There’s no industry or business that is immune to the impacts of the novel coronavirus, but arguably one of the groups being hit the hardest is small, local restaurants who thrive on in-person business. Each new development leaves business owners and service workers looking for clarity.
Gov. Charlie Baker declared a statewide ban on dine-in services on March 15, restricting restaurants and bars to take-out and delivery—forcing restaurant owners to figure out how to stay afloat in an unprecedented situation, not just for their own sake but for their employees as well.
On March 23, Gov. Baker updated this announcement, ordering all non-essential businesses to close from March 24 to April 7. While restaurants will still be able to serve take-out and delivery if they adhere to social distancing protocol, this will undoubtedly have an immediate effect on businesses without those services. Grocery stores, post offices, health care facilities, transportation services, public works, and energy, are among the list of essential businesses that will remain open during this period.
Baker also ordered the Department of Public Health to issue a stay-at-home advisory, encouraging the public to remain in their homes while not mandating them to do so. The advisory strongly discourages any person-to-person contact.
“What this means is that everyone can still buy food at the grocery store, get what they need at the pharmacy and, of course, take a walk around the block or at the park,” Baker said at a press conference.
“Governor Baker’s statewide stay-at-home advisory is the right thing to do,” Mayor Joe Curtatone said in an emailed statement. “The coronavirus represents a threat to our public health unlike anything any of us have seen before. None of us is immune to it and it spreads like wildfire. If we don’t take social distancing seriously and stay at home as much as is possible, this disease will overwhelm our healthcare system, creating a crisis for anybody with any kind of medical condition. The Governor today took a vital step to protect the people of Massachusetts. Now it is up to each of us to do our best to keep COVID-19 in check. This is a test we can only pass by working together. People’s lives hinge on each of our actions.”
Staying open for take-out and delivery to generate some level of income is the best hope for many of these restaurants even while their seats remain empty. While many businesses already had such services available, that’s not true across the board. But facing indefinite closure, a large number of eateries are scrambling to set up these services at the last minute.
True Bistro, settled in its Teele Square location for 10 years, has exclusively been an eat-in establishment. When the eat-in ban went into effect, it became necessary for True Bistro to adapt. Suzannah Gerber, managing consultant for True Bistro, had some foresight prior to the ban.
“I saw the writing on the wall at the end of February,” she says. “We made our decision to shut down in advance of the Governor’s declaration and go take-out and delivery only, but we had never done any of those things yet.”
With a vastly reduced staff—cut down from about 30 to single digits—True Bistro’s system went live pretty much overnight. Gerber got to work setting up True Bistro’s virtual presence by using resources that allow restaurants to set up point-of-sale (POS) systems to facilitate online ordering.
“We went live through our [point-of-sale] system on Toast, a local company,” Gerber says. “Predating this experience, they were very difficult to work with and often unresponsive. We have subscribed to their take-out service since before the crisis, but it never worked. On Monday, I stayed up until about five in the morning to get this system working and rebuilt it from the ground up.”
She says that her experience with Grubhub, a similar platform, was much smoother because they “actually accelerated their program offer and enabled a web-based platform that allowed us to take orders online.”
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, Grubhub announced that it will defer commission fees for restaurants.
“In the position that we’re in right now, that’s a huge advantage,” Gerber adds.
Many third-party companies like Grubhub and UberEats do take large commission cuts from online sales, so customers can help their favorite local spots by ordering directly from restaurant’s online or by phone.
Everyone—from restaurants and their employees, to the local foodies that love to eat out—are facing big changes for the time being. Each restaurant is dealing with the transition uniquely.
Grendel’s Den, a bar popular with Harvard students and faculty, has had to temporarily shut its doors, with the intention of reopening once take-out and delivery is figured out. In a press release, Grendel’s co-owner Kari Kuelzer stated, “The trials of this situation lie far outside the normal struggles of small restaurant ownership… We are in uncharted territory, but committed to working on solutions to an unprecedented problem.”
Curtatone is well aware of the potential impact coronavirus will have on the local economy.
“The concern is with those workers who are facing unemployment and small business owners,” he says. “We have 234 restaurants and over 4,000 workers in Somerville alone. We want to make sure all of them are able to reopen.”
The local government has been hard at work to remove any red tape involved in this process in order to smooth the transition, he adds.
“Senator Elizabeth Warren, myself, and other [state government officials] were on a call to ensure that before we give handouts to big businesses that these smaller businesses are able to get relief,” Curtatone says. “Many of these establishments don’t own their property. We need to make sure they aren’t pushed out.”
Curtatone says that it is imperative for customers to continue patronizing their favorite restaurants, using delivery and take-out until dine-in once again becomes an option.
“Though we can’t sit in and eat at our favorite establishments, we can still help these small businesses stay in operation,” he says. “Everything we can do locally to support these small businesses is going to help our economy in the long run.”
Additionally, diners can also buy gift cards from their favorite restaurants, to be used once these establishments eventually reopen post-quarantine, a gesture that will help the industry stay afloat for the time being.
It’s still early in the timeline of COVID-19, so the lasting impact of the virus on the restaurant industry, the economy at the local and national scale, and the lives of everyday citizens has yet to be fully realized. But for restaurants, it is vital to find novel ways to stay afloat during an unprecedented and confusing time.
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