According to Jessica Eshleman’s notes, the idea first went out from the Somerville Chamber of Commerce’s Dining & Nightlife Group last Tuesday: A joint effort to create a web page linking to all of the city’s restaurants that were offering delivery and take-out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
To say the idea got traction would be an understatement.
“The idea was presented at 1 o’clock; we were on a conference call by 4 o’clock,” says Eshleman, executive director of Union Square Main Streets, which is home to “roughly 55 restaurants, pubs, breweries, lunch counters, cafes, and eateries that are severely impacted by this national crisis.”
By March 21, Somerville Delivers was rolled out, and as of Tuesday it had nearly 80 restaurants listed.
“This has been turned around quickly,” says Eshlemen. “This is an incredibly frightening time for all of us and for the small businesses that give us the soul and spirit of our neighborhoods.”
Somerville Chamber of Commerce President Stephen V. Mackey says key players in the initiative also include the City, Union Square Main Streets, East Somerville Main Streets, and The Welcome Project. The site is being hosted pro bono by Velir. Right now it’s limited to restaurants, which can contact the Chamber to be added. There is no cost to the businesses.
Jen Atwood, executive director of East Somerville Main Streets, says the site responds to a clear need to show residents there are still places they can get food during a time of mandated or voluntary closures for most businesses.
“There was a need to highlight what was open for takeout and delivery,” Atwood says. “Easton Somerville Main Streets, the Gilman Neighborhood Association, Union Square Main Streets were all doing their own short lists for their particular micro-communities, but the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Department of the city of Somerville decided to come together with a citywide listing.”
Mackey says he’s pleased with how quickly the initiative came together, given the historic importance of this segment of Somerville’s business community.
“At the Chamber, we felt dining and nightlife was such an important industry in Somerville over the last generation, 20 years, that it was so severely impacted and needed immediate help and coordination,” he says. “We wanted to get that going.”
He’s looking at what else the Chamber can do, such as expanding the site to include other types of businesses, but he notes that is “an order of magnitude more difficult.”
“But we’re looking at that, and I’m waiting to hear from other people,” he says. “It’s such a tough time for everyone.”
Ben Sommer, an economic development specialist with the Somerville Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, is the city’s point person on the project.
“We are looking at every idea we can to help our restaurants stay in business and keep employees on their payroll,” says Sommer. “What we want to do is keep them generating cash through online ordering and takeout, that’s really the main purpose.”
He says the city is pleased with the initial response: The first week’s analytics from the site show more than 1,600 unique visitors. And working in conjunction with Corey Caplette, chief technology officer of Velir and volunteer webmaster for the site, they are already adding functionality.
“We recently added a map feature, and we’re also adding some health information for both customers and business owners,” Sommer says.
Now that the city knows what businesses qualify as “essential” under the state’s emergency orders, the city is looking into ways to expand Somerville Delivers.
“Right now we wanted to make sure it was up and running and doing well for restaurants before expanding to other businesses,” he says. Many retail establishments are closed, many businesses where people would gather to take classes are closed—there are a lot of opportunities for those businesses to offer something, whether it’s online classes or e-commerce.
“So every day we’re trying to add some details as it goes along,” says Sommer.
Not only are the neighborhood groups connecting their member restaurants with Somerville Delivers, they are also plugging member businesses that are open during the pandemic on their own home pages. East Somerville Main Streets has a page keeping tabs on whether member restaurants are open or have temporarily closed, and which are offering delivery or takeout, as well as regularly updated information on government action, and resources for business owners and employees.
Union Square Main Streets has converted its home page to a listing of which businesses are still open, including a link for local businesses to get added to the list. And Eshleman says the group is also in the process of converting their calendar of events to listing of virtual events.
“We are preparing to pivot so any business that’s planning, say, an online meal-preparation event, we will share it,” she says.
The Somerville Delivers initiative is primarily a shared resource for all city restaurants; taking orders and delivering is actually handled by the restaurants themselves, either via staff or through services like GrubHub and DoorDash.
And, of course, that still means someone has to go out and fix the food or bring it to your door. Both Eshleman and Atwood say they are providing their member businesses with up-to-date recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies in regards to safe food prep and avoiding exposure.
The initiative is still nascent, and Eshleman says there is discussion underway to build it out beyond restaurants, as the square groups have done for their local members. In the meantime, the fact that people from all neighborhoods can go to one spot and, maybe, remember a great meal they had and order take-out from that restaurant is a great thing for everybody involved.
“Those kinds of purchases go a long way for small businesses,” says Eshleman.
This story was updated on March 26 to include comments from Ben Sommer of the Somerville Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development.
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