Restaurateur Nancy Batista-Caswell, 38, saw firsthand how COVID-19 affected both the urban and suburban dining scene. She runs Brine, a seafood restaurant in Newburyport, as well as Oak + Rowan in the once-bustling, currently quiet Fort Point. Brine is expanding to a larger space nearby, but she decided to close another Newburyport restaurant, Ceia, after 12 years so the two wouldn’t compete.
Still, selling seafood is challenging in the current environment, even though Brine is popular in the neighborhood.
“Consuming anything raw in takeout containers is hard and risky, so we’ve been doing a lot of chef pop-ups and themed dinner menus in a way that’s more collaborative with the neighborhood in Newburyport,” she says. The larger space opens over Mother’s Day weekend.
Oak + Rowan, meanwhile, is on the ground floor of a residential building. Batista-Caswell made use of a private patio and expanded the menu — fried chicken, ramen — before hibernating. It reopens this week.
How has business been in Fort Point, an area so dependent on offices?
In our neighborhood, we saw Bastille, Blue Dragon, Barlow’s all shutter. It was a challenge on that block off Congress Street; there wasn’t as much foot traffic from people coming off Northern Boulevard and Seaport Boulevard. We saw a lot of connections with residents that lived around us; they certainly were coming to the same places with frequency. A lot of people were scared, from what we heard, to Uber or go anywhere else, really; they were uncertain about what was happening or what the volume was. A lot of people weren’t sure if you’d take an Uber somewhere and whether it would be open or closed.
We had a lot of ability to grow our regular business, which was great, but we saw a big dip when a lot of people were going to second houses or basically just feeling like they didn’t want to be in a high-rise. In the summer, it helped, we saw a little bit more activity; people wanted to be down in the Seaport area; they were willing to get on a bike or take an Uber.
But the challenge for us is obviously that the Seaport and Fort Point area is built around business offices. We heard from a lot of our contacts that they saw themselves coming back in May, then September, then they weren’t seeing themselves coming back at all. We were seeing people evaluating their new lease commitments and maybe we were constructing something smaller. We heard a lot of marketing companies in our area went bankrupt. That became a big hit. We did a lot of takeout for those offices in the past; there was no point in us opening for lunch because nobody’s in the offices right now. If they were, they’d be getting through the day as quickly as possible versus taking a break. That’s the challenge in our neighborhood currently.
We’re seeing some people come back, we’re getting a lot of messages from our own residents saying they’ll be back in May. I think we’ll be there closer to summer, but it’s been eerie. Obviously, there’s a lot of anxiety around having a restaurant in the city for all folks, but when you’re only four years old, it’s hard to keep thinking about what else to offer people. How else do we get our name out?
What’s your take on city versus suburban restaurants?
People were shocked that we could sell a restaurant; restaurateur friends from the city couldn’t believe it. I do think the suburbs are obviously different; [people] feel the sense of commitment and wanting to get out. Newburyport is 17,000 people for what’s maybe 15 restaurants. It’s a little different.
Of course, for real estate, everyone is moving out of the city for the sake of the pandemic. I feel like there’s a benefit to the suburbs in the way that people feel more comfortable; maybe they have their own cars and can drive to pick up takeout. A lot of people would take the day, walk the boardwalk, have dinner on the patio, and head home. A staycation, day-trip kind of thing.
The only hindrance I found in the suburbs is we don’t have delivery service. We don’t have that impactful DoorDash or Uber Eats. You find a lot of people including myself doing our own delivery. That was another challenge, because you’re just thinking about delivery insurance. What if someone were to hurt themselves or hurt someone else? What could happen?
So often we’re told ‘call the restaurant and order directly’ because they take such a cut out of your profits. What about that?
They’re not heavily marketed in certain North Shore communities. They don’t have enough drivers, so while we reached out to them to see and they always had new member sign-ons, the reality was they didn’t have the amount of drivers committed to it.
We felt the challenge. Our community was thinking, ‘I just want to get food delivered.’ They’d go to pizza joints, places that would normally offer delivery. Then everyone started to realize they were inundated with lines off the hook and couldn’t get through. I had customers say, ‘I drove through town to pick up food at a pizza joint. Why am I not ordering from a local restaurant?’ It took a while for us to think, ‘Let’s move to takeout.’
