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As Temperature Drops, Restaurant Owners Urge State Lawmakers To Pass Relief Bill

Massachusetts restaurant owners and chefs gathered in front of the State House to show support for legislation that would provide aid to struggling restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Massachusetts restaurant owners and chefs gathered in front of the State House to show support for legislation that would provide aid to struggling restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A group representing chefs and restaurant owners is urging lawmakers to help the struggling industry before it becomes too cold for outdoor dining to continue.

About a dozen people, speaking on behalf of the group Massachusetts Restaurants United, gathered on the steps of the State House in Boston on Tuesday and called for the passage of an economic aid package that would include a fund for distressed restaurants.

Some shared stories of near-empty dining rooms, disappearing profits, and mounting debt.

"We are doing our damn best to get ahead," said Nancy Caswell, owner of Ceia Kitchen + Bar and BRINE Oyster in Newburyport, and Oak & Rowan in Boston's Seaport neighborhood.

"We're asking for relief, not because we aren't trying," Caswell said. "We're resilient. We're doing the best we can. And the one thing that we love is the one thing that everybody fears, and that's going out to eat."

In hopes of slowing the financial bleeding, Stephanie Burke, co-owner of Lenny's Hideaway, a Mexican restaurant in Cohasset, said she has spent more than $15,000 to build a heated outdoor seating area at her restaurant. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)
In hopes of slowing the financial bleeding, Stephanie Burke, co-owner of Lenny's Hideaway, a Mexican restaurant in Cohasset, said she has spent more than $15,000 to build a heated outdoor seating area at her restaurant. (Adrian Ma/WBUR)

Without relief from the state, many are worried about how they'll survive the winter.

Both the Massachusetts House and Senate have passed their own legislation that would set up a fund to help restaurants cover various expenses including rent, payroll, past-due payments on restaurant supplies, and personal protective equipment. Those provisions, however, are tucked within larger economic aid packages that have yet to be reconciled.

"Right now, it's extremely slow," said Cecelia Lizotte, owner of Suya Joint All African Cuisine in Roxbury. Although her restaurant is open at 25% capacity, "that hasn't helped anything because people still aren't comfortable dining in," she said. "They would rather dine outside."

And unlike some other restaurants, she can't afford to set up outdoor seating or large space heaters.

"If you're trying to rent an outdoor heater, something that you could get at maybe $75 [before the pandemic], now ... you're looking at thousands, or it's not even available, because every single restaurant in Boston is trying to do the same thing."

On top of rent, payroll, insurance and taxes, the restaurateurs said they are also being squeezed by the fees many of them are paying to third-party food delivery services such as Uber Eats, Postmates, and Grubhub. Such services typically charge restaurants a 20-30% fee.

"We've come to rely on the delivery services to get our food to the people," said Tony Maws, owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge. But during a time when restaurants are doing a fraction of their normal business, "the math just doesn't work," he said.

Maws added that those delivery services "are making tons of money."

"They can afford to give up some. We're not asking for free delivery. We're asking for a very modest, happy medium."

The House's legislation proposes a 15% cap on the fees that third-party delivery companies can charge during the COVID-19 crisis.

"The one thing that we love is the one thing that everybody fears, and that's going out to eat."

nancy caswell, restaurant owner

As lawmakers hash out the details, Bessie King, who runs Villa Mexico Cafe in Boston’s Financial District with her mother, said they may be in for a "very somber" winter. The restaurant, which had done over 200 sales per day before the pandemic hit, is down to about 50 sales per day.

"It's been the hardest for my mom," King said. With the business coming up on its 20th anniversary in October, "she wanted a nice party to celebrate with our customers, our friends who have supported us so long."

Although that party will have to wait, King said they will do their best to keep the restaurant open.

"We have a moral duty to our community," King said. "We have been through hell and back. We're not going to let COVID close us."

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Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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