Hopefully we’ll be back soon. There is optimism in the air. People are being vaccinated slowly but surely. In warmer weather, we can look forward to the terrace season. Restrictions on indoor restaurants in the state have also eased, although health experts continue to urge caution and restaurant staff await vaccination. They will finally become eligible on Monday after serving the public for all these months. It’s a day of celebration as it also marks the official return of alfresco dining in most of Boston’s neighborhoods. (The North End follows April 1.)
But when we all gather back in the dining rooms of the restaurant, we will change that. We have lost so much: loved ones, livelihoods, time; Opportunities, experiences, connections. Some of our favorite places are gone for good – Bella Luna, Eastern Standard, People’s Republic. It is hard to fathom that we will never occupy these spaces again. They seemed basic, eternal.
Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff
We learned so much too. We have a new vocabulary filled with words like “pivot” and “hibernation”. Entire companies were overtaken, apparently overnight. Restaurants became takeaways, kitchens catering to emergency workers and communities in need, pop-up collectives, cocktail kit distribution centers, and catering services. Some took a break for the winter, hoping and believing that things would turn enough to keep going. Keeping your faith while watching the coffers go: it takes courage. The word “resilience” has been used over and over again, but as Oleana chef Ana Sortun said, “The word“ resilience ”is not what happens to anyone in the restaurant business. It’s survival. “
We learned how much restaurants mean to us as a major engine of the economy – they generated more than $ 18 billion in Massachusetts in 2018 – but also so much more. They are the hubs in which we live our lives, do business, set milestones, create memories. And their impact radiates outwards. Before the pandemic, they were responsible for 1 in 10 jobs across the state, from teenagers pulling their first paychecks to employees who worked in the same place for decades. They have been a steady source of employment for the estimated 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts who are not eligible for unemployment or other government assistance. In order to support these workers in particular, many companies have remained open. Restaurants also help maintain a variety of ancillary industries, from farming and fishing to laundry services. And they’re an integral part of vibrant neighborhoods, symbiotic with shops and entertainment, adding to property values and making our streets safer.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
We learned how challenging the restaurant business is, with a 3 percent margin in the best of times, and how much more challenging it has become. Survival often depended arbitrarily on the strength of partnerships with landlords, utilities, and other providers. Third-party delivery services, which were so important to many during this time, also charged exorbitant fees, sometimes up to 30 percent. All of the suddenly necessary precautions, from masks to detergents to heat lamps and removable containers, cost money. This also applies to COVID tests for the entire shop if a friend of a roommate of a co-worker has symptoms and for the days after that when no deals are made. We learned the importance of giving good tips and being friendly. We have learned that with our support in a brutal, dark time we can repay a fraction of the hospitality we have enjoyed over the years.
A year and a long ago I wrote, “I hope all levels of government take quick steps to secure a future for the restaurant industry and its workers.” I didn’t think the industry would have to fight for relief and ask for small business owners would have to forego or change operations in the name of public health in order to then bear the burden. (It was more predictable that workers would face the inevitable consequences.) Industry leaders from Jody Adams to Nia Grace, Bessie King, Tony Maws and Royal C. Smith advocated financial assistance, help with rent and taxes, and caps on delivery charges, freedom , Selling take-away cocktails, and more to create organizations like the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition and Mass Restaurants United to bring the plight of independent restaurants to the fore. Finally, a full year later, more federal aid for a wounded sector is on the way. $ 28.6 billion for restaurants and other food companies is included in the new stimulus package.
We also learned more about the challenges the restaurant business is facing from the inside and how the industry is mirroring problems across the country.
Black-owned restaurants entered the pandemic at an economic disadvantage due to a historical lack of access to capital and were less equipped to bear the additional costs of doing business. Boston has only eight black-owned companies with full licenses of around 1,100 licenses across the city. These licenses add to the profitability of businesses, but they are expensive and come with renewal fees that many were unable to pay during the pandemic. The Boston Black Hospitality Coalition stepped in to help meet the cost of each black license holder in the city and poured emergency funds to do so.
As some hatefully dubbed COVID the “China Virus”, anti-Asian racism has escalated, with the Atlanta shootings being the most recent horrific example. Chinatown restaurants were among the first to see a decline in business, which had fallen by 30 to 80 percent by February 2020, estimated Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Today, that 80 percent decline is common across Chinatown, and legacy businesses that previously thrived like China Pearl and Peach Farm are on the brink of extinction.
Erin Clark / Globe Staff
The inequalities in tips became more apparent as tips dwindled along with the customer base. Sexual harassment of restaurant workers increased during the pandemic, according to a December study by the nonprofit One Fair Wage: In Massachusetts, 44 percent of respondents said this type of behavior had increased noticeably, said President Saru Jayaraman. In an August report, One Fair Wage also found that Massachusetts had the second highest race and gender pay gap for restaurant workers in the nation, connected to New York and behind Alabama – with black women making about $ 8 less an hour than white men the same Positions. “To me, this data suggests that Massachusetts is already suffering from some racial and gender inequalities that have really increased dramatically during this pandemic,” Jayaraman said of the reports.
In One Fair Wage’s December study, female employees shared accounts saying they should remove their masks so customers could see what they looked like: “masked harassment,” as the organization put it. We learned this year that a simple cloth covering can be a flash point for so many simmering tensions. We wore them (or we didn’t), we hated them, we fought for them, and restaurant workers had to monitor our compliance with the regulations around them. We also discussed transfer dates, restaurant restrictions, the tension between people’s interests and businesses, as if the two could be separated.
But we also got together. We learned what our city is and what it can be. We saw innovation – born of pain, but innovation nonetheless. We questioned things that were the way they were, simply because they always had been. Outdoor dining? Long may it rule. Imagine the progress that has been made in this area over the long term. Imagine how much more fun it would be to live here all year round. There is no reason why this cannot happen. Some of the changes made, undertakings started, models implemented and ideas hatched will find their way into the future and make the restaurant scene of 2025, for example, stronger, better and more interesting.
We have that and a lot more to look forward to.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.