Will America still go out to eat? One restaurateur’s moment of truth.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Host Joe Dagnello takes reservations at Porto in Back Bay on June 10, 2020, in Boston. Restaurants in Massachusetts, which were only allowed to sell takeout during pandemic restrictions, were allowed to reopen for outdoor dining on June 8.
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“It took six years to build this company,” says Jonathan Mendez. “And it took 48 hours to wind it down. It was psychologically devastating.”

Mr. Mendez is talking about the moment this spring when he and his business partners had to shut down their handful of Boston-area restaurants, laying off their staff of 350, including themselves. 

Why We Wrote This

For Jonathan Mendez, business hopes downshifted this spring from expansion to restaurant survival. His story showcases the challenge of reviving in-person consumerism – and its millions of jobs – at a time of social distancing.

Now as Massachusetts slowly reopens from a coronavirus lockdown, Mr. Mendez and his colleagues are trying to resurrect the restaurants, which draw their culinary inspiration from coastal Greece. 

Their effort symbolizes a wider nationwide test. Emergency federal loans are helping, but at some point customers have to return, or businesses like these restaurants won’t survive. At stake are millions of jobs and also the character of communities, where eateries serve as vital anchors. 

The biggest unknown is us. Do we as consumers feel comfortable going out despite the pandemic? For Benjamin Sullivan, a health care worker enjoying an outdoor patio table, the answer is yes. “Part of the reason we moved here, to live here, is for the restaurants and other activities,” he says. “If we don't support them now, they won’t be here for us later.”

The patio tables are starting to fill up with early bird revelers as Jonathan Mendez strolls up to the greeter’s table. He’s not here to snag a table but to see how the restaurant, part of a group that he helps manage, is adapting to pandemic-era rules of dining out in a city that was a coronavirus hotspot just a month ago. 

The tables are now spaced far apart on the patio. There’s no silverware or condiments. Waiters wear masks and gloves. Shared plates are off the menu. Tables are turned over every two hours and doused in disinfectant.

It’s the second night of reopening for sit-down dining at Porto, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant in the ritzy Back Bay district.

Why We Wrote This

For Jonathan Mendez, business hopes downshifted this spring from expansion to restaurant survival. His story showcases the challenge of reviving in-person consumerism – and its millions of jobs – at a time of social distancing.

Mr. Mendez turns to Jody Adams, his business partner and executive chef. “We need a bigger sign,” he says, pointing to the small-type note on the greeter’s table that describes the “precautionary procedures” that Porto has adopted. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Jonathan Mendez (center), a co-founder of Saloniki Greek, talks with Andrew Viglas (left), a barber from a shop across the street, as he orders lunch on the restaurant's first day of reopening for takeout on May 28, 2020, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

These procedures include face coverings for all employees. In Boston, however, the same goes for anyone out in public. Ms. Adams turns to the patio and nods at a table of 20-somethings. “They’re not wearing their masks. Some of them don’t even have a mask,” she says. 

Mr. Mendez sighs. His job is about hospitality, making people feel comfortable and happy to splurge on a nice meal in a convivial setting. Not cajoling them to wear a mask when they’re probably going out for the first time in months and want the pandemic out of mind. 

Tonight’s turnout is testament to the enduring appeal of eating out as both a social and culinary experience. Yet between the new costs of reopening and the caution many consumers feel, the near-term survival of eateries like Porto is anything but guaranteed.  

At stake are the personal dreams of people like Mr. Mendez. But it’s also more than that. With roughly 650,000 U.S. restaurants employing more than 15 million people, a wave of failures would leave long-term economic damage – and gaping holes where there were once communal anchors in city centers and small towns alike.

“The entrepreneur in me has the appetite for risk and to reopen,” Mr. Mendez told me earlier. “But when you reopen you may only get one shot at it.” 

