Cape Cod restaurant workers persevere in face of crisis – Cape Cod Times

Restaurant News

Restaurants are big business on Cape Cod. Cape Cod Commission statistics rank them as one the top three core industries on the Cape, employing over 16,000 people.

In mid-March, Gov. Charlie Baker shut down restaurant dining rooms and bars statewide to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many Cape Cod restaurant workers were still collecting unemployment, but reaching the end of savings from the previous summer and looking forward to replenishing their bank accounts for next winter.

Restaurant owners were beginning to ramp up for the busy 10 to 12 weeks of summer when most make what they need to survive. But summer hiring was put on hold, many employees remained on unemployment, bolstered by a federal stimulus package that included an extra $600 a week added onto their unemployment checks.

Still, the longer the industry remains closed the harder it will be for owners and workers to make ends meet, both now and in lean winter months. Once opened, both camps worry that social distancing will remain in place and the crush of diners that bring in needed money will be reduced to a trickle.

Ashley Ricciardi, 35

Waitress, The Lobster Trap restaurant, Bourne

“Not working is the weirdest thing,” said Ricciardi, who has waitressed at The Lobster Trap restaurant for five years.

Returning to work last week for the first time since the restaurant closed a few weeks ago was an equally strange experience. Four phones rang nonstop, and she was using a headset to take orders, and everyone was wearing masks — customers and staff.

“I was so overwhelmed by all the people calling,” she said.

Even wearing masks, customers recognized her when she brought out their order for curbside pickup. It was great to get out of the house after weeks on unemployment.

“I’m a very high-energy person. I was waving away. I can’t be happier to see people,” she said. “I was so excited to be back at work. It felt like I was back home.”

Ashlee Benjamin, 33

Daytime counter supervisor, Pain D’Avignon bakery and restaurant, Hyannis

Ashlee Benjamin grew up in restaurants. Her grandfather owned a fine dining restaurant in Taunton and she’s been working at Pain D’Avignon for six years.

“I’ve definitely never experienced anything like this before,” she said of the impact of the pandemic.

The restaurant has remained open for takeout, but the tables in the café were removed. People can get curbside delivery but they can also stand, at safe intervals, to order at the counter.

“We are seeing a huge difference in numbers,” she said. “We were always so busy and have lots of staff, but it’s been cut back to the bare bones, and a lot of people were laid off.”

Benjamin felt management was fair and asked people if they wanted to remain working.

“For those of us who did, they kept as many as they could, and laid others off,” she said. “We’re OK with it. We’re willing to stick it out, but we hope at the end everyone has a job.”

Andrea and Rob DiSimone

Owners, maitre’d’ and executive chef

Spinnaker restaurant and inn, Brewster

Rob and Andrea DiSimone agree that their fourth summer in business on Main Street in Brewster will be like no other.

“Restaurateurs are a resilient bunch. We’ll roll with it,” Andrea said. This was their sixth week of takeout-only service, Thursday through Sunday, following Gov. Charlie Baker’s order closing restaurant dining rooms and bars. They’ve gotten more comfortable with it each week.

“It’s not an ideal way of doing business, but it’s definitely a way to sustain us all,” Andrea said. The DiSimones decided to pay their staff to stay home. Some come in to work limited hours. It gives them a chance to see regular customers and experience a moment of normalcy, Andrea said.

“We’ll come back,” Andrea said of the business.

Jason Charest, 49

Head chef, Wellfleet Bookstore & Restaurant, Wellfleet

The view of Wellfleet Harbor from the second-floor deck of the Bookstore restaurant was breathtaking. But Jason Charest, who has worked for 27 years as a chef at the restaurant, noticed what was obviously missing: the cars. Normally, even at this time of year, a sunny day would bring people to the harbor and to the waterfront restaurant. They closed for the winter holidays, and then reopened for six weeks, including Valentine’s Day.

“Then it hit us, and it was devastating,” Charest said of the closure. “All of a sudden, you have to figure out your life, and what’s the restaurant going to do, and what’s the world going to do?”

Charest was grateful for the additional $600 weekly on top of his unemployment benefits, but the lingering uncertainty is daunting.

“Summer’s coming, this is Cape Cod, and you only have four months to make the money to survive on, to pay the bills for eight months,” said Charest, who normally works 60 hours a week during the busy season. April to October are the two busiest quarters of the year, and provide a basis for determining his unemployment compensation when the restaurant closes for the year. The loss of a few months could be hard.

“I worry that next winter, in December and January, that unemployment won’t be enough to pay the bills to survive,” he said. “I’m always a look-on-the-bright-side person — you know, there’s no problems, just solutions — but I’m scared now. This is a whole different thing. It’s out of our control.”

Jill and Mike DiSabato, 34 and 41

Co-owners and managers at La Bella Vita, Orleans

They knew there was demand for Italian cuisine, but just as they were nearing the finish line on renovation work to open a new restaurant in Orleans, Jill and Mike DiSabato saw the world suddenly shut down in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Construction work ground to a halt. Chefs stopped testing recipes, and some of their supplies had to be thrown out as the closure dragged on for weeks.

Mike DiSabato has 25 years of experience in restaurants — dishwasher, server, bartender, and now owner. The couple put in a new kitchen, expanded the bar and repainted and redecorated with a goal of opening the second week in April. But now they don’t know when that will occur.

“We have rent, loans we have to pay back even though this is happening,” said Mike. “If we open in the middle of the summer, it would kill us.”

As a new business, they didn’t have the financial track record to qualify for federal emergency grants and loans. Mike DiSabato wonders if safe distancing practices and customer willingness to return to restaurants will affect business this summer.

“If they (state and local health departments) allow 40% capacity, is that enough to cover anything?” he asked. But they remain hopeful.

“We’re still working every day to be ready for when we can open,” he said.

Don Reeves, 63

Owner and chef, PJ’s Family Restaurant, Wellfleet

Don Reeves’ parents bought PJ’s Family Restaurant in Wellfleet in 1971 and he’s worked there ever since. The Thursday before Patriots Day was always their traditional opening and in Wellfleet, it’s on the social calendar as the unofficial end of winter and the doorway to summer.

But PJ’s remained closed. Reeves worried that opening might risk the health of employees and customers.

“We could open right now, but I don’t know if we should?” Reeves said. “I want a little more guidance from the government.”

He’d like to see what happens in Georgia, Tennessee and other states that recently said they’d like to reopen businesses and restaurants.

“At some point we need to start thinking about our staff and their need to make money,” Reeves said, although he’s worried about the effect a second round of closures could have.

“This is our sole income,” said his nephew Brian Reeves, who works in the kitchen. He is married with two young daughters.

“My anxiety level is through the roof for good reason,” he said. “This is a tough industry to be in to begin with and to have this on top of it doesn’t make it any easier.”

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