COVID brought long-lasting changes to restaurant industry

Some thrived, while others went under

FOOD IS A cornerstone of culture, connection, and prosperity, and restaurants are the hubs of our mealtime traditions. But last spring, the coronavirus brought Boston’s lively restaurant scene to a grinding halt. 

“The city was literally a ghost town,” remembers Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. He visited the city early on a Wednesday evening, when workers should have been spilling into the streets, hungry for a meal and a place to socialize after work. Instead, it was empty. Luz felt like he was in the post-apocalyptic Will Smith film I Am Legend.

This new reality didn’t come on slowly. Luz will never forget March 15, 2020, the day Boston Mayor Marty Walsh pulled the plug on the restaurant industry. Luz woke up to a call from the mayor’s office that morning, informing him that Boston’s nightlife venues, including restaurants and bars, would need to shut their doors by six that night. 

Over the next three days, 255,000 of 300,000 restaurant workers in Massachusetts were furloughed, Luz said. Restaurant storerooms lay stocked with fresh and frozen products, but there would be no one at the tables to cook for. The industry had been turned upside down. 

On this week’s episode of Mass Reboot, a Codcast series examining how COVID-19 affected Massachusetts and how the state is adjusting moving forward, restaurant workers, political leaders, and journalists discuss the pandemic-related stress that collapsed many restaurants and pushed others to reimagine how and where we dine.

A few major policy changes were instrumental in keeping restaurants alive during the pandemic. Many businesses continued to offer take-out services, and for the first time those with liquor licenses were allowed to offer beer, wine, and eventually cocktails to go.

It used to take up to three months for a restaurant to get approval for an outdoor dining permit. Under an emergency proclamation issued by Gov. Charlie Baker, businesses were cleared for the service within three days. 

It didn’t work for every eatery, but some found that customers loved being outside. Former Lawrence mayor Dan Rivera said the city’s large Latinx community responded to the new arrangement with enthusiasm. The vibrancy that street dining brought back to the downtown area was reminiscent of the Dominican Republic to some. 

Creativity and entrepreneurship helped some industry workers—like Bruno Prado, a furloughed restaurant manager and bartender—take advantage of the moment. Prado spent about a month working with a friend on a start-up food delivery service. Then he helped out a Cambridge restaurant providing meals to hospitals, and later started offering Zoom bartending courses. 

The restaurant industry also got some attention from the federal government, with two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program loans pumped into kitchens around the country. But it wasn’t enough for every restaurant, and it was more difficult for small venues with less bandwidth to apply for grants. 

Restaurants that hibernated—closing entirely, putting their costs on ice, and reopening when restrictions were loosened—fared well. Luz said that of the 500 restaurants he saw take this approach, almost all have now reopened. 

Meet the Author

Lily Robinson

Summer intern, CommonWealth
Still, repopulating dining rooms hasn’t been easy. The National Restaurant Association reported that, as of December, 110,000 restaurants were closed nationwide. Many of those that are open or planning to open are struggling to find workers. Staff are grappling with new dynamics within their dining rooms and bars, depending on what restrictions are still in place. 

The pandemic changed dining quickly and drastically, and the impact is likely to leave a lasting mark. Luz says more restaurants are opening outside the city now that fewer people are commuting to work. Most sales used to happen inside buildings, while now people are continuing to take their meals outside or bring them home.

“Looking ahead to the future also means looking back on the thousands of restaurants whose doors will never open again,” said Libby Gormley, host of MassReboot. The pandemic left some restaurants more resilient and prepared, and Gormley expects other impacts to the industry will become apparent as it continues to move forward. Still, she says, “it’s worth remembering how we got here and the losses that made these changes necessary.”