Before the pandemic hit, Americans spent more money eating out than eating in their homes, and new restaurant openings served as barometers of economic vitality. “We are the fabric of the community,” says Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “We employ your neighbors, your daughters, your sons.” 

It’s a tough business even in the best of times – profit margins rarely exceed 5%. And as restaurants start to reopen, guidelines on social distancing are upending the way they operate, particularly in pricey cities like Boston and New York where dining tables are shoehorned into tight spaces. 

Reduced occupancy by fiat means reduced revenues, says Doug Roth, an industry consultant and third-generation restaurant owner in Chicago. “How much volume can you do to be able to cover costs and to get to a point of profitability? We just don’t know.”

Since April, when 4 in 10 restaurants had closed their doors, some have reopened, propped up by a spray of federal dollars and, in some cases, rent reprieves from landlords, but they’re not yet on a firm footing, warns Mr. Roth. “This is the eye of the hurricane.” 

For the hospitality industry, the biggest unknown is us. Do we feel comfortable going out in a pandemic? Is it enjoyable to eat at a becalmed restaurant that has to keep your contact details in case an infection is reported that night? Or do we stick with the dine-in, order-in habits acquired under lockdown, our new norm in a coronavirus world?

The survival of Mr. Mendez’s restaurants depends on it. And he’s not going down without a fight. 

Entrepreneur dreams – and flexibility

Some aspiring lawyers wait tables to pay for school. For Mr. Mendez, it was a restaurant job that delivered him from law school. After stints in arbitration courts and political consulting, Mr. Mendez was offered a job at the family-owned restaurant of a friend, Eric Papachristos, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. His deferred law-school spot could wait.  

When Mr. Papachristos opened a Boston restaurant in 2011 called Trade, Mr. Mendez came along.

“What struck me when I first met him was a sense of maturity,” says Ms. Adams, who ran the kitchen. “He was starting out in a business that I’d been in for a long time. He’s got a wonderful, natural sense of hospitality.” 

He also had ideas. A foodie trip to Greece with Mr. Papachristos, who had spent much of his childhood there, left Mr. Mendez asking: Why can’t I find this food in Boston? Not the standard Greek-American dishes, but the simple flavors of everyday meals, at a reasonable price. 

The result was the opening in 2016 of Saloniki Greek, a sandwich shop that uses modern recipes that Ms. Adams vetted with Mr. Papachristos’ family in Greece. The three are partners in Saloniki Greek, which now has three restaurants in Boston and Cambridge. (Mr. Mendez isn’t a partner in Porto, the other restaurant in the group.) 

This year they had planned to open a Saloniki at Boston’s Logan International Airport and at two other locations, potentially doubling the group’s annual revenues of $19 million, according to Mr. Papachristos, the chief executive. In March, he got his board’s approval to raise money to invest in three more restaurants in 2021. “We wanted to expand. It was exciting,” he says. 

A week or so later, that timeline was toast: Mr. Papachristos laid off his entire staff of nearly 350 people, including himself, Ms. Adams, and Mr. Mendez. 

“It took six years to build this company from the idea to the business plan to the capital raised to opening the doors. And it took 48 hours to wind it down. It was psychologically devastating,” says Mr. Mendez.  

Mr. Mendez is stocky, his firm biceps a mark of a gym habit that the pandemic has snapped. He wears his brown hair slicked back, and his beard, behind a face mask, has flecks of ginger. 

By April, he was back at Saloniki’s Fenway restaurant, offering delivery and takeout at a much reduced volume. Together with Ms. Adams, he also raised $72,000 for a charity drive to feed thousands of hospital workers and supply food pantries in hard-hit migrant communities, including those of kitchen staff at Saloniki and Porto, some of whom are unauthorized.  

“It unleashed all of our collective creativity and flexibility,” he says of the pandemic. “There’s so much uncertainty and it’s the only way to deal with it.”  

