Another in a series of stories in which restaurateurs and chefs reflect on their businesses — and their lives — one year into the pandemic.
Bagelsaurus owner Mary Ting Hyatt’s final pre-pandemic meal was at Breadboard Bakery in East Arlington, a couple of miles from her seven-year-old bagel shop outside Porter Square in Cambridge. It was on March 11, and the pandemic loomed ahead like a hazy monster with questionable fangs.
“I wondered, ‘What does this all mean?’ And then the next three days were crazy. Things sort of spiraled,” she recalls.
At first, there was a quaintly naïve orderliness to her preparations.
“It seems every other restaurant was posting, ‘Oh, we’re going to increase our sanitation. We’re wiping down the tables between each customer. We’re going to pour milk in your coffee ourselves.’ And we thought those little things would make a difference. It was humbling. People were just scrounging for info, and we didn’t really have anyone to follow,” she says.
Ultimately, she decided to shutter Bagelsaurus for a week, which became two, which became a month. And, slowly, it grew clear that the pandemic was here to stay. She wondered about opening up for takeout but wasn’t sure. Her restaurant was known for a busy counter-service scene and coveted tables that many people would sell an UppaBaby stroller for.
“We weren’t getting any guidance from state officials or the City of Cambridge, and the health department was just, like, sending us hand-washing posters,” she says.
Unsure what to do next, she surveyed her employees, some of whom were tired of staying home. By mid-April, several had returned to help fill bulk pre-orders while grappling with a new online ordering system — the first time she’d attempted such a thing. Bagelsaurus was known for its long weekend lines that stretched down the block; it had never been a contact-free experience. Customers typically placed orders at a walk-up counter and hovered nearby.
But now, customers wanted takeout, and those signature chewy bagels would sell out in seconds. People were frustrated. They were tired of being cooped up at home. They wanted their breakfast.
“It felt just like, ‘How can we come back from this?’” she remembers. “And at that time we also had a printer down. We were writing all our tickets by hand, and I was still figuring out how many people we needed on staff. We were understaffed, no printer, people were waiting forever. Everything was new. And I was pregnant, and so that was pretty tough. I remember a couple of days when it felt like, ‘I don’t know about this. Should we even be open?’”
She kept just a couple of cooks in the kitchen at a time for maximum distance.
“It was a very inefficient way of making bagels, but it’s how we felt safe,” she says. “I was trying to strike a balance between wanting people to feel as safe as possible but also wanting to offer as many people work as I could. I didn’t want to lay people off,” she says.
A PPP loan helped her avoid layoffs and continue to pay employees.
“It was just like a raft to keep us afloat for a little bit. It wasn’t to try and keep our profits to any level,” she says.
She finally transitioned to a smoother pre-order takeout system in October with dedicated pickup times and happier customers. Her pregnancy was easy enough, too, she says; she wasn’t sick or exceptionally exhausted. And she felt safe.
“We’re so lucky to be in Cambridge. The free testing options are so great here. And I don’t think that’s the case everywhere. I would get tested every other week. So I think that helped people feel secure at work,” she says.
The shop did have one positive COVID-19 case around Thanksgiving, and Hyatt closed for two weeks, forcing her to refund Thanksgiving preorders. She donated the food instead.
Now, she’s taking a bit of time to be with her second baby, who was born in mid-February.
“With my previous son, I went into labor much earlier than I expected, and I was still on the schedule and was supposed to interview someone the day he was born. So this time around, I made sure I was off a lot earlier. We have good people holding us down,” she says. “I feel good about our weekend system. Things are more under control in terms of online ordering. I think employees feel a lot more secure at the shop. And now I think we at least know what the risks are, know what we’re dealing with, and with the vaccine on the horizon, I think everyone’s feeling more positive and hopeful.”
There have been silver linings too, like keeping in closer touch with her bagel-peddling counterparts.
“I reached out to a bunch of bagel shops, including a couple in this area, like Exodus and Goldilocks, and then some up in Maine, a couple that I know of in LA, and we created our own little bagel-e-mail chain, spit-balling ideas, trying to help each other brainstorm ideas. It was nice to have a support group,” she says.
Downtime with a newborn has also given her space to reflect. Bagelsaurus is a naturally frenetic, jampacked place. Will that ever feel natural again — or will it feel like a dinosaur, a relic from a more innocent era? In old times, Bagelsaurus was a fun place to hang out with a toddler or a friend, if you were lucky enough to snag a seat. But customers haven’t been inside in more than a year.
“We’re not dealing with customers fighting over tables or little things that take our time,” she says, laughing.
“Part of it will be feeling how customers will act once we’re all vaccinated. Will they want to pile into our shops and have a crowded time and be rubbing up against each other when they eat? Will people want more space? I’ve toyed with the idea of changing our model a little bit to be 100 percent takeout. Part of me thinks that would be sad to lose that element of being able to sit down at a place that you like and enjoy a bagel and a coffee.
“But,” she says, “I would be curious.”