After a tough year, South Shore restaurants brace for lean winter months – Wicked Local


South Shore restaurants are doing their best to adapt as they gear up for a long, tough winter, which comes as many are already treading water because of the pandemic.
“The restaurant business as a whole has been devastated,” said Paul Wahlberg, a Hingham resident who, in addition to being head chef at Alma Nove in the Hingham Shipyard, owns Wahlbergers with several of his brothers. “Restaurants that have been open for generations have been closed through no fault of their own.”
Struggles for the industry
In March, the state placed limits on restaurants in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Until June, restaurants were barred from offering dine-in service, prompting many to pivot to take-out and delivery only – and some to shutter, in some cases, for good.
In the beginning of June, restaurants were again allowed to seat customers outside. Later that month, the state began allowing indoor dining, requiring tables be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
“It was devastating in the beginning when they told us we had to close,” said Stephan Hill, general manager of the Mill Wharf Restaurant in Scituate.  “We tried take-out and delivery for about three weeks, but being such a big restaurant, the numbers just didn’t add up.”
Instead, the Mill Wharf closed completely and focused on deep cleaning and making renovations. In June, the Mill Wharf was ready for reopening for outside dining, with all protocols in place.
 “We had a respectable summer due to the great weather and the town’s flexibility with variances to expand patio dining,” said Hill.
Then on Dec. 8, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a move backwards in the state’s reopening plan, tightening restrictions on restaurants. Restaurants and other venues with social dining are now required to impose a 90-minute limit for tables and the cap for parties was lowered from 10 to six. Restaurants must also now be closed from 9:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., with the last customers of the night out the door by 10 p.m.
Dermot Doran, owner of The Madd Hatter Restaurant in Weymouth, said the prospect of having to leave a restaurant relatively early could discourage diners from going out in the first place.
“Who in their right mind will leave a restaurant or bar on a Friday at 9:30 p.m?” he said.
Doran said the new closing times could actually encourage indoor gatherings in venues that are more dangerous than restaurants.
“They are trying to stop house gatherings, but we can better control gatherings,” he said. “We can limit it to no more than six people at a table.”
Closures abound
Restaurants have seen revenues plummet, with layoffs and closures plaguing the industry.
Stephen Clark, vice president of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said more than 20% of the 16,000 restaurant locations in his organization have closed since March. Of the approximately 300,000 restaurant employees in the state, he estimates two thirds were laid off at some point this year, and about one third have still not been called back to work.  Some of them never will.
“It’s pretty dire for our industry right now,” he said.
When the mandated closures were first announced in March, some restaurants shut down for several weeks or even months, as eateries that had never before offered services like delivery or outdoor dining scrambled to execute the switch. And with the latest surge, a few are closing their doors temporarily, with the goal of reopening when the danger has passed.
Haddad’s Ocean Cafe in Marshfield recently announced its the decision to go into “hibernation” for the first two months of 2021, due to “the current conditions and uncertainty of the future.”
 “This was not an easy call to make, however it’s a call we felt was necessary,” owners said on Facebook. “The health and safety of our staff and customers is of the utmost importance to us. In good conscience we could not continue to open and put everyone at a higher risk.”
As Massachusetts’ COVID-19 case numbers continue to soar, restaurant owners are acutely aware that full-on shutdowns could be around the corner. A temporary closure could mean some restaurants never reopen.
Doran said the previous state-mandated closing of restaurants for over four months caused his restaurant to lose 80% of its business.
“If there is another shutdown, it could shut us down completely,” he said. “We have been at this location for two years. It takes three to five years to get a business open. We lost four months because we were closed. I’m surprised we are still open.”
What others are doing to stay open
In the spring and summer, local restaurants began to offer new services, launching take-out, delivery and online ordering where they never had before and setting up patios for outdoor dining on their sidewalks and in their parking lots. Many began offering special promotions or family-style meals to make take-out a more appealing option.
Some new initiatives, like delivery and curbside pick-up, will easily translate into the winter months, but the cold weather promises to make outdoor dining, a lifeline for restaurants in warmer months, a real challenge.
Some restaurants are installing outdoor heaters to encourage diners to keep showing up even as the New England winter bears down. Wahlberg said Alma Nove purchased heaters early, but that demand has already created a shortage that could impact other restaurants.
Doran said the Madd Hatter recently installed two humidifiers on a heating and air conditioning unit to kill germs and make indoor dining as safe as possible.
“The two units clean the air and humidify it,” he said. “They are used in hospitals.”
Mike Tibodeau, owner of Sam’s on the Harbor in Scitutate, said he’s done a “brisk” takeout business this fall, but had to scale back staff drastically as he gears up for winter. Other local restaurants are also planning staffing cuts in anticipation of lean months ahead.
Tibodeau is also preparing for more takeout marketing efforts in the event of another partial shutdown.
“Many people think that big business drives the economy; they don’t,” he said.  “It is the hundreds of thousands of small businesses which employ the most people and keep money local, allowing more people in a neighborhood to prosper.”
Other efforts
Towns and cities are finding ways to help out their struggling restaurants.
Marshfield and Weymouth have both opted to waive restaurant’s liquor license renewal fees for 2021, while Hingham and Scituate reduced them by 50% and 25%, respectively.
“They’re hurting,” Marshfield Selectmen Chair Mike Bradley said of the impacted businesses. “Anything we can do to help them is great. It’s a lot of money. All of them, I’m sure, will appreciate the minimal relief we can provide.”
Some local governments have extended the temporary measures allowing restaurants to set up tables in other outdoor spaces not typically allowed. Hingham’s selectmen initially voted to allow outdoor dining until November. In October, they voted to allow outdoor dining to continue for up to 60 days after the statewide state of emergency, which is in place indefinitely, is lifted. Marshfield selectmen voted to allow outdoor dining until at least March.
Measures like extending outdoor dining and waiving liquor license fees are helpful, Clark said, but states and municipalities don’t have the mechanisms to simply write restaurants a blank check. Ultimately, he said, the federal government needs to pass another stimulus package to allow small businesses like local restaurants to stay afloat.
“They’ve only provided two months of relief for eight months of problems,” he said.
Kara Tondorf, owner of Scituate restaurants Rivershed and Salt Society, said locals have been extremely supportive with ordering takeout, and that the ability to use outdoor seating has helped tremendously. But, she said, she’s still “terrified” of winter.
“Every day is, ‘will we be forced to close again?’ ‘Such and such a staff member was exposed to COVID, what do we do?’” she said. “These are decisions I never thought I would have to make.”


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