“I’m not sure customers understand that a free appetizer could cost someone a job,” she said. “I’ve been a bartender for 25 years. I’ve never seen such bad behavior in my life.”
As we head into a second pandemic winter, restaurants are grappling with a multitude of challenges: lack of funds, the new Omicron flavor, spirited diners ready to return to normal life, supply chain issues, and an eerily quiet downtown. There is no playbook. Risk tolerance varies greatly. Restaurants create their own vaccination guidelines for customers and employees.
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Meanwhile, the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund has denied relief to two-thirds of claimants. On Tuesday, Rep. Ayanna Pressley released a letter urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to provide an additional $60 billion in funding. In the meantime, businesses need customers, and they’re muddling through with less guidance than before.
For restaurants that have stayed in business, it’s a balancing act. At Tiffani Faison’s newly opened Orfano Italian restaurant at Fenway, returning diners are in a party mood — particularly older diners who balked at going out last year. But business shifts with headlines.
“We definitely feel the reflex of information that isn’t always necessarily reliable, but as we go on vacation this year, there’s a more festive mood after the extreme exhaustion of not being able to live our lives,” she said. “The reaction to that is people are enjoying themselves and being a little less scared.”
The downside is customers demanding a return to pre-pandemic norms at all costs. Bartender Frederic Yarm works at Drink in Fort Point, a chic spot for sophisticated cocktails. He has had to explain the mask policy to dodgy customers and prefers to avoid crowds when dining on his free time. He has also suffered from COVID and said he expects to get it again.
“My health is my livelihood,” he said.
Gary Strack runs Brick & Mortar in Cambridge. He had COVID last year and is blunt.
“Hearing this on the street: COVID cases rising in restaurants, everyone hitting the gas for the holidays, federal and state laws are both laissez-faire, no action on relief efforts, January is coming = many bad decisions by employers are going down now” , he tweeted on Friday.
“When you talk to restaurateurs who now say, ‘No! It is great! We dont care! We’re full every night!’ They sell some [BS]”Strack said in a subsequent text conversation. “Not that I don’t think they’re busy. Some restaurants are, particularly in the suburbs, but that perspective trivializes the situation for both the industry and diners.”
Prepandemic moods do not prevail everywhere. Office workers are slow to return to the city, creating a domino effect for businesses that rely on commuters, such as B. the Boston Public Market.
“We are a long way from our pedestrian numbers from previous years. We had 90,000 people at the market in November, about half what we would have had in a typical November,” said Cheryl Cronin, CEO of the Boston Public Market Association.
At the market, all employees must be vaccinated so that the guests feel comfortable. That’s moot when these guests work from the suburbs rather than downtown.
“Basically, we need office workers who come back at least part-time,” she said. “Even more discouraging is how long it is taking for downtown Boston to recover.”
Elsewhere, gear is just as elusive as customers. North End restaurateur Phil Frattaroli has been unable to replace key parts in glasswashers and fridges for weeks due to supply chain issues.
Erin Clark/Globe Staff
“If something breaks, it would often be cheaper or easier to replace the unit, but that’s almost impossible right now,” Frattaroli said.
In the midst of such troubles, some restaurants choose to go briefly into a quiet winter. William Kovel will close the Catalyst in Kendall Square from December 23 to January 9 and said he will pay his staff for their time. Michael Serpa, who runs several Boston restaurants including Grand Tour and Select, will also close for a few days over the holidays before facing an unknown future.
“Winter is very uncertain. You know, it’s like, ‘Let’s just get to Marathon Monday,'” he said.
Some say cautious guests might be lured back with promises of al fresco dining. In Boston, this ends on December 31 on private patios and public streets. In the North End, terrace dining ended on November 1 when temperatures were still moderate, although COVID spreads more easily indoors.
“Take-away and delivery are the focus of our efforts, but al fresco dining is the silver bullet. There’s nothing quite like eating al fresco,” Frattaroli said. “Even in cold weather, it’s a boon to our lunchtime business at all restaurants and just a reassuring option for people when they call to make a reservation.”
At the Lucie at the Colonnade Hotel, a heated, covered patio keeps guests warm — but on a recent visit it was empty. Customers preferred to stay indoors for the time being.
“The biggest fear for us is that they’ll feel unwell again and not want to go out to eat,” said chef Nick Calias.
Erin Clark/Globe Staff
He will keep his outdoor seating free for as long as possible and offer blankets to guests.
Despite this, other companies struggle to find staff to cover both indoor and outdoor areas while still complying with fire codes. Propane for heat lamps is also expensive to store and supply: Faison estimates she used up a tank a night providing outdoor seating.
At SRV in the South End, General Manager Ted Hawkins sometimes doesn’t have enough staff to make al fresco dining profitable and it’s not the best way to present your food. Safety is still a priority, but restaurants also need to get back to doing what they were meant to do: serve meals people want to eat, preferably hot, he said.
“Now it’s about meeting people where they are, but also making sure we don’t put them in a bad situation by having a sub-par meal with us or putting ourselves in a situation where we’re too skinny again stretched. We take it every day,” Hawkins said.
On a recent visit to Hojoko at Fenway, the bar was packed and the dining room was buzzing, despite a touted heated terrace. In reality it was dark and freezing, occupied by a shivering couple who asked for a heat lamp to be turned on. The drinks arrived slowly. A server apologized for the delay; they were slammed inside. In return, customers apologized for asking her to come out even in the cold.
“No, you’re smart,” she replied.
Despite everything, others are cautiously optimistic about the future. At the small, 24-seat Celeste in Somerville’s Union Square, co-owners JuanMa Calderon and Maria Rondeau see a return to pre-COVID traffic. In fact, they’ll be opening a larger restaurant, La Royal, in Huron Village early next year.
“We have endured so much. . . . We’ll take precautions, but I have a feeling [Omicron] will fizzle out,” Rondeau said. “Positive thinking.”
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.