Can Boston’s Restaurant Scene Survive the Pandemic?

On March 15, amid a rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered the closure of all dine-in restaurants in the commonwealth, restricting services to takeout and delivery only. By the time indoor dining was allowed again, three months later, many beloved Boston dining institutions had closed. 

But there were also sparks of creativity and ingenuity from those that remained open. For four BU alums in the industry, the pandemic has meant extraordinary uncertainty, difficult staff layoffs, and tough revenue losses. And yet, the support of regular customers throughout the crisis has given them reason for hope.

“There were definitely some dark times the first few weeks,” says Andrew Holden (SHA’04), who was general manager of Kenmore Square’s Eastern Standard for 13 years before stepping back into the supporting role of operating partner so that he can focus on his own restaurants, Branch Line in Watertown and the new Shy Bird in Kendall Square. “You’ve been working so hard for so long, and suddenly so many people’s lives around you and everything we’ve dreamed of is just getting crushed.”

Ali Fong (CAS’01) is cofounder and executive chef of Bon Me, a fast-casual eatery that began in 2011 as a humble food truck and has since evolved into a restaurant group with 8 brick-and-mortar locations and 16 trucks serving the Boston region. Fong was forced to furlough nearly 100 employees, but has tried to keep tabs on all of them through the shutdown. “That means someone has called every single person or texted them to make sure they’re okay,” she says.

In Holden’s world, with his involvement in three restaurants, the layoffs were closer to 200 people. “Everyone’s heard the numbers about how many people restaurants employ in this country,” he says, “and how important they are to the fabric of our society. Being able to provide those jobs is so important. That’s been without question the hardest part about this.”

Fernanda Tapia (MET’09), until recently the co-owner and executive chef at Comedor, a Chilean-American bistro in Newton Center, isn’t so sure those jobs will ever come back. 

“A lot of restaurant owners are hoping they can scrape by until things return to normal, and no one knows when that’s going to happen,” Tapia says. “So it’s a matter of, can you hold out for two months? Six months? Maybe a year?” Tapia had already been in talks to sell the restaurant before the coronavirus shutdown went into effect, and the sale was finalized in late June, which was a particular relief. “Two months can break you,” she says. “Two months is game over. If you didn’t have the funds in the bank, that’s it, you’re done.”

For now, restaurants are able to reopen for indoor dining as long as they comply with a strict set of guidelines, which includes rules for social distancing that will severely reduce the number of guests allowed at any given time. This will fundamentally affect a restaurant’s bottom line. “You don’t look at a restaurant space and say, ‘Well, if I only had 50 percent of this, I would still sign this lease,’” says Michael Lombardi, co-owner and executive chef of SRV, a busy northern Italian–style restaurant in Boston’s South End. “That would never happen. The whole thing is based on you having 100 percent of it.”

Even if diners are allowed to return, there’s no guarantee that they will. Controversial columns from food critics from Boston to New York have shown that even people who dine out for a living are not necessarily ready to come back to restaurants. “I think there’s going to be a subset of people who just don’t want to come back,” says Fong. She has reopened some of the Bon Me locations and trucks, and says that business is far from booming. “We have a very limited number of customers coming through. This is our prime season, but we’re doing something like 15 to 20 percent of what we normally would be doing.”

In the end, a big question is, how many area restaurants will survive the pandemic? The Boston Globe is keeping a running tally of area restaurants that have permanently closed since the shutdown went into effect, including the 28-year-old O’Leary’s pub in Brookline, the 39-year-old Il Capriccio in Waltham, and Cafe Pamplona, which opened in Harvard Square 62 years ago. Tapia thinks more closures will be in store, even when restaurants are able to reopen. “I think 20, 30, 40 percent of Boston’s restaurants are going to have to close within a year because they just won’t be able to pay the bills,” she says. This sentiment is echoed by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which warns that roughly a quarter of the state’s restaurants may not survive the pandemic.

But there is reason for restaurant owners to be optimistic. The alums agreed that support from their local communities has helped them weather the storm. “The regulars have been very good to the restaurants they frequented before the pandemic,” says Lombardi, “whether that means doing weekly takeout or leaving generous tips for staff. Doing things that have been above and beyond.” 

Holden recalls one regular customer who drove down to Shy Bird from Andover, Mass., once a week for takeout. “It’s those times that have gotten every restaurant through this, when someone from the community has been there at the right moment, just when you needed a little boost,” he says. 

What changes are on the horizon for Boston’s restaurants? 

“I think there are going to be changes everywhere,” says Holden. “We’re going to need to have hand sanitizer at the front door. We need to be cleaning so loudly in front of guests that they notice us.” Lombardi is concerned that the kind of hospitality and service that makes the Boston dining scene so special might be lost amid the new regulations. “When your interaction with guests is limited, there’s less of an opportunity to leave a lasting impact from a people point of view,” he says. “Guests are almost going to be dining in isolation, even when they’re in the restaurant. I think it takes some of the joy out of it.”

For Holden, a return to the way things used to be can’t come fast enough. “Aside from working in restaurants, going out to eat is my favorite thing to do,” he says. “The idea of going to a packed Lower East Side bistro where you’re inches away from a total stranger—I’m craving that. That’s what we have to get back to.”