Frank DePasquale is a restaurateur. But on a recent morning, he and and some employees were shoveling mulch in 80 degree weather instead of wielding spatulas in the heat of the kitchen.
Starting Monday, Massachusetts restaurants can serve sit-down meals again, after being limited to takeout since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. For DePasquale, preparing to reopen his Trattoria il Panino in Boston’s North End has meant extra duties as a landscaper, handyman and janitor.
“We’ve gone through almost three months of cleaning, painting, disinfecting, filling up holes that we might have found — doing all the things that it takes, as if you were starting a new restaurant,” he said.
The new version of Trattoria il Panino is much smaller than the original. And, per state regulations, all seating is outside — hence DePasquale’s newfound commitment to mulched and manicured garden beds.
“We do all of our preparation right here on the back counter,” he said on a tour of his restaurant’s brick patio. “We cut our bread … make our drinks. As you can see, we have 6-foot spacing from table to table.”
The spacing is mandatory, and it limits seating to just 28 people, less than 10% of the restaurant’s full capacity.
Yet Trattoria il Panino is better off than many other restaurants. Only 1 in 5 eateries has any outdoor seating, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. The group’s president, Bob Luz, estimates the coronavirus outbreak has put almost a quarter of the state’s restaurants out of business.
Those that have survived face new costs they may pass on to customers.
“We now have to have one person designated, at all times, to be managing sanitation,” Luz said. “So, between that and the food costs, I think it’s entirely likely that menu prices will probably have to go up.”
With so many challenges, some restaurateurs have decided reopening just isn’t worth it yet.
But there’s more than the bottom line to consider, said Nick Verano, who owns three North End restaurants. He hopes initial losses will lead to future business.
“I think you get going, you start letting your help earn some money, right? Bring back the employees. You gotta sharpen your pencil, maybe, a little bit more than you did in the past, and you make it work.”
Reopening only works if customers have an appetite for restaurant dining in the midst of a global pandemic. And new hygiene requirements threaten to take some fun out of the experience.
There’s no more mingling at the bar. Fancy silver- and stemware may be replaced by disposable plastic, in the name of cleanliness. And diners have to wear masks, except when seated for meals.
Despite all of that, “the guests want to go out to eat,” said Tuscan Kitchen founder Joe Faro. “Period. End of story.”
Faro speaks from experience. He owns restaurants in Boston and Burlington and also has two in New Hampshire, where outdoor dining has been allowed for a few weeks. He said he’s been pleasantly surprised to see people rush back.
“There is a pent-up demand,” he said. “We’re seeing it every day. So, just to see guests in the restaurant, enjoying and smiling and eating and drinking again — that was a real weight off my shoulders.”
“I’ll be smiling a little more if I can see that in Massachusetts,” he added.
Restaurateurs across the state will be smiling along Monday, if the weather holds up and diners turn out.
WBUR’s Fausto Menard contributed reporting.
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