The recipe has always been the same for the Island’s year-round restaurants. Make as much money as possible from June through September, and those funds will carry you for the remaining eight months of the year.
“What happens is you hit those three and a half to four months, collect as many acorns for the winter as you possibly can, get to the other side of Columbus Day, and see how you’re going to make it to next May,” Phil McAndrews, the owner of Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs, told The Times.
Staying open year-round on an Island was already a challenge, but it’s something McAndrews and other restaurant owners made a conscious decision to do. You keep your year-round customers well-fed and happy. You keep your year-round staff employed and happy.
The coronavirus pandemic is like adding a spoiled ingredient to that recipe. It fouled everything up.
Restaurants were shut down in March and much of April — reduced to takeout only, and lost one of the most valuable and profitable parts of the business, alcohol sales.
“The bars are what supplement the whole operation,” J.B. Blau, owner of four restaurants, said. “When you sell a drink, that is 80 percent profit, that helps the whole business. Without having the bar, without a nightlife, it’s a struggle.”
There may be no better example of that than the Ritz Café in Oak Bluffs. Known more for its nightlife, owner Larkin Stallings asked for and received permission to close from Jan. 1 to March 9, 2021. Stallings cited staffing issues, saying he’s lost employees “in droves.”
“Two of my year-round staff are left currently, and it seems like it’s going to get to the point now, as things get worse with the pandemic, that we’ll get to the point I won’t be able to support the staff I’ve got now,” Stallings said.
The bar has been losing money for the past two months, and Stallings said instead of staying open, he would like to use the time to make repairs, paint the walls, and wrap up other maintenance projects.
This comes on the heels of Oak Bluffs selectmen rejecting a request by the owners of Seaweed’s to open only on Saturdays. In an Instagram post, the restaurant announced it is closing. “This was quite a year to open [and] we really did the best we could,” the post states. The post goes on to thank customers and staff for their trust. “Stay safe this winter … until we meet again.”
Those restaurants that could offered outdoor dining in the spring, summer, and shoulder season, with distanced indoor dining when it was allowed.
Sales of gift cards in March and April, then government assistance through the Payroll Protection Plan loans, helped weather the spring surge. A busier than expected summer also provided some relief.
McAndrews said in August, when he could have added indoor seating to the mix, he didn’t because he was trying to be responsible to his customers and his employees. Instead, Offshore took advantage of the good weather and the weekly opportunities to offer dining in the street as the safest way to stay in business.
“That choice had a financial consequence,” he said. “Those acorns we were supposed to be collecting, we weren’t collecting.”
In late September, when the crowds were smaller and it was “safer to put our toe in the water,” Offshore started offering some indoor dining.
Things were going OK, restaurant owners told us, until a spike in cases hit the Island in mid-October. That’s when most Islanders stopped going out.
“If you want to have more than two pizza places and a diner, we need to figure it out,” said Blau, who has kept both Sharky’s Cantinas open, as well as Copper Wok and Sea Smoke for takeout. “Our October numbers were strong, but in November, when the scare happened, we went way down.”
Mike Santoro, who owns four restaurants, said the surge in cases has scared people to a point where some customers won’t even do takeout. “People on the Island have crawled under a rock, and they don’t dare come out now. They don’t even want to come near, and I don’t blame them,” he said. “A lot of people thought the Island was immune, and reality has set in. We have outbreaks now.”
McAndrews was more blunt. “Since that last week in October when the Island started spiking, it’s like a plane; the engines went out, and we went into a nosedive,” he said. “We haven’t leveled off.”
Gov. Charlie Baker’s statewide mandate to serve the last food and drink by 9:30 pm and close up by 10 pm has provided an added headache for restaurants.
“I don’t understand the 9:30 at night closing — 9:30 or 11 doesn’t make the virus go away,” Santoro said. “Closing at 9:30? That’s another turn of tables you could have done.”
Santoro and the other restaurant owners The Times interviewed said restaurants have strict protocols to follow, they sanitize often, they do contactless takeout, they provide online ordering, and their staff members wear face coverings. “We are going out of our way to make the public feel safe,” Santoro said.
Since those interviews, Baker has added more curveballs for restaurants. In a press briefing Tuesday, the governor said restaurants will have to keep parties to six or fewer, allow patrons to stay for 90 minutes or less, and make customers wear masks when they’re not eating or drinking — all of this while restaurants, based on the state’s own data, are responsible for minimal spread. In the last month, the state Department of Public Health reported that restaurants were responsible for 24 clusters and 103 cases out of 26,451 — that’s less than 3/10ths of 1 percent.
“The board of health has come out and said restaurants aren’t the problem,” Blau said.
