At the Union Oyster House — an icon that opened in 1826 and survived the Spanish flu — business is booming. That’s great, except when antimask customers lash out.
“I had a group of people from Florida run up a $340 tab. In the tip line, they wrote, ‘Stop telling people to wear masks,’ ” said bartender Janet Goodwin.
Others demand free food if they’re dissatisfied.
“I’m not sure customers understand that a free appetizer could cost someone a job,” she said. “I have been a bartender for 25 years. I have never seen such bad behavior in my life.”
Heading into a second pandemic winter, restaurants are grappling with a host of challenges: lack of funds, the new Omicron variant, temperamental guests ready to get back to normal life, supply chain issues, and an eerily quiet downtown. There is no playbook. Risk tolerance varies widely. Restaurants make their own vaccine policies for customers and employees.
Meanwhile, the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund has denied relief to two-thirds of applicants. On Tuesday, Representative Ayanna Pressley issued a letter urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to add up to $60 billion in additional funding. In the meantime, businesses need customers, and they’re muddling through with less guidance than before.
For restaurants that have stayed in business, it’s a tightrope act. At Tiffani Faison’s newly reopened Italian restaurant Orfano in the Fenway, returning guests are in a celebratory mood — especially older diners who shied away from going out last year. But business shifts with headlines.
“We definitely feel the knee-jerk of information that isn’t always necessarily reliable, but going into the holidays, there is a more festive sense this year after the extreme exhaustion of not being able to live our lives,” she said. “The reaction against that is people are out enjoying themselves and a little less fearful.”
The downside is customers who demand a return to prepandemic norms at all costs. Bartender Frederic Yarm works at Drink in Fort Point, a swanky destination for sophisticated cocktails. He’s had to explain mask policies to dubious customers and prefers to avoid crowds when he dines on his own time. He has also suffered from COVID and said he expects to get it again.
“My health is my livelihood,” he said.
Gary Strack runs Brick & Mortar in Cambridge. He had COVID last year, and he’s blunt.
“Hearing this on the street: COVID cases on the rise in restaurants, everybody’s foot on the gas for the holidays, federal and state both laissez-faire on regulations, zero action happening on relief efforts, January coming = many bad decisions by employers going down right now,” he tweeted Friday.
“If you’re talking to restaurateurs who are saying right now, ‘No! It’s great! We don’t care! We’re packed every night!’ they are peddling some [BS],” Strack said in a follow-up text conversation. “Not that I don’t think they’re busy. Some restaurants are, especially in the ‘burbs, but that perspective is trivializing the situation for both the industry and the guests.”
Prepandemic sentiments don’t prevail everywhere. Office workers have been slow to return to the city, causing a ripple effect for businesses that rely on commuters, such as the Boston Public Market.
“We’re way off our foot traffic numbers from previous years. We did have 90,000 people in the market in November, about half of what we would have had in a typical November,” said Boston Public Market Association CEO Cheryl Cronin.
At the market, all employees are required to be vaccinated, she said, an effort to make guests feel comfortable. That’s moot if those guests are working from suburbia instead of downtown.
“Fundamentally, what we need is office workers to come back, at least on a part-time basis,” she said. “The more discouraging thing is just how long it’s taking downtown Boston to bounce back.”
Elsewhere, equipment is as as elusive as customers. North End restaurateur Phil Frattaroli hasn’t been able to replace vital parts in glass-washers and refrigerators for weeks due to supply chain issues.
“When something crashes, oftentimes it would be cheaper or easier to replace the unit, but that’s nearly impossible right now,” said Frattaroli.
Amid such woes, some restaurants are opting to briefly shut heading into a quiet winter. William Kovel will close Kendall Square’s Catalyst from Dec. 23 until Jan. 9 and said he will pay his employees for their time. Michael Serpa, who runs several Boston restaurants, such as Grand Tour and Select, will also close for a few days over the holidays before confronting an unknown future.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty with the winter. You know, it’s like, ‘Let’s just get to Marathon Monday,’ ” he said.
Some say cautious diners could be lured back with the promise of outdoor dining. In Boston, this will end on private patios and public streets on Dec. 31. In the North End, patio dining ended on Nov. 1 while temperatures were still moderate, despite the fact that COVID spreads more readily indoors.
“Takeout and delivery is where we are focusing our efforts, but outdoor dining is the silver bullet. Nothing has the same impact that outdoor dining has,” Frattaroli said. “Even in cold weather, it’s a boon for our lunch business across all the restaurants and just a reassuring option for folks when they call to make a reservation.”
At Lucie at the Colonnade Hotel, a heated, covered patio keeps guests toasty — but on a recent visit, it was empty. Customers preferred to be inside, for now.
“The biggest scare for us is that they’ll feel uncomfortable again and not want to go out and dine,” said chef Nick Calias.
He’ll keep his outdoor seats available as long as possible and offer guests blankets.
Even so, other businesses struggle with finding staff to cover both indoor and outdoor spaces while adhering to fire codes. Propane for heat lamps is also expensive to stock and deliver: Faison estimates that she ran through a tank per night when offering outdoor seating.
At SRV in the South End, general manager Ted Hawkins sometimes doesn’t have enough staff to make outdoor dining viable, and it’s not the best way to showcase his food. Safety is still a priority, but restaurants also need to get back to doing what they were meant to: serving meals that people want to eat, preferably hot, he said.
“Now, it’s a mix of meeting people where they’re at but also making sure we’re not setting ourselves up to put them in a bad situation in terms of having a subpar meal with us or putting us in a situation where we’re stretched too thin. We take it day by day,” Hawkins said.
On a recent visit to Hojoko in the Fenway, the bar was packed and the dining room was buzzing, despite an advertised heated patio. In reality, it was dark and freezing, occupied by one shivering couple, who asked for a heat lamp to be turned on. Drinks were slow to arrive. A server apologized for the lag; they were slammed indoors. In turn, the customers apologized for asking her to even come out in the cold.
“No, you’re being smart,” she replied.
Despite it all, others face the future with tentative optimism. At little 24-seat Celeste in Somerville’s Union Square, co-owners JuanMa Calderon and Maria Rondeau are seeing a return to pre-COVID traffic. In fact, they will open a larger restaurant, La Royal, in Huron Village early next year.
“We have put up with so much. . . . We’ll be taking precautions, but I have a feeling [Omicron] will fizzle out,” Rondeau said. “Positive thinking.”