| Carolyn Noel
SPRINGFIELD – Sen. Eric Lesser has hosted a variety of weekly “Lunchtime Livestreams” focusing on topics and issues that have stemmed from the COVID-19 pandemic. The restaurant industry has suffered greatly in the past year, with many forced to close or shift their models to optimize outdoor dining and takeout. On Jan. 29, Lesser discussed these struggles and policy efforts aimed at offering relief with acclaimed chef and two-time James Beard award recipient Jody Adams, owner of Boston restaurants TRADE, Porto and Saloniki.
According to Adams, since the beginning of the pandemic one in five restaurants in Massachusetts have closed. Adams is the owner of seven restaurants herself, and only three are currently open.
“I think it’s no secret to anybody that overall restaurants are suffering really dramatically and have been over the last ten months,” she said.
Adams also said that the restaurant industry and its workers suffered with a lack of help from both local and federal government.
“The people that work for us are the hardest working people in the world and they need the job, so we all worked really hard to keep them employed as best as we could, but without help from the government we just couldn’t do it ourselves,” she said.
Restaurants were given a first round of government grants towards the start of the pandemic called the Paycheck Protection Program. The program gave restaurants money, but there were strict restrictions for the use of the money. A majority of the funds had to go towards payroll and had to be used within eight weeks. Adams said that some owners did not even see these relief funds.
“Most minority owned businesses did not have access to those funds,” she said.
With the overwhelming restrictions of the program, it ultimately fell flat.
“The dollars never added up. In most cases people were losing money and going through their savings. Some people had support from their landlords, but many didn’t, and if you had a small landlord who was depending on you to pay your rent to pay their mortgage, they needed that rent,” said Adams.
The Restaurants Act was another round of government grants that could’ve helped struggling businesses receive relief. Lesser said Massachusetts legislators pushed hard for this bill to pass, but ultimately it didn’t go through in the federal Senate.
Adams said that seeing restaurants struggle – her own included – and not having help from the government prompted her and other notable chefs and restaurant owners to start Massachusetts Restaurants United.
According to the Mass Restaurants United website, “We are a group of chefs & restaurant owners that make up your beloved local date night destinations, cafes, lunch spots, and everything in between in the state of Massachusetts. As COVID-19 began affecting our state, we formed Mass Restaurants United, along with more than 500 independent restaurant owners and operators fighting to keep our lights on to continue serving food for all of you.”
Adams said that Mass Restaurants United wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker to tell him that restaurants were struggling and that they needed help. They presented a bill to start a Distressed Restaurant Fund and also to push for a limit on delivery fees.
Ultimately, the bill on delivery fees ended up passing. Third-party delivery companies such as UberEats and DoorDash are prohibited from charging restaurants more than 15 percent for fees during the pandemic.
“Many of us have gone from 20 percent of our business being delivery to 90 percent of the business being delivery and delivery companies were taking up to 30 percent of our revenue. These companies are making money hand over fist over these last 10 months, and [the fact that] the policy went into play immediately is huge,” said Adams.
With no fast-moving end to the pandemic in sight, Adams said it is important for community members to keep supporting their local restaurants.
“What’s become really clear is the importance of the community supporting restaurants and recognizing that we are the machine. We put somewhere between 90-95 cents of every dollar back into the economy. We are in every neighborhood, we support communities, we create the culture for communities,” she said.
People are aching for the human connection that restaurants provide, said Adams.
“Restaurants are the places where memories are made. Restaurants are places where you had a graduation, somebody proposes to somebody else, where you go when somebody in your family is dying and it’s bittersweet memories that you have.”
Adams said that Mass Restaurants United will continue to fight for these small businesses during the pandemic.
“We’ve come together in this united group, this united coalition, which is amazing. Our voice was heard by people like you. We want to remain at that table,” said Adams.
She recognized that many people still do not feel comfortable going to a restaurant, but urged them to instead get takeout. She said it is important for residents to keep their local restaurants alive instead of choosing to always order from corporate places who can align with delivery companies and have the leverage and money to work with them, whereas small restaurants do not. Adams also noted the unfair advantage these restaurants have where they can get money and support from corporate.
“Think big about who needs the support,” she said.
To end the livestream, Adams offered cooking advice to those watching.
“Keep it simple,” she said.
Those interested in watching the full livestream can visit Lesser’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/EricLesserMA. Those interested in learning more about Massachusetts Restaurants United are encouraged to visit their website at https://www.marestaurantsunited.com/.