The pandemic also pushed him into advocacy, as he joined the Independent Restaurant Coalition, formed in March to lobby lawmakers for relief. In June the coalition scored a victory when Congress agreed to revise the $669 billion Paycheck Protection Program for small business loans. Borrowers now have longer periods to pay back loans and aren’t required to spend it all down this summer. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Customers Ian Meyers (left) and Kion Sawney wipe their hands before picking up takeout at Saloniki Greek's Fenway location on June 1, 2020, in Boston. The state requires alcohol hand sanitizers to be available at entrances, exits, and in dining areas.

Mr. Mendez’s group obtained a loan that allowed it to rehire workers during the lockdown. Under the revamped program, loans are now forgivable if at least 60% goes to payroll; the initial minimum was set at 75%. “That’s very helpful. That’s a working line of capital,” he says. 

Despite the lifeline, loans will only go so far if customers are loath to go out and to spend in a recession, says Holly Wade, director of research and policy analysis at the National Federation of Independent Business. Some businesses may never reopen. “It’s a fine line between temporarily closed and permanently closed. We’ll know in the next few months what that looks like,” she says. 

Open and uncertain

Three days after Memorial Day, Mr. Mendez flipped the open sign on the door of Saloniki Greek in Harvard Square and circled back to his stool at the mosaic-and-marble bar. For months, this had been his private office: an espresso machine and an empty dining room. Now it was open, and though he knew it would be slow, he had rehired 10 more employees, and it felt good.

At a cluster of tables inside the door, where takeout and delivery orders are picked up, Daniela Rodriguez stood folding cardboard takeout containers. A Colombian immigrant, she chatted with customers in English and with Mr. Mendez, when he passed by, in Spanish.

“This is my first day back. I was at home almost three months,” she says, her eyes smiling above her mask. “I’m excited. I’m feeling good. I missed my co-workers. And my work.”

Harry Asimis, her Greek co-worker, has been busier. Mr. Mendez rehired him in April to work in the kitchen at Fenway, which gave him a chance to learn new skills, he explains while preparing an iced cappuccino. “The situation was super-intense for everyone. Many people lost their jobs. I mean, we could not move to see our families, especially if our families are abroad,” he says. 

He hopes his former co-workers can all eventually return. “Everyone is worried, especially in the restaurant business. We don’t know when it’s going to get back to normal,” he says. 

Before reopening, Mr. Mendez had run staff through new sanitary routines. Everyone had brought two sets of clothes so they could change before entering the kitchen. Having gone over the safety measures, each staffer was asked to sign a document that committed them to social distancing outside work hours, a mutual coronavirus-prevention pledge. 

The costs of reopening are high: retraining staff, buying protective equipment, refitting dining rooms for social distancing. According to the National Restaurant Association, 7 out of 10 U.S. restaurants are individually owned. A real risk is that, even as deeper-pocketed national chains survive, grit and customer goodwill won’t be enough to save many of these local eateries that help define a community. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Daniela Rodriguez checks her temperature as a part of new staff procedures at Saloniki Greek on May 28, 2020, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Staffers are also asked to sign a document that commits them to social distancing outside work hours, a mutual coronavirus-prevention pledge.

Pandemic meets a different brutality

As expected, Thursday lunchtime at Saloniki’s Harvard branch is slow. Six customers show up in the first hour. Still, many seem delighted to see that a local eatery has reopened. 

“The food’s good. It’s affordable,” says Andrew Viglas, who cuts hair across the street, as he waits at the door to pick up a chicken souvlaki. Unlike the restaurant, his barbershop has been “slammed” since opening a few days before, but today is calmer, he says. Asked about dining out again at a restaurant, Mr. Viglas is wary. “I’m still a little nervous, but that’s today’s world.”

On the walls inside are poster-sized black-and-white photos of waiters and customers smiling and laughing at a seaside restaurant in Thessaloniki, Greece. One shows Mr. Mendez and Mr. Papachristos during a trip they took two years ago in search of culinary inspiration. Mr. Mendez points out that everyone is elbow-to-elbow and no one is wearing a mask. 

