By Alberto Gilman
Somerville restaurants have had to reinvent themselves during the pandemic.
First hearing about the lockdown in the state of Massachusetts back in March, Tanya Walker, owner of the restaurant Saus, feared closure for her business.
“I was pretty scared more so for my business than for myself personally,” Walker said. “My staff, a lot of them, rely on every single paycheck.” Walker, who is a young mother, knows the importance of having a steady income.
Many restaurants closed while others began to follow new health regulations. However, Saus never fully closed.
Saus continues to operate out of their two locations: one in Boston and the other in Bow Market in Somerville, which opened in December 2018. Walker said Saus remained operational by implementing the to go only option in order to bring in revenue. Yet, Walker’s staff kept asking questions and wondering what would happen in the coming months. Some of the employees asked Walker to allow the business to remain open.
During this time, Walker said her employees took it upon themselves to help each other out by decreasing their own hours, going on unemployment for a time, and overall support one another.
Walker said she stays in constant contact through email or phone calls with her staff. “Everyone was looking to us for answers as a resource,” said Walker. “We were their resource.”
With the pandemic still in the back of her mind and reopening coming soon, Walker said she is thankfully for the customers who continue to order Saus’s food.
“Keeping the connection with our community is so important,” Walker said. “Our customer base is like, we have really wonderful people who have done a lot to support us through this.”
Even though Walker is from Wakefield, she said she feels like she is a part of Somerville.
Restaurants across the country transitioned to the take out option, curbside pickups, or closing entirely to be in accordance with health regulations. Other restaurants use delivery apps to get food to customers. Others face complete shutdown.
Somerville is one of many cities and towns in the state of Massachusetts currently battling the ongoing virus.
In Union Square, Bow Market’s businesses, a collection of vendors ranging from clothing, food, drinks, and other products, stands as a cultural hub for the city and the reopening is key to the success of the businesses that reside there.
Here are some of the concerns of other restaurant owners in Bow Market as they begin to reopen:
Nibble Kitchen: Supporting Different Cultures
In December 2019, The Nibble Kitchen restaurant officially opened its doors in Bow Market. Now, during the duration of the pandemic, Nibble Kitchen has remained completely closed.
Kitchen Manager Aly Lopez said the restaurant has not done any sort of take out options since it closed. With Nibble Kitchen having only recently opened last year and now remaining closed for this long period of time, Lopez emphasized a sense of uncertainty.
“The entrepreneurs haven’t been selling food out of Nibble Kitchen since March 14,” Lopez said. “I think that for us specifically because we are a new restaurant, we just opened up and then we had to close and then we need to open up again.”
The Nibble Kitchen restaurant idea came about through the Somerville Arts Council, who started with the Nibble program. The purpose of the program is highlighting the multicultural cuisines and communities of Somerville. The entrepreneurs, who are members of the Somerville community, work out of Nibble Kitchen serving a variety of food to the city residents. Bringing a feeling of a home cooked meal helps the community take part and share in this program Lopez said.
The main goal right now for Nibble Kitchen is to bring the entrepreneurs safely back into the space to begin cooking and serving food again to the customers.
The early beginnings of the business before the pandemic, Nibble Kitchen brought people in to try a variety of new foods. Expanding into other areas to help the business grow will have to wait for now Lopez said.
“Since we are such a new space, we decided to start with direct customer service, like walk-ins,” Lopez said. “Deliveries was definitely something that we wanted to look into, we just didn’t get the chance to look into that just yet and then the pandemic hit.”
One of the entrepreneurs who works out of Nibble Kitchen is Lopez’s own mother. When she was younger, Lopez recollects her mother inviting people over to taster her cooking.
Later on, her mother wanted to expand that idea of sharing her food and so she began selling her own food to the customers through the restaurant. Now, her mother is happy to have this opportunity to share her food with everyone, Lopez said.
“The kitchen mission is absolutely amazing and I actually wish there was such a thing in each state,” Lopez said.
The Biscuit: Moving In and Adapting
After 15 years on Washington Street, The Biscuit moved into their new space in Bow Market in early March. Then the pandemic hit.
The Biscuit is co-owned by Andrew and Greta Platt. As a couple they pursued the idea of one day opening a business together. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, they continue to operate by adapting.
“We had to reinvent ourselves three months ago and then we had to reinvent ourselves again,” Platt said. “It’s definitely a bizarre, a bizarre time to be running a food business.”
Reinventing has led to new ventures for Biscuit. Using the resources that they already have, the Platts have relied on couriers to deliver their baked goods. Their online presence allows customers to order directly from them without any worry.
Even at local food markets, baking goods became scarce. According to Platt, Biscuit would purchase ingredients from their distributors, repackage and sell the goods to the community, delivered by courier.
Another outlet that has helped Biscuit and all other businesses in Bow Market is the Safe Supply market, created in the first few weeks of the outbreak. Platt said the system would safely allow customers to make reservations and make purchases.
In the early days of Safe Supply, Platt recollects being outside in heavy coats, face masks and gloves back in March using the system. As reopening comes closer, The Biscuit will be setting up a bakery stand outside and for now, Platt said they will have to wait and see what comes next.
“Bow Market really took this very seriously from the beginning and continues to take it very very seriously. Pretty soon they’re going to be able to put tables outside, people will be able to sit outside and enjoy our pastries,” Platt said. “Then we see what happens after that. We have to figure out how we press forward.”
Hooked Fish Shop: Operating Through A Unique Time
Operating in the farmer’s market scene, business partners Jimmy Rider and Jason Tucker hoped to one day find a space to call their own and provide their fish to city residents. When the opportunity of an open space came about in Bow Market, Hooked Fish Shop opened in September 2018.
Operating out of Bow Market helps the business grow, but with the current pandemic, it is a unique environment to operate in compared to what it previously was, according to Rider.
“In the summer it’s very busy here, you’ve got a lot of people. It’s a really welcoming place. It’s a wonderful courtyard,” Rider said. “You’re also, always closer than six feet together and unmasked.”
Adjusting to the new norm, Safe Supply offered the shop to continue to distribute safely to customers of Somerville.
With this option available, Rider expressed his gratitude for the system and the help it has brought for the business.
“Since March we’ve been doing that safe supply market three days a week and have found that the sales were as good if not a little bit better than as if we were open five or six days a week here during that same period of time,” Rider said. “During the COVID period, I’d have to say that Safe Supply somewhat saved us.”
Rider said farmers markets began to reopen again in May, bringing in more revenue for the business. While owning Hooked Fish Shop, Rider also operates his own delivery/share service, which he initially considered abandoning. When he began to receive more orders due to customers being told to stay home, he said he continued on with it and has made good revenue.
Many customers will continue to go and shop at supermarkets and other box stores during the course of this pandemic. However, purchasing from local vendors and using delivery helps out more to those who provide the local goods, said Tucker.
“The local food supply chain needs support,” Tucker said. “Small business people like us really need their support and small local fisherman really need their support.”
Even during this time of uncertainty, Rider said he is thankful for the customer support through all of this. “I’m grateful and appreciative of all the people that recognize that we are a small local business,” Rider said. “I want closeness, not distance.”