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'Probably Not Worth It': Some Businesses Aren't Sure They'll Reopen, Even When Allowed03:49
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Mei Mei chef-owner Irene Li, pictured in 2018, is reevaluating her restaurant's business model. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Mei Mei chef-owner Irene Li, pictured in 2018, is reevaluating her restaurant's business model. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The day is coming when Massachusetts businesses forced to shut their doors because of the coronavirus can reopen. Gov. Charlie Baker this week outlined a four-phase recovery plan, with more details expected Monday.

Yet some companies say it may not make financial sense for them to welcome back customers as soon as they're allowed to do so.

"We are pretty sure that we are not going to end up reopening our dining room when most other restaurants do," said Irene Li, chef-owner of Mei Mei, an Asian fusion restaurant in Boston. "It's really not that feasible and probably not worth it."

It won't be worth it, Li, explained, if lingering physical distancing requirements mean reducing Mei Mei's already small seating capacity.

So, Li is rethinking her restaurant's business model.

"Right now, our dining room is holding a few thousand pounds of grocery products," she said. "That is a revenue stream for us."

There's also takeout, of course. Virtual dumpling classes — at $33 dollars per person — have turned out to be a hit, Li said. She's even considering firing up Mei Mei's old food truck, which predates the restaurant.

"It's funny because we retired the food truck about two years ago from public vending but, obviously, that might be a way for us to make our comeback as a business," she said.

And if the Mei Mei food truck starts rolling through Boston again, the streets may be a little clearer than usual.

An iconic sight remains notably absent: The duck boats are missing.

"It's hard to get our head around, and we keep getting more cautious about opening," said Cindy Brown, chief executive of Boston Duck Tours.

With the Bruins boasting the best record in hockey and the Celtics among the top teams in basketball, Boston might have been destined for another duck boat parade next month. Now, it's unclear whether championship athletes — or anyone — will get to ride the amphibious vehicles this year.

The Patriots paraded through Boston on duck boats in 2016, after winning the Super Bowl. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The Patriots paraded through Boston on duck boats in 2016, after winning the Super Bowl. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Brown said even if the state allows her company to resume tours in the near future, she'll have to think hard about whether it's possible to follow physical distancing rules and still turn a profit.

"We don't want to do it wrong," she said. "We don't want to put guests or our staff at risk. And every time we learn more, we keep saying we can't rush opening because it might not be worth it, until we can hit a certain threshold."

Brown estimates that threshold is 25% to 35% capacity just to break even. So, something like the state's 40% limit on grocery stores would leave Boston Duck Tours with a razor-thin margin.

And, according to Brown, there's more than just the bottom line to consider.

"If the experience is going to be a recorded tour, instead of a live narrator, or people spaced and you can't be with your friends — if it's not going to be a good experience, we can't open because our product is so important to us," she said. "We'd rather wait until the experience can be good and make sure that we live up to our reputation."

Brown said she hopes the duck tours can return as a good experience — and that tourists come back, too — sometime this summer.

"And if worse comes to worst, and we can't, then we'll come back next year, still in business and able to preserve our capital to the point that when we do open, we're ready to go," she said.

Brown thinks the business can hold out until 2021, if necessary — which could come just time for the duck boats to lead a championship parade for the Tom Brady-less Patriots.

We can hope, right?

This segment aired on May 13, 2020.

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Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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