When Mr. Papachristos flew to Greece on May 1 this year to visit his fiancée – the two had planned to marry in the U.S. this summer – he barely left the house for the first week. “It was a serious lockdown,” he says. Then Greece started to ease up, and restaurants and bars filled up again. So far, it has worked: Greece has one of the lowest coronavirus infection rates in Europe. 

Mr. Papachristos began thinking that perhaps the U.S. could do the same, and that his restaurants would revive. On May 31, having postponed his wedding, he flew back to Boston. 

That night, Mr. Mendez was driving back from New York to Boston. Two days earlier, Gov. Charlie Baker had released his reopening plan for Massachusetts that put restaurants on notice of a tentative June reopening for outdoor dining that was the talk of Boston’s restaurant scene. 

But as he drove home, Mr. Mendez got a flurry of texts from friends and colleagues about something else. Turn on the news, they told him. It’s going crazy here. 

That weekend, protest marches against the killing of George Floyd had convulsed cities across the country, including Boston. On May 31, nighttime protests turned violent in downtown Boston, with vandals smashing windows and looting stores near Porto. 

Mr. Mendez drove slowly into a city of flashing police sirens and broken glass, unsure if Porto had been hit and wondering if it even made sense to reopen a patio restaurant in a city aflame. 

“It was one of those moments when you throw up your hands and you surrender to the ridiculousness of everything – 2020 has been one wave after another,” he says. 

But while looters ransacked next-door Saks Fifth Avenue, Porto was spared. 

A week later, Ms. Adams was on the phone with the landlord asking to expand their patio onto a pedestrian walkway. Waist-high concrete planters were slid into place and more tables set widely apart to prepare for the return of outdoor customers under the coronavirus guidelines. (Indoor dining resumed last week in Massachusetts, subject to distancing rules.) 

“It’s more truncated hospitality,” says Mr. Mendez of the Porto dining experience. “But everyone is cool with it because everyone is on the same page. It’s been a lot of downtime for restaurants and they need to make money.” 

His third Saloniki branch near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is still closed, as is Trade, the restaurant that serves an affluent office crowd. Nobody is sure when that crowd will be back in force, nor when Cambridge’s student population will return. 

“I envision a slow climb. Each step has to be taken very carefully,” says Ms. Adams, who is the group’s chief culinary officer (Mr. Mendez’s title is chief operating officer.)  

Ann Hermes/Staff
At Porto, Benjamin Sullivan and Jennifer Granger enjoy a meal on June 10, 2020, their first dining out meal since restaurants closed for the pandemic. The couple had talked about leaving the suburbs for years, and moved into Boston in January for the amenities of the city.

At a table at the end of the patio, Benjamin Sullivan and Jennifer Granger clinked glasses and dug into their first restaurant meal in three months. “It’s great. It feels nice just to be outside,” says Mr. Sullivan, who was dressed casually in shorts and a Red Sox polo shirt. He had been chatting to diners at the adjacent tables. “It feels like months since I said hi to anyone.”

In January, the couple swapped a condo in Boston’s suburbs for a high-rise apartment in this swanky district, thrilled by all the amenities at their doorstep. They only made it to two Celtic games before the shutdown, says Ms. Granger, a director of student activities and orientation at Lasell University. “We enjoyed our neighborhood for a hot second,” she laughs.  

It was their first time at Porto and they were loving it. “Just to be able to sit outside and smile and enjoy the view and the weather,” says Mr. Sullivan, who works in health care. 

When they found out Porto was to reopen they checked out the seating and safety precautions, then booked a table. After all, this was city living, the dream they nurtured in the suburbs. 

“Part of the reason we moved here, to live here, is for the restaurants and other activities,” Mr. Sullivan says. “If we don’t support them now they won’t be here for us later.”

Staff writer Stephen Humphries contributed to this article.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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