We are now in January 2022. Here we go again. We are there again. Omicron arrived on the scene, nipping at Delta’s heels, keeping diners at home and causing many restaurants to temporarily close due to staffing outbreaks. Labor is harder to find than ever. The same goes for some supplies and ingredients, due to supply chain issues. The cost of everything is exorbitant, further squeezing profit margins that are already shrunk to the bone. Other restaurants are about to close.
And so we ask you once again: Support local and independent restaurants. Commit to ordering takeout once or twice a week, or as often as you can, to help these businesses get through the weeks and months ahead. Call it Project Take Two.
Will your takeout orders alone save restaurants? No. Only robust, targeted federal relief — like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, included in last year’s U.S. bailout and rapidly depleting — could begin to do so. Advocates like the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a national industry group that lobbied for the creation of the RRF, are pushing for it to be reconstituted. “There has never been a tougher time for restaurants,” says executive director Erika Polmar. “There will be immense generational scars that will occur if the federal government does not act.” Families could lose everything. But Polmar hopes things are moving in the right direction: 295 members of the House of Representatives and 52 of the Senate have signed four pieces of legislation that support the replenishment of the fund. This month, 25 mayors, including Michelle Wu, sent a letter to Congress asking them to do so; in December, the nine representatives of Massachusetts did the same.
In the meantime, every takeout order contributes to the bottom line of a local business. And, while we highlight Globe employees’ favorite takeaways every Wednesday in the Food section as part of this campaign, we’re not just drawing attention to good places to eat. We keep the focus on a situation that unfairly burdens small businesses.
In December, during the Omicron surge, 58% of independent restaurants and bars nationwide lost more than half of their sales, according to a survey by the Independent Restaurant Coalition. To drive this home with a local example, here’s how Artú in the North End fared: “Around December, Christmas, even for Christmas Eve, we probably had 60% of our bookings canceled at the last minute,” explains general manager Gianni Frattaroli. “It really, really hurt us.”
Also according to the survey: 42% of independent operators who have not received money from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund are at risk of filing or have filed for bankruptcy, 41% have taken out personal loans to support businesses since the start of the pandemic, and 28% face eviction.
In Massachusetts, 6,867 businesses applied for RRF grants, but only 2,556 received them. Harvard Square’s Grendel’s Den was among the recipients. “The reason we survived is that we got support from government money. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise. We spent it on what it was there for: supporting the 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 aren’t as tech-heavy, it was a lot more difficult. … A lot of people who really needed that money didn’t get it.
People like Cheryl Straughter, chef-owner of Le Soleil in Nubian Square and a member of the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition. “I didn’t get a dime,” she says, though she feels lucky to have received grants from other sources. “Black-owned small businesses have not done well in this fund.” Indeed, of a Globe list of more than 100 black-owned restaurants in the Boston area, only 15 received RRF money.
“A number of us are sinking,” Straughter says of fellow restaurateurs. She is not there yet: “I will say it like that. There is a hole in the boat. I don’t think it’s a big hole, but it’s definitely a piercing.
Things have been very quiet lately at Soleil. It is located in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, which houses Boston Public Schools’ administrative departments and is generally a reliable source of business. But its inhabitants work from home thanks to Omicron. Straughter now fears having to cut employees’ hours.
Other restaurants are struggling to recruit the employees they need. On a day when Frattaroli had 24 interviews scheduled at Artú, only four people showed up. He hired two; only one still works there. “It’s a major problem,” he said. “You don’t hire the best litter anymore. You can see it with the service everywhere you go.
In Boston this week, there’s a new responsibility to cover: ensuring diners have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before entering the restaurant, per the city’s mandate that entered effective Saturday. Grendel’s Den, Cambridge, has opted to require proof of vaccination since May. “It’s about making people as comfortable as possible,” says Kuelzer, because Grendel’s is basically an in-person type of place. “It’s important for our main brand, but it costs money to recruit an additional person.”
“A number of us are sinking. I’ll put it this way. There is 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 The Sun
Since the start of the pandemic, she has also been an evangelist for rapid testing as an effective tool in the COVID arsenal; it began testing its pool staff last January as part of a pilot program. It works, she says: Of the 30 people 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 in isolation at the same time, and the virus never spread in the workplace. Grendel was able to stay open. “We spent $2,000 on testing, probably, in December, but we think that’s cheaper than shutting down.”
Add that to the list of additional costs in 2022. “I really burn myself! says Straughter. “Like many other restaurants; I am not alone on an island. Poultry, dairy products, beef. It was $4.29 for the prime rib, then it went up to $8.29, now it’s down to $6.49. Even my containers. The plastic is impacted. Cups of coffee. You name it. It’s just cutting into the little money we make. Our profit margins are so slim. And you can’t keep raising the prices for your guests. It’s not an option. I’ve had customer feedback about the portion sizes, but I try to make the portions smaller instead of constantly having this revolving door of escalating prices.
Frattaroli says much the same thing. “The last thing I want to do is raise prices. So many people come all the time. I know it will frustrate them if we go up a dollar or two. But we have to. It’s not my decision. We have to because everything is getting more expensive. When will this stop happening? »
As many restaurants closed in 2021: Asgard, Bar Lyon, Benedetto, BISq (Cambridge), Craigie on Main, Eastern Standard, Gallows, Highland Fried, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Jose’s Mexican Restaurant, Kinsale, KO Catering & Pies, Little Dipper, Loyal Nine, Red Hat and Tiger Mama to name a few. This year, some have already announced their closure, including 50Kitchen (open until February 12), Anh Hong, Coppersmith, Matt Murphy’s and Pollo Club. More are sure to come.
Here’s what you can do to help the restaurants you love, says Polmar of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. First, call Congress and ask them to reconstitute the RRF. (On the coalition’s website, saverestaurants.com, there are easy-to-use tools for logging in as well as scripts you can use.) Second, be patient and kind if you can’t get exactly what you want or if it takes time. a little longer or someone asks you for proof of vaccination. Third, support these restaurants any way you can: by tipping well, by buying gift cards, by getting takeout.
“The common thing, no matter who you are or what culture you’re from, we all need to eat to sustain our bodies,” Straughter says. “So we ask you, the public, to support us in this way – just to buy us food. It’s something that keeps us going as we ride this very tough wave.