Fear and Hope Are Both on the Menu

Fear and Hope Are Both on the Menu


The restaurant industry has been devastated in 2020, but what can be done? Some are innovating, but will it be enough for people like me?

In Massachusetts, more than 20% of restaurants have closed their doors for good and as summer wanes and winter advances, that's only going to get worse. Many restaurants have relied on outdoor dining to get people wary of indoor spaces to come by for a meal, but will outdoor space heaters be enough?

On Cape Cod and in the Berkshires, many restaurants have barely salvaged their big seasons, but can they survive the winter on what they've earned? Many restaurants report that they are making 30% or less of what they were in a normal year. These are the questions that are confronting one of the hardest hit industries in 2020 and especially so in Massachusetts. And bars have been hit even worse than restaurants.

Some restaurants are setting up igloos, others planning for heaters and blankets on patios, and still others hoping to add a few more seats indoors. And some are just going into hibernation, shutting up shop for the winter, hoping to hemorrhage less by going into standby mode and survive until ... something better in the spring. Because hope springs eternal?

Meanwhile, some are innovating and I think we're better off for it. Instead of a multitude of precious chic bistros, restaurants have become neighborhood hubs, catering to what people near them need, whether it be specialty groceries or cool takeout food or virtual event spaces where the food is delivered and you eat with friends over Zoom.

But even with all this effort and all these pivots and changes to business plans, the simple fact is that many more restaurants will go under if things don't change soon.

I like the idea of a modern take on the neighborhood butcher and green grocer and fishmonger and baker have long felt that technology has brought about the potential for making those sorts of more personal and distributed businesses viable again.

To be sure, so far most of these innovations aren't priced for people at my end of the income spectrum, but that's often the way innovations come about. In automobiles, safety advances like anti-lock brakes appeared first on luxury brands and now they're standard everywhere. We can hope for a similar trickle down effect.

But even with all this effort and all these pivots and changes to business plans, the simple fact is that many more restaurants will go under if things don't change soon. And with those business closings come unemployment and the loss of the businesses that serve the restaurants and bars and the loss of tax revenue and the continuing loss of social life in our neighborhoods.

It's a real dilemma that elected leaders face with the risk of spiking infections on one side and the risk of economic devastation on the other. It's a tough balancing act that has partisans on both sides screaming that only their viewpoint is the right one.

Even if the lockdown orders were to be loosened tomorrow and restaurants could re-open as before for full service, how many people are willing to go out right now? We were never frequent restaurant goers. We went as a family out for birthdays and when Melanie parents would come into town and occasionally as a special treat (usually when we just had no idea what to make for dinner).

As for me and my family...

But as a family of seven, most places won't even accommodate us. In many restaurants the maximum party size, indoors or outdoors, is six. We just take up too much of their limited capacity. Given the respiratory issues that several members of my immediate family have (and the issues with mask-wearing anxiety), we're probably not going to go.

Which is a shame because we miss our favorite places: Pho So 1 Randolph, which has amazing pho and spring rolls; Sombrero's in Weymouth, which even Melanie has said has Tex-Mex adequate food compared to her native Austin Tex-Mex places; and Jake's Seafood in Hull, which we always went to at least once every summer for the view and setting as much as for the seafood. And a handful of other chain places as well like Bertucci's, Chili's, Panera, Five Guys, and so on. Instead, we get pizza delivered and we've had Bertucci's delivered, Chinese delivered, Indian delivered, barbecue delivered and takeout, and even Jamaican delivered. Which, I'll admit we should be grateful for, but apart from pizza, I wonder if any of those places will continue to survive on delivery.

The big question, then, is at what point do we, as a state and a nation, switch to the new normal? At what point do we say that the damage to our economy and our way of life is greater than the potential damage from the virus, especially now that our ERs and ICUs are not overwhelmed, that better treatments are available, and the numbers keep going down? How long must this go on?