Good Eats – Future Shock
New Restaurants Face Challenges in the Age of COVID
It reads like the perfect definition of clinical insanity: opening and operating a new restaurant in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Here are some of their stories.
Viviana Acevedo, the owner of Panela, a Colombian eatery in Lowell, has somehow managed to keep her business going despite a series of setbacks that would have made even Job a little nervous.
When she took over a small restaurant on Hanover Street in early 2019, she inherited a major issue right away. The street was closed — literally closed, while the city made bridge repairs.
Anyone who lives in Lowell will tell you that the duration of ANY bridge repairs in the Mill City requires a yearly, not monthly, calendar.
Nevertheless, Acevedo began to find her place in the city’s always changing culinary community. She even purchased the neighboring SAC Club. “People were coming, and they wanted a bar, and we were offering Colombian music and dancing,” Acevedo says, “and that’s when COVID happened.”
After watching the news and assessing the risks, she closed for three months.
You may remember those awful days in March and April when the pandemic hit the Bay State hard, and no one really knew much about COVID-19 or what was considered safe or risky behavior. Eventually the medical community got a better handle on those things, and Panela reopened. Acevedo made use of wooden pallets she obtained from Market Basket to set up flooring for outdoor dining. After the state moved to Phase 2 operations, she says business became steady.
“You have to look for resources,” she says. “You have to work hard to make things happen.” Her serving capacity, for example, went from 200 to 60.
Acevedo admits that she works nearly 80 hours a week with a staff that, as of mid-October, consists of three servers and one person helping her in the kitchen. “The community has been very good to us,” she says, “but you have to learn to get along with less than half of what you had before.”
Beyond all that, Acevedo fears what most restaurant owners in the Merrimack Valley are concerned about these days. “My biggest worry is when the cold comes,” she says, “and no one wants to eat outdoors. … Will we have to close again?”
Still, she understands that she is better off than some peers who are just getting started. “Oh my God!” she exclaims. “It must be so tough to be opening a new restaurant at this time.”
The pandemic has hit local members of the hospitality community in different ways. Larger local firms with several restaurants, for example, may be in a better financial position to weather all this.
Sometimes that first rule of the restaurant business … Location! Location! Location! … applies in new ways.
Salvatore’s in downtown Andover, for example, had a large parking area directly in front of its main entrance. That allowed a large tent to be erected for summer dining. Even though the restaurant has been rebranded as 34 Park (it’s still a Lupoli property), inside sources say business thrived this summer.
The Tuscan Sea Grill & Bar in Newburyport is a new concept for the Granite State-based Tuscan Brands, best known for its Tuscan Kitchen restaurants in the area.
The waterfront property in Newburyport was originally scheduled to open in May, but the virus pushed the debut to July. Edwin Santana, Tuscan Brands’ director of sales and marketing, says it may not have made sense on paper to open, but company owner Joe Faro was passionate about the site, so opening during the summer was “a no-brainer” for him.
Yet there was a stretch, Santana says, when some employees stayed on the payroll even when there was no money coming in from the place. The gamble seems to have paid off. Santana says the restaurant “was very, very busy” from the start and that “the phones just wouldn’t stop ringing.” In some cases, people were willing to wait hours for a table.
Timing is important, of course, and the Tuscan Sea Grill & Bar opened when outdoor and socially distanced indoor dining had gained some degree of acceptance from the medical community.
It surely helped that all of us were suffering from cabin fever the likes of which we had never endured before. Outdoor waterfront dining at a new-concept restaurant from a quality chain clearly resonated with a lot of customers. “People were really dying to see what the new concept was about,” Santana says.
Still, there was a big COVID-19 factor. The place had to operate at about 50% capacity.
Another new Tuscan Brands concept is on the boards, with the Toscana Italian Chophouse & Wine Bar due to open in Portsmouth, N.H.
Santana says they had hoped to open last summer to take advantage of the area’s large warm-weather tourist population. But a combination of construction and regulation delays pushed the opening to, as of press time, an unspecified fall debut.
There may not be many tourists around then, but as Santana explains, “We’re opening up to the locals, who will be with us year-round.”
It’s always good to remember that the food industry, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The pandemic has wreaked havoc with the local restaurant community. Dozens of locations have been forced to close, at least temporarily, and some may never reopen.
But there is already a wave of new local places vying for your attention. Tasty Dumplings in downtown Lowell is being praised for its Asian cuisine, especially its … dumplings! Ellie’s Farmhouse in Methuen has earned raves for its breakfast/brunch specialties.
Stones #1 Social in Nashua is a new space from the Cobblestones/Moonstones folks that’s already living up to its “Deliciously quick, a bit more hip” slogan. Nibbana Cafe in Lowell is a smart new coffee shop in a city that’s known for them.
So please be safe and well and smart during this pandemic era. But it doesn’t hurt to be willing, in whatever way best suits you, to sample the many appealing new … and old … dining options in the Merrimack Valley.
Stones #1 Social
Tuscan Sea Grill & Bar