By Janelle Nanos | Boston Globe | October 15, 2020
Tiffani Faison has run the numbers. All summer during the pandemic, she offered patio service at her cluster of restaurants in the Fenway, and over the past few weeks has been pricing out her options to remain open in the months ahead.
But heaters are hard to come by these days, she said, and there was no way she could reconfigure the space in two of her restaurants, Tiger Mama and Orfano, to see the same amount of business she was doing outside. With the temperatures cooling, “we’re already looking at numbers just crashing,” Faison said. And so as of Nov. 1, she’ll shut down both restaurants until spring.
“I’m deeply aware that I don’t just get a mulligan; this is a decision I’ll be paying for for a very long time,” she said. “But I don’t find myself in a place where I feel like I have a choice.”
Faison’s hardly alone. As the pandemic stretches on, and more Boston-area restaurant operators stare down the long, cold winter months ahead, some are now taking cues from nature and going into hibernation. The choice to temporarily shut down is not a simple one, but for many, it has the benefit of at least being something concrete.
“Now I know how much money I’m going to lose every month instead of hemorrhaging at different levels,” said Steve “Nookie” Postal, who temporarily shut down his restaurant Commonwealth in Kendall Square last month.
Postal said he got an inkling in the spring that he wasn’t going to be able to sustain the restaurant through the winter. Without the holiday parties and regular foot traffic of the square’s tech sector, things were looking grim. “I know what winter looks like in the best of times,” he said. “For us, it wasn’t possible to pivot because there’s no [expletive] people.”
So he consulted with a friend who owns a restaurant on Nantucket, asking her what he’d need to do to go into Rip Van Winkle mode until spring. She explained, that among other steps, he’d need to turn off his gas and unplug the walk-in coolers. He’s now lowered his insurance and cut costs at every turn to bring down expenses. “We’re basically turning into a seasonal restaurant for a few months,” Postal said.
Going dark, even for a short time, isn’t an option for everyone, as many smaller restaurants have completely tapped their savings to get through the past few months, said Henry Patterson, an industry adviser with Rethink Restaurants. But he added that “with cooperation from lenders and landlords, it’s an excellent solution.” Patterson, who is a part-owner in local restaurants and a landlord to others in Somerville, said having partners who can work closely with operators will be essential.
“Anybody who had cash reserves has already used them up,” Patterson said. “You have to have the cooperation of a bank who is going to allow you to go interest-only, if you have bank debt, and ideally you have a landlord who is not only willing to defer some rent but forgive some rent, just to be realistic.”
Another pressing issue, he said, is what a restaurant is able to do to support its staff. “The obvious flaw in the plan is what happens to all those staff people who really depend on every paycheck,” he said. “And that’s the majority of the industry.”
In Michael Serpa’s case, he’s planning to shuffle his staff around to accommodate the temporary shutdown of Grand Tour, his intimate Back Bay bistro that opened earlier this year. Many of the workers there will relocate to his new, larger restaurant, Atlantico, when it opens in the South End this month.
“The Grand Tour space is built to be cozy, tight, with a shoulder-to-shoulder Parisian feel — the exact opposite of what COVID dining is now,” he said. He already knows what his fixed costs are for the space, like rent, insurance, and minimal electricity — he learned that quickly after the shutdown began in March — “and we’re taking that number and that’s the number we’re going to burn at. Being open and operating could be a bigger loss,” he said.
Several other restaurants have made moves to shut down this winter as well. The Emory in Beacon Hill announced last week that it would close, with plans to reopen in the spring. Sister pubs the Asgard and the Kinsale both are shutting down with the hopes they’ll be able to come back when office workers return. And Douglas Bacon, the owner of Red Paint Hospitality Group, put The Kenmore restaurant in hibernation after reopening it this spring.
“There was no way for me to keep it open,” he said, after running out of Paycheck Protection Program funds and with Kenmore Square still a shell of itself. “We’ll reopen when the Red Sox can have fans.”
Whitney Gallivan, of Boston Realty Advisors, said restaurant owners should have an open dialogue with their landlords about what shutting things down for the short term might look like. “January, February, March, it’s going to be pretty bleak,” she said. “They need to do whatever they can to survive, and work with their landlords if they rent their space to find out a way to make it through to spring.”
Gallivan said the uncertainty has also been working its way up the food chain, so to speak, as more well-funded national restaurant groups aren’t committing to new leases as they wait to see how statewide COVID-19 mandates play out. That fact could help convince some landlords to allow temporary closures, she said, as it may be an easier option than finding a new tenant.
For Faison, going into hibernation affords her an opportunity to rethink the space and staff she has. She’ll be keeping her barbecue spot, Sweet Cheeks Q, open, as its takeout and corporate orders have taken off during the pandemic, and is moving some staff over to help ramp up catering for her Big Heart Hospitality group. She’s already reinvented her adult snack bar, Fool’s Errand, into a marketplace since the pandemic started. Now she’s planning to allow guests to book it as a private dining room for intimate events.
“This is really an opportunity to move forward in a way that allows us to cook and do great service, and have people come into a place that’s inside and doesn’t feel in any way fearful,” Faison said.
The decision to shut down Tiger Mama and Orfano, even for the short term, was “exceedingly hard,” she added. “But it’s one way to make sure we can come out on the other side.”
Katie Johnston of the Globe staff contributed reporting to this story.