Michael Wang knows the rise of the Delta variant is prompting some white-collar employers to hold off on coming back to their offices.
But Wang has too much invested in his Financial District restaurant, Foumami, to turn back now. He reopened on Wednesday, as planned, for the first time in more than a year, a momentous-enough occasion to draw Acting Mayor Kim Janey to his Asian sandwich shop on the first floor of a Franklin Street office tower to offer her kudos.
It’s another small sign of life coming back to the long-moribund business district — and another big bet that office workers will finally return in large numbers this fall.
Wang reopened once before, in June of last year, but that only lasted three weeks. There wasn’t enough business. This time, Wang is in it for the long haul. He wanted to open in August to give his staff time to prepare before September, when many companies had been planning to bring their employees back. His first-day foot traffic far exceeded his expectations, with nearly 170 orders.
“This time, when I reopen, I’m going to stay open, no matter what,” Wang said on Wednesday, while lunch customers lined up for chicken katsu sandwiches and bibimbap salads. “It’s not just turning on a light switch. There are so many expenses, so many things to do.”
Among those things: hire and train five new staffers to replace people who took other jobs during the pandemic (just two workers returned), repair the refrigeration and air filtration units that broke down while the shop was closed, replace a huge plate-glass window someone shot with a pellet gun, and give the place a fresh coat of paint. He was helped along by a $392,000 grant from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said he always knew downtown Boston would be one of the last business districts in the state to recover from the pandemic’s economic damage, a fear that has proven to be well-founded. But he said he was encouraged by the lines he saw at Foumami and other lunch places he passed on his way to the shop on Wednesday.
The pre-pandemic bustle isn’t quite back yet, he said, but the sidewalks downtown feel far livelier than they did even as recently as June. And while the Delta variant looms, Luz said he hasn’t heard of any restaurateurs significantly changing plans because of it.
“People that are open are staying open,” Luz said. “People that are getting ready to open are hopefully going to continue in that process.”
Numbers tracked by the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District bear that out.
Of 155 restaurants in the district — which covers Downtown Crossing and much of the Financial District (though Foumami sits just outside of it) — before the pandemic, 108 had reopened by the end of July. Another 30 remain temporarily closed, though of those, eight plan to reopen by October. Five new restaurants have opened this year, with three more coming in the next two months, plus a long-awaited food hall on High Street. And pedestrian traffic in general has been growing since March, BID officials say.
From Wang’s perspective, the pandemic is entering a new phase, one in which people are simply learning to live with the virus — aided by vaccines — instead of hiding from it. Wang noted that his family members in Asia have long since adjusted their lives to the prevalence of hazardous viruses.
“If you’re waiting for somebody to tell you that this whole thing is gone, to say it’s going to be gone forever and we get back to normal, I think that’s not the case,” Wang said. “We need to learn how to live with it.”
A third-generation restaurateur, Wang initially tried to avoid the family business and the grueling hours that go with it. But after moving to the Boston area from New York to attend Harvard Business School and study the restaurant industry, he gave up resisting, and in 2010 he opened Foumami. He designed the look of the store and the menu as prototypes, with the idea of an expansion to multiple locations in mind. He was just about to start work on a second location, in Harvard Square, when the pandemic struck in March 2020. He hopes to start looking at new locations again next year.
For now, just reopening his original store feels like a huge victory.
Wang began to get emotional as he reflected on all the heartaches, hard work, and uncertainty of the past year and a half. The 50-year-old Concord resident gets up at 4 a.m. each day, to make it into the shop by 5.
“This restaurant is not just a restaurant, it’s my whole life,” Wang said. “I’ve invested my whole life here. If this restaurant goes down, I go down. If this restaurant goes up, I go up.”