cheryl’s Nine times. When you think about ordering with a local restaurant, you’re supporting so many people.”
Key to the restaurant workforce are undocumented immigrants, an estimated 250,000 of whom live in Massachusetts, per 2016 Pew Research Center data. Ineligible for unemployment and other federal assistance, these vulnerable staff members are many restaurant owners’ biggest concern. According to a survey of more than 400 immigrant households conducted by Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, about 84 percent of those with undocumented members had experienced a job loss in July, when state unemployment was at its peak.
Yessenia Prodero is an immigrant rights organizer for Massachusetts Jobs With Justice. She manages the MassUndocuFund, set up to assist the undocumented during the pandemic. Thus far, it has given out almost 3,000 onetime payments of $300 each in 14 counties around the state, she says. Thirty-one percent of those payments went to people employed within the food industry, whether directly in restaurants or at packaging plants, making deliveries, and so on. Most are women heading households with at least one or two dependents, often more. “With COVID, people haven’t been able to send money back home, and they also have dependents there,” Prodero says. “They may have spouses or children or elderly parents [in their home countries] that depend on their income they make here. People have come from 49 different countries. The immigrants we speak to are very representative of our world.”
Restaurants have reach. They are also deeply, vitally local. They give our neighborhoods flavor. They shape where we want to live, where other businesses want to open, where tourists want to bring their dollars. They make our neighborhoods safer; they lift our property values. (The local and state meals tax they generate doesn’t hurt, either, funding everything from road repairs to marketing campaigns.)
“Restaurants are so key to the vibrancy of cities, particularly small-and medium-size cities,” says Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, whose city of 8 square miles contains 158 restaurants. “I think they tell a story. If you’ve got thriving restaurants, it typically means you’ve got a thriving local economy. We have a lot of tourists and visitors, and it’s all part of this healthy ecosystem. Whether it’s cultural activities like theaters and movies and other aspects of entertainment, they tend to revolve around food and restaurants.”
And when business dries up, neighborhoods suffer. “In our community, folks are setting aside part of their weekly spending money to go out to eat, buy takeout, maybe even more so than they did in the past,” Driscoll says. “It’s part of the community mission. You’re not only getting dinner for yourself and your family, you’re also helping support the comeback of places we want to make sure are here when we reopen. It’s not about helping anonymous restaurants. These are our neighbors and friends. They’re not numbers. They’re real people.”
It makes me think of Boston’s historic Chinatown, which has been particularly hard hit since the earliest days of the pandemic. We’ve already seen landmarks like Peking duck specialist China King shutter for good. Peter Wang, chef-owner of some of Chinatown’s most popular restaurants — Dumpling Cafe, Gourmet Dumpling House, and Taiwan Cafe (along with Dumpling Palace near the Symphony) — says business has dropped about 60 percent. “The people who come into the restaurant are very, very few,” he says through an interpreter. “We really rely on takeout to survive a little. I hope that the reader understands this and patronizes us more to help us out. That’s what I hope.”
That’s what the Globe hopes, too. Order takeout. If you can afford it, it’s your civic duty.