Santoro said when restaurants have been forced to close on the Island, it’s because an employee got the virus outside of work. There’s no evidence of spread from restaurant employees to customers, he said. “All of the businesses that have closed, it’s been employees giving it to other employees,” he said, noting the cluster at Cronig’s, which involved employees and their family members.
Santoro, a former Oak Bluffs selectman, praised the boards of health on the Island. “They’ve done a great job in educating us in protecting our customers and our employees,” he said.
During the same briefing Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito acknowledged restaurants have been asked to do a lot.
“The restaurant community has gone to great lengths to enact safety protocols, from partitions to outdoor dining, and has done a great job operating safely,” Polito said. “They’ve been creative, they’ve been innovative, and they’ve really worked hard to make people feel safe coming in and out of their establishments, and most importantly to allow their workers to feel safe providing services in their restaurants day in and day out.”
The struggle is real
Being able to make adjustments is something that restaurant owners know they have to do, Santoro said. “If you work in a resort area, you have to be very flexible because it’s ever-changing. We could have a rainy season. We could have a bad economy. You have to be able to work and manage on the fly,” he said.
Still, the pandemic is difficult for business owners who are used to planning ahead. “I think every restaurant, every business owner would tell you this spring and summer was so stressful because of the unknowns,” Santoro said. “When you can’t plan ahead, it’s frustrating, it’s scary, and I can honestly tell you, I have four businesses, I only had two open, and I was more stressed with two — the not-knowing and the changes every two weeks.”
Santoro said he made promises to staff at the Lookout he couldn’t keep. “I had to say I’m sorry I don’t have work for you, and I felt bad,” he said.
Mike Sawyer, one of the co-owners and manager of the Barn Bowl & Bistro in Oak Bluffs, said he typically employs as many as 32 people, even in the winter. Now, with a severely reduced clientele, he said, it’s down to about six people.
“We’re now running on fumes,” Sawyer said. “Unless we get another round of PPP or support, we’ll have some difficult decisions to make on how to stay open.”
Sawyer said the Barn did well early on. He decided to stay open for takeout, and came up with a system on the fly that let customers feel safe by providing contactless takeout. He also began selling buckets of chicken, and started making some chicken nuggets that people are raving about on social media.
There have been bumps along the way, however. When he recently ran a promotion for $7.99 burgers, the restaurant quickly got overwhelmed. He said they expected to sell 60 to 70 burgers that night. They did 160 in one hour and a half. “Lots of them had to wait like an hour. We just didn’t anticipate that volume,” he said. “The people that came to pick up their food were really upset with us … They just weren’t understanding. What they didn’t take a moment to think about is we’re just trying to provide the Island with a really affordable meal, and take the risk that we wouldn’t make any money … I would just ask people to try to be patient as we try to survive, be creative, and figure out ways to sustain the business.”
With more federal aid still in question, The Times asked restaurant owners what their customers could do to help them weather this second surge and make it to what everyone hopes will be a robust summer of 2021 once there’s a widely distributed vaccine.
Buying gift cards, getting takeout at least once a week, ordering online when possible, and tipping restaurant staff — including for takeout — were among the suggestions.
“Don’t give up on us,” Santoro said.
“We’re struggling. We’re definitely struggling,” McAndrews said. “Trying to stay open year-round is a whole different level this year.”
Reporter Brian Dowd contributed to this story.
We asked Mike Sawyer, Mike Santoro, J.B. Blau, and Phil McAndrews what the public could do to help them get through the difficult winter ahead.
Buy gift certificates. Restaurant owners say it will give them needed capital to make it through the next few months.
Eat out, at least for takeout. The restaurants have to pay the building rent, the utility bills, and their insurance whether you come or not. They’re also buying products, which they’ll have to throw out if there aren’t any customers. State data shows that most virus transmission is happening among family members. Restaurants in Massachusetts have been responsible for 3/10ths of 1 percent of transmission in the past month, according to the DPH. By comparison, households are responsible for nearly 90 percent of the cases in the same period.
Tip generously on takeout. If you think that person is just handing you a box or bag with food, that’s not true. That person likely took the order, ran to the basement to get stock, and plated the food. Restaurants are working with skeleton crews.
Order online when available. If a restaurant has a system for ordering takeout online, use it. That frees up the person who would have to drop everything to take a phone order to serve you quicker. Once you’ve used a restaurant’s online system, much of the information can be saved, making the next order that much easier.
Be patient. Instead of having two or three cooks, most restaurants are working with one person in order to keep expenses down. They’re doing their best to get your order done correctly and quickly.
Wear a mask. It’s easy, and medical experts have said repeatedly that it’s the one thing we can all do to slow the spread of the virus.