One Saturday night earlier this summer, Mezza Luna owner E.J. Cubellis was making the rounds of his restaurant on Main Street in Buzzards Bay, surveying the dining room and the kitchen. His business had been open for a couple of weeks after being shut down in mid-March due to the pandemic.
As Mr. Cubellis walked through the kitchen that particular night, the temperature was north of 100 degrees. He looked at the staff, both kitchen and dining room, hard at work. He suddenly had an epiphany about the dedication of his employees.
“I couldn’t thank these guys enough, and I went home that night and sent them all texts. I said, ‘I’m so sorry you guys have to do this, sorry you have to wear these masks, but I’m proud of you,’” he said.
The staff, Mr. Cubellis said, has stepped up efforts to comply with new regulations and keep the restaurant sanitized in the interest of customer health and safety. He said meeting cleanliness standards was something the restaurant staff has always done. Now, even more attention is being paid to sanitation “so that the customers want to come in,” he said.
“Our future depends on whether we make the customer feel safe,” he said.
That dedication by his staff, he said, is what has helped him navigate the turbulent times he has been hit with because of COVID-19. He said many restaurants are “hanging on by a thread” and speculated that a lot of places will not survive the coronavirus.
Even business at the Mezza Luna is down 30 to 35 percent from what it was pre-pandemic, he said.
On a recent Saturday night in late August, the restaurant served 300 dinners, which is about 200 less than he would have served the same time a year ago, he said.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Mr. Cubellis said, he is confident of overcoming the obstacles confronting the restaurant industry. Restaurateurs are used to adversity, which includes having to adjust to ever-changing regulations. The coronavirus has just hit the industry with “a whole lot more of them at once,” he said.
He recalled that business was bad for restaurants back in the 1980s, when the stock market crashed.
People were not dining out at that time because money was tight, but the Mezza Luna and other restaurants survived, he said.
COVID-19 is “just another chapter in the restaurant business,” he said.
“What are you going to do, give up and go home?” he asked. “Lock the doors? Lose everything you have? Put 50 people out of business, out of work? No, you stand up and fight, and the only way to fight is to go by the rules and just abide by them, and make the place as safe as you possibly can.”
Making customers feel safe is the key to success, Mr. Cubellis said. It is job one for all the staff, from the most-seasoned veterans to the 15- and 16-year-old youngsters who are bussing tables, he said.
“You want to make the guy sitting over there, make sure he sees you clean that table nice. That way he tells people, ‘I was there, they clean everything, they don’t fool around,’” he said.
A downturn in business has also been felt at The Lobster Trap on Shore Road in Bourne. Co-owner David Delancey estimated his business is down about 15 percent compared to the same time a year ago. Mr. Delancey said he is not complaining, though, given what he has heard about restaurants elsewhere.
“People I’ve talked to, there are places that are down 50 to 75 percent,” he said.
The Massachusetts Restaurant Association reports that roughly 3,600 restaurants—about a fifth of all the restaurants in the state—closed permanently this year.
The association’s chief executive officer, Robert Luz, said that while outdoor dining has helped to keep some restaurants afloat, eating outside is likely to end with the advent of cold weather. Winter could bring even more closures, he said.
In July, Yelp reported US restaurants had surpassed retail to account for the highest amount of total business closures.
More than 26,000 restaurants had closed nationally as of July 10, Yelp reported. Of those restaurants 60 percent, or nearly 16,000, closed permanently.
Bars and nightlife businesses also suffered more than 5,450 closures nationally, including nearly 2,430 permanent closures, Yelp reported.
The Lobster Trap closed for about a month back in March. Shutting down meant laying off 67 employees, Mr. Delancey said. Since the restaurant has reopened, everyone has been brought back.
“We’re family here. We stick together,” he said.
In spite of COVID-19, September is shaping up to be a good month for The Lobster Trap, Mr. Delancey said. Being able to offer outside dining helped a lot, he said, but he does worry about what will happen when the cold weather hits.
Mr. Delancey said he is grateful for how adaptive and resilient his staff have been in dealing with the pandemic. In a way, going through it all together has brought the team even closer, he said.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I felt like I’d seen everything. Then, boom! COVID, a whole new world, but it’s definitely brought us together. I feel like that’s one positive that’s come out of it,” he said.
