Guest columnist CISA’s Alexis Breiteneicher: Restaurants facing uphill climb

Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 1, 2020

Restaurants are among the businesses hit hardest by the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Their closures in late winter had a big impact on the larger community, causing significant job loss, upending markets for local farmers, and depriving us of important community gathering places.

In a statewide survey conducted in early July, only 11% of restaurants reported that they had fully reopened. In our informal interviews, restaurant owners reflected on their determination to stay in business, the rapid changes they’ve had to plan and execute and the long-term impacts.

With restrictions on capacity in place due to state public health regulations, restaurants must think about staffing, menu, table turnover, sanitization and purchasing. Howard Wein, owner of The Alvah Stone in Montague, said, “I view us as very fortunate to have the outside space — we’re only seating outside, we didn’t even consider inside. We’re just trying to get to Labor Day (where we will have to reinvent again with the arrival of colder weather).”

To make the economics work, Wein has moved from owner to head chef and general manager. He’s also reduced costs by picking up fresh produce himself, driving from farm to farm each week.

Jim Zaccara, co-owner of Hope & Olive in Greenfield, is also relying on outdoor seating space. “We’re optimistic, we know that we’re able to sustain ourselves, but we don’t know for how long we’ll have to do that.”

Take-out and outside dining are providing about a third of the restaurant’s normal sales for this time of year. Because of their reduced sales, they have also reduced their order quantities — including purchases from local farms. The three-times-a-week orders from local farm delivery service Marty’s Local have dropped to once a week. Zaccara said he’s now buying bags of peaches from Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield rather than bushels.

Sunderland’s Blue Heron Restaurant & Catering has been in business since 1997 and general manager Kendra Malone feels confident that they’ll survive the pandemic. Summertime for them typically means catering large weddings, which account for 25% of the restaurant’s annual revenue. Not only have this year’s weddings been cancelled, but they are not re-booking for 2021 given the current uncertainty.

In the face of reduced capacity, Blue Heron has added a pantry goods service. They offer a small selection of meat, fish, produce and housemade items like ketchup for customers who love their food or who don’t feel comfortable going to a store.

Restaurant owners spoke about the need for continual adaptation and change, as health guidelines, economic constraints and the public mood shift over time. Each decision they make has implications for the restaurant staff and owners, the farms they purchase from, the local wholesalers they rely on, and their community of customers, neighbors and fellow restaurateurs.

“Our catering business has been completely upended,” explained Jake Mazar, co-owner of the food truck and catering business Wheelhouse. “We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to canceled or postponed events, and we’ve had to reinvent ourselves multiple times. We had discussed opening a restaurant this year in our new kitchen space, but that idea has been put on hold, perhaps indefinitely.”

Instead they’ve moved to a new meal subscription service which they hope will sustain them and support local farms.

Northampton’s Belly of the Beast is also exploring a new approach. In Phase 1, Belly of the Beast worked with the Northampton Public Schools (and other partners) to provide food for adults whose kids were getting free food through the schools and provided meals for front-line health workers. As they settled into a pandemic routine, co-owner Aimee Francaes explains, they realized that “the concept that we built, and how we make and sell our food, doesn’t work with how guests interact with it” in these new circumstances. Soon they will be fostering pop-up restaurant takeovers in their space.

Local restaurants are employers, they buy from local farm, and are places for people to connect. They are critical to our food supply, our local economy, and our quality of life. We need to support them with our patronage, their staff with our tips, and our advocacy for small business support at the state and federal level.

“Every time we spend a dollar,” Francaes concludes, “that’s a vote for what is going to remain on the other side of this.”

We’re at the height of the local harvest, so this is the perfect moment to enjoy a meal, tip well, and to cast your vote for a thriving local restaurant scene.

Alexis Breiteneicher is CISA’s director of development.