In January 2021, the Globe launched a campaign called Project Takeout. Its premise was simple: Help support local, independent restaurants. Commit to ordering takeout once a week, or twice, or however often you can afford, to help get these businesses through the winter. The post-holiday months are traditionally the slowest time of year for dining out. Add in a pandemic and its associated restrictions, and it’s clear for whom the bell tolls. For local, independent restaurants, the jobs they provide, the associated industries they support, and the communities they help make vibrant, interesting places to live. Your communities. It tolls for thee.
Now it’s January 2022. Here we go again. Here we are, still. Omicron arrived on the scene, nipping at Delta’s heels, keeping diners home and causing many restaurants to shutter temporarily due to staff outbreaks. Labor is harder to come by than ever. So are some supplies and ingredients, due to supply-chain issues. The cost of everything is sky-high, cutting further into profit margins already whittled to the bone. More restaurants are on the brink of closing.
And so we ask you once more: Support local, independent restaurants. Commit to ordering takeout once a week, or twice, or however often you can afford, to help get these businesses through the next weeks and months. Call it Project Take Two.
Will your takeout orders singlehandedly save restaurants? No. Only robust, targeted federal relief — like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, included in last year’s American Rescue Plan and swiftly drained — might start to do that. Advocates like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a national industry group that lobbied for the creation of the RRF, are pushing hard for it to be replenished. “There has never been a more dire moment for restaurants,” says executive director Erika Polmar. “There is immense generational scarring that will happen if the federal government fails to act.” Families could stand to lose everything. But Polmar is hopeful things are moving in the right direction: 295 members of the House of Representatives and 52 of the Senate have signed on to four pieces of legislation that support replenishing the fund. This month, 25 mayors including Michelle Wu sent a letter to Congress asking them to do so; in December, Massachusetts’s nine representatives did the same.
In the meantime, every takeout order helps a local business’s bottom line. And, as we highlight Globe staffers’ favorite takeout joints each Wednesday in the Food section as part of this campaign, we don’t only draw attention to great places to eat. We keep attention on a situation that unfairly burdens small businesses.
In December, during the Omicron surge, 58 percent of independent restaurants and bars nationally lost more than half their sales, according to an Independent Restaurant Coalition survey. To bring that home with a local example, here’s how Artú in the North End fared: “Around December, come Christmastime, even for Christmas Eve, we had probably 60 percent of our reservations cancel last minute,” says general manager Gianni Frattaroli. “That really, really hurt us.”
Also according to the survey: 42 percent of independent operators that didn’t receive Restaurant Revitalization Fund money are in danger of filing or have filed for bankruptcy, 41 percent have taken on personal loans to support businesses since the pandemic began, and 28 percent face eviction.
In Massachusetts, 6,867 businesses applied for RRF grants, but only 2,556 received them. Harvard Square institution Grendel’s Den was among the recipients. “The reason we survived was that we got support from government money. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. We spent it on what it was there for: to support payroll and the people who work for us,” says general manager Kari Kuelzer, whose parents founded the restaurant when she was a baby. “We were able to apply easily and quickly, but for a lot of companies that are not quite as bulked up on their technology, it was a lot harder. … A lot of people who really needed that money didn’t get it.”
People like Cheryl Straughter, chef-owner of Soleil in Nubian Square and a member of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition. “I did not get a dime,” she says, although she feels fortunate to have received some grant money from other sources. “Small, Black-owned businesses did not fare well in that fund.” Indeed, of a Globe list of more than 100 Black-owned restaurants in the Boston area, only 15 received money from the RRF.
“A number of us are sinking,” Straughter says of her fellow restaurateurs. She’s not there yet: “I’ll put it this way. There’s a hole in the boat. I don’t think it’s a big hole, but it’s definitely a piercing.”
Things have been mighty quiet lately at Soleil. It’s located in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, home to Boston Public Schools’ administrative departments and usually a reliable source of business. But its inhabitants have been working from home due to Omicron. Straughter is now concerned that she may have to reduce employees’ hours.
Other restaurants are struggling to get the employees they need. On a day when Frattaroli had 24 interviews scheduled at Artú, only four people showed up. He hired two of them; just one is still working there. “It’s a major issue,” he says. “You’re not hiring the pick of the litter anymore. You can see it with service everywhere you go out.”
In Boston this week, there’s a new responsibility to cover: ensuring that diners have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before they enter the restaurant, per the city mandate that went into effect Saturday. Grendel’s Den, in Cambridge, has opted to require proof of vaccination since May. “It’s about making people as comfortable as possible,” Kuelzer says, because Grendel’s is fundamentally an in-person kind of place. “It’s important to our core brand, but it costs money to staff an extra person.”
‘A number of us are sinking. I’ll put it this way. There’s a hole in the boat. I don’t think it’s a big hole, but it’s definitely a piercing.’
Cheryl Straughter, chef-owner of Soleil
From early in the pandemic, she has also been an evangelist for rapid tests as an effective tool in the COVID arsenal; she began pool testing her staff last January as part of a pilot program. It works, she says: Among the 30 people being tested, 14 cases were detected over a six-week period. But because the infections were caught so early, she never had more than two people isolating at the same time, and the virus never spread to the workplace. Grendel’s was able to stay open. “We spent $2,000 on testing, probably, in December, but we feel like it’s less expensive than closing.”
Add that to the list of extra costs in 2022. “I am really getting burnt!,” says Straughter. “As are a lot of other restaurants; I’m not on an island by myself. Poultry, dairy, beef. It was $4.29 for beef ribs, then it shot up to $8.29, now it’s down to $6.49. Even my containers. Plastic is impacted. Coffee cups. You name it. It is just cutting into the small amount of money that we make. Our profit margins are so thin. And you can’t continue to raise prices on your guests. That’s not an option. I’ve had customers comment on portion size, but I’m trying to do smaller portions as opposed to constantly having this revolving door of increasing prices.”
Frattaroli says much the same thing. “The last thing I want to do is go up on prices. So many people come in all the time. I know that’s going to frustrate them if we go up a dollar or two. But we have to. It’s not my decision. We’re being forced to because everything is getting more expensive. At what point is that going to stop happening?”
So many restaurants closed in 2021: the Asgard, Bar Lyon, Benedetto, BISq (Cambridge), Craigie on Main, Eastern Standard, the Gallows, Highland Fried, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Jose’s Mexican Restaurant, the Kinsale, KO Catering & Pies, Little Dipper, Loyal Nine, the Red Hat, and Tiger Mama, just to name a few. This year, some have already announced they will shutter, including 50Kitchen (open until Feb. 12), Anh Hong, Coppersmith, Matt Murphy’s, and Pollo Club. More are sure to come.
Here is what you can do to help the restaurants you love, says Polmar of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. First, call Congress and ask them to replenish the RRF. (On the coalition’s website, saverestaurants.com, there are easy-to-use tools to connect you as well as scripts you can use.) Second, be patient and kind if you can’t get exactly what you want or it takes a little longer or someone asks you for proof of vaccination. Third, support these restaurants however you can: leaving hearty tips, buying gift cards, getting takeout.
“The common thing, no matter who you are or what culture you are from, we all must eat to sustain our bodies,” Straughter says. “So we’re asking you, the public, to support us in that way — just to purchase food from us. It’s something to keep us going as we ride this very challenging wave.”