At The Chart Room in Kingman Yacht Center in Cataumet, owner Thomas Gordon said the pandemic actually proved fortunate in one way for his restaurant. Typically, he opens for the season in mid-June, but this year he opened several weeks before that.
“Fortunately, we had a bunch of college kids who were home and ready to work, so we were ready to open early,” he said.
It was also fortunate, Mr. Gordon said, that a number of high school students were available to work for him after the college students left following Labor Day. Many high schoolers could work because a lot of extracurricular activities, such as sports, had been reduced or canceled altogether.
Due to restrictions on indoor seating, restaurant capacity is down from a year ago. Kingman Yacht Center owner Scott Zeien allowed Mr. Gordon to put up a couple of tents, which helped offset the loss of seating inside his restaurant, he said.
“Our numbers are not that bad. I’m not sure what the percentage is, but everyone is down. We’ve been one of the more fortunate restaurants,” he said.
Mr. Gordon also complimented his staff for having a great work ethic and attitude throughout the pandemic. He noted no complaints from his personnel despite having to adjust to things like having to wear a mask for six to seven hours a day.
“They’ve been fantastic throughout this whole thing,” he said.
A similar story can be heard at restaurants across the Upper Cape. At Bleu in Mashpee Commons, owner Frederic Feufeu said that business was fine until COVID-19 hit. The restaurant resorted to takeout service as soon as it was allowed, but that only brought back 30 to 40 percent of his normal business.
He said that business improved with the warm summer weather when he could offer outdoor dining. While business was better than it was in April when he was shut down, it was “not what it should have been,” he said.
Chef Feufeu said he has heard a number of people have decided to stay on the Cape rather than go back to their winter homes. If that is true, he said, that could help his business, and a big factor will be the weather. Even if people do stay, many do not want to dine inside because they are fearful of the virus, he said.
At Fishermen’s View on Freezer Road in Sandwich, chief operating officer Elizabeth Colbert did not want to quantify how much the restaurant’s business has been down compared to a year ago, but she acknowledged that “we’re in the same boat” as other establishments.
“It was a busy summer, but compared to previous years, it was less chaotic,” she said.
Ms. Colbert added it will be an interesting fall and winter, with the onset of the colder weather and how that will impact business. Her hope, she said, is for some beautiful fall weather that will allow customers to continue to enjoy outdoor seating.
“We’re right on the water, so it does gets breezier for us,” she said.
Ms. Colbert said the restaurant typically employs 50 to 75 people in the offseason. Many were let go with the pandemic shutdown but all were eventually brought back, she said. Some are college students who left with the end of summer, she said, but many have stayed on because their classes are held remotely.
“They’re really a wonderful staff. They’ve been with us since the start four years ago, and it’s great to work with a team that long,” she said.
Jacks Restaurant in Falmouth had firsthand experience with the coronavirus when owners Jack and Suzanne Sorgi came down with the disease. Mr. Sorgi said he was diagnosed with COVID-19 shortly after everything was shut down in mid-March. The restaurant had been doing takeout business, he said, but on March 30 he ordered the restaurant shut down.
“I was so sick, I couldn’t deal with any issues the restaurant might have,” he said, “so I said to shut the restaurant down because I didn’t want anybody else getting sick.”
Mr. Sorgi said he and his wife have recovered. He reopened the restaurant to curbside service during the first week of May. The curbside service was “crazy busy,” but business is still down 52 percent compared to a year ago, he said.
The state’s restriction on restaurants offering live entertainment, he said, is partially to blame. Before the onset of Covid-19, he said, he would get a sizable crowd from the Coonamessett Inn next door showing up late in the evening to enjoy a band that was performing.
“We can’t do that anymore,” he said.
Back at the Mezza Luna, Mr. Cubellis teared up and his voice caught in his throat momentarily when asked what message he wanted to share. Along with the hard work and loyalty of his staff, he said, he could not thank the residents of Bourne enough for the support they have shown him and his business.
“Thank you so much for supporting us and giving us a chance to try and survive,” he said. “We just want you to know that on our end we’re doing everything we can to make it comfortable and safe for you.”