What do you want customers to know? What would help restaurants right now?
I would say the best way to support, honestly, is staying as connected as possible to the restaurant and the people who work there. I know so many people frequent restaurants for the bartender or server they love, or the chef, and we’ve had so many people do things all over the state like GoFundMe.
But also think about, when they come back, how to respect [employees] and understand what the year has been like for them. We only hibernated for short periods of time and have been out working, serving guests, doing the best we can, and there are people who don’t believe in the pandemic and people who are very scared of the pandemic. We try to deal with that emotional challenge in the dining spaces, how to get everyone on the same page and get them to be respectful. At times, servers are stuck being the bad guys. I would love for people to come out and support, not only in a financial way, but just by respecting the service staff and people who are working and trying to make a living right now.
What will have changed by 2022?
When decorating Newburyport, we’re thinking about air flow and modular furniture that can move [to accommodate different groups]. I want to be able to create dining spaces for all groups and sizes, and still make the space feel comfortable and distanced. People will still have a hesitancy to sit right beside each other at a 10-person table in the future; it’s not going to be this cozy, intimate dining scene. I’m thinking about that a lot with our location.
I’m thinking about food. I was surprised by how many people still wanted shared foods, but they were dining with family and people they trusted. Initially when writing menus during the pandemic, I would think about: Does this come on an individual plate? Do they just eat each other’s food; is that going to freak them out? I still found that people continued to share food. I believe that sharing food is going to be a big thing, snacking. I think people might just want to be out.
As far as Boston goes, we have a long way ahead of us there. Landlords have been good to us, but the conventions are still far out in booking. Conventions were a big part of our business; company dining was a big part. I don’t know how much company dining or travel will be slashed now. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I wonder about how many people saw what they could accomplish on Zoom or e-mail. The only gain coming out of Boston for us with the pandemic was the ability to have a patio; we’re looking forward to utilizing that more. We’ll decorate differently and get behind that, but I think the suburbs will come back a little faster.
On a personal level, how has the past year been?
I thought I was suffering from PTSD. It sounds crazy. I started in the business at 19 and never stopped. I went from management to working for a developer to having my own restaurant at 27, another at 30, another at 33. I’m this controller of chaos, putting out fires, handling things, filling positions, and trying to be creative and push the team to do different things.
After March 15, it became this huge loss for me. My phone wasn’t ringing at 8 in the morning with someone who can’t get into the building or a staff member who can’t make it to work or a guest who doesn’t want a table. The first two or three weeks, I was looking at my phone. Nobody was calling. My husband and I would be sitting on the couch with takeout on a Saturday, three weeks in, still shut down, and I was like, ‘It’s 7 o’clock on a Saturday. I can’t sit still.’ It was a lot.
I think that in the last year, I realized a little more than I had realized before about how unhealthily connected I was, how on the go. I was doing a lot of self-evaluating: How do I want this year to have changed me so I’m not doing it all? It’s been a huge change for me. It’s been enjoyable to spend time with my husband; I think we’ve spent more time [than] in the past 15 years of being together. There’s been a lot of self-evaluating for me. I thought Ceia would hit me really hard, and I felt almost liberated by it. I felt good. I can really focus on Brine and what that will be like for me in the next year.
As restaurateurs, we don’t talk about restaurants in the red. Sometimes our restaurants are not profitable. The challenges we go through are in our own head. Are we doing this right? People are coming in; are they loving us? Are we getting beaten up on Yelp? We go through all these cycles, but coming into the pandemic, we really built this community on conversation that we never had before.
You hear somebody now saying, ‘We did 100 people for takeout over the weekend; we only did this; we only did that.’ I’m not alone in this. Other people are going through this, and that sense of community is huge. That’s the only upside to what we’ve experienced.
What’s your pandemic indulgence?
I’ve been reading a lot. It’s been easy reads, some more psychological reads, but I’ve been reading to the point that I just started to join book clubs, which I thought I’d never have time for in the past. I thought “The Silent Patient” was awesome.