What is beyond the pandemic? MassForward is MassLive’s series exploring how Massachusetts businesses move beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
On a Wednesday morning towards the end of May, customers were frequenting the doors of the Crust Bakeshop on West Boylston Street in Worcester. They flocked to the bakery’s newest location to enjoy croissants for late breakfast and sandwiches for early lunch.
Pedestrian traffic at Crust’s second location showed demand in a building that previously housed a Stakbuck’s and a Steam Energy Cafe.
Alexis Kelleher, the owner of Crust Bakeshop, was recently sitting outside the restaurant in an area where some customers were sitting with friends and their dog. It is a space that Kelleher always imagined, but which she also classifies as a fantasy rather than reality. Forget about performing the feat during a pandemic.
“I can’t believe we got where we are last year,” said Kelleher.
In February 2021, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association announced that approximately 4,000 companies in the state have permanently closed their doors due to COVID-19. Worcester County wasn’t immune to iconic establishments like Crown Bakery to Skylite Rolling Skating Center, which were permanently closing their doors. But the crippling pandemic has also given rise to companies that gain a foothold in the chaos and expand.
Crust Bakeshop is one of the few restaurants, including Atlantic Poke, BT’s Smokehouse, and Taqueria Del Pueblo, that not only maintained operations in their original locations during the pandemic, but expanded through Fall 2020.
“It was a milestone year for everyone, but it was for us [really] a milestone year, ”said Kelleher’s business and life partner Nate Rossi. “If we ever get busy, let’s just say, do you remember 2020?”
Instead of looking for a second location, Kelleher found an opportunity.
When the space opened at 1 West Boylston St., the owner assessed Kelleher’s interest before it went on sale in August 2020.
“As a new mom, in the middle of a pandemic, we were also in the middle of the move,” said Kelleher. “There’s that ambitious part of you that’s what I’ve always wanted for my business, but also, how are we going to do it?”
A month later, Crust opened its second location while they were moving into a new home.
“Both of us, I think we love the chaos a bit,” said Kelleher. “[We thrive in it] the crazier it gets. “
At around the same time, Michael Tomaiolo, founder of Atlantic Poke, was planning to expand his Shrewsbury restaurant.
Unlike Kelleher, Tomaiolo started 2020 with an ambition not only to expand but also to start franchising Atlantic Poke. The pandemic abruptly stopped his ambitions.
“When COVID hit, like any other company, we felt pretty good at the beginning,” said Tomaiolo. “Then we were able to get back on the horse and pull it off through our business model, the way we deal with people, our cleanliness when eating.”
Since Atlantic Poke is take-out based, business stabilized by the end of April, according to Tomaiolo. Towards the end of the summer Tomaiolo began looking for a second location, which he eventually found at 237 Boston Post Road W. in Marlborough.
“The stars matched and we could take the opportunity if we wanted to take a risk,” said Tomaiolo.
The pandemic hit BT’s smokehouse differently.
Partners Brian Treitman and Bill Nemeroff already had plans for BT’s Fried Chicken and BBQ in Worcester. For two years they planned to open a space on the corner of Park Avenue and Chandler Street, with a debut date for March 2020.
“When the pandemic broke out, everything just stood still,” said Treitman.
But the work went on, even if sometimes it could not be completed.
Due to social distancing protocols, only a single contractor was able to be in BT’s second restaurant at a time, extending the timeline from opening in March 2020 to fall.
“I couldn’t have the plumber and the electrician in there at the same time,” said Treitman. “And it was brutal to get inspections too. One of our plumbers has disappeared. There were all sorts of things that kept pushing things back. “
Months after BT opened in Worcester, a car crashed through the front door.
Plywood is still covering the damage as the pandemic has made it harder to get windows and doors.
“We always got a little momentum and then we were shot in the foot,” said Treitman.
When Tomaiolo first stepped into Atlantic Poke’s second location, it was decorated with subway decor.
Faux brown brick covered the walls behind the counter with light brown walls and brown faux wood along the counter. The color of the tile floor, which was supposed to cover dirt, looked dirty even after cleaning. Lights in the suspended ceiling created a damp, dark environment.
“I’m not a player but I bet on myself,” said Tomaiolo.
Within two months, the combination of more natural light, modern sleek tables, and white tiles on the counter and back wall completely transformed the space that mimicked the template he created in Shrewsbury.
However, the labor shortage made expansion difficult. Small businesses have faced employees who are reluctant to return to work.
“There is such a shortage. I’ve spoken to people on every side of the political fence, ”said Tomaiolo. “They all agree that this unemployment is killing small businesses. The extra $ 300 kills businesses big and small. This time we were more challenged with the recruitment.
The $ 300 Tomaiolo is referring to is the weekly federal unemployment hike that Massachusetts continues to opt for.
Tomaiolo still relies on some of his Shrewsbury staff to keep the Marlborough restaurant running as smoothly as he wants it to be.
Kelleher also credits her staff for helping her navigate through the pandemic and expansion.
At the bottom of the pandemic, Crust’s workforce dropped to six. When Massachusetts lifted its COVID restrictions on May 29, Crust now employs 21 people across its two locations.
In a year full of turbulence and surprises, which also included a spontaneous decision to expand, the idea of more than triple the number of employees during a pandemic puts a smile on Kelleher’s face.
“Our team is so great,” said Kelleher. “The people we were able to get on board and who have been with us for the past year or many of them have been with us for even longer. The enthusiasm they had, we could all get each other through. It was really huge. “