Early Curfew Only the Latest Setback for Already Struggling Restaurants

The new curfew Gov. Charlie Baker issued last week that mandates the state’s restaurants must stop serving food by 9:30 p.m. in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus comes as yet the latest debilitating setback for Beacon Hill’s already beleaguered  dining establishments.

“It couldn’t have come at a worse time as we’re just beginning seeing revenues lurching towards the break-even point,” said Babak Bina, who, with his sister, Azita Bina-Seibel, owns and operates the longstanding Bin 26 Enoteca at 26 Charles St. “It’s unfortunate because a 9:30 curfew forces us to have total stoppage of seating right in the middle of what would be our normal rush.”

Bin 26 generates most of its income between 8:30 and 10 p.m., Bina said, so the curfew has an “incredible impact” on the restaurant, and even more so on its sister establishment, jm Curley in Downtown Crossing, which was previously a destination for workers from  other area restaurants after they got off work.

And while Bina appreciates Gov. Baker’s efforts to help contain COVID-19, he believes this step is ultimately misguided.

“Obviously, we understand this is to curtail the spike,” he said. “However, what may have caused the spike is likely late-night private parties going on with colleges back, rather than diners in neighborhoods  that are extremely cautious and careful.”

Bina also fears the curfew could even put some restaurants out of business as they still reel to recover after being temporarily shuttered in the spring in accordance with Gov. Baker’s earlier mandate.

“This could make or break some restaurants, and it could have a similar impact as shutting us down did for many restaurants,” he said. “It’s not like we operate in Florida where diners are in bed by 7, so [restaurant patrons] are eating at 5. It’s yet another blow and another punch we have roll with, but eventually, it’s going to catch up with us.”

Perhaps one novel way to avoid this seeming inevitability, Bina suggests, is for city to help out by waiving or reducing the annual fees for its restaurants’ common victualler (CV) and liquor licenses, which are now being renewed, and which he said are calculated based on occupancy and subsequently “can run into the thousands” each year.

“It would have been nice if city government had thought through some kind of a discount, given that in 2020, we were shut down for moths, and have been operating at about 50-percent capacity due to social distancing of tables,” he said.  “And here we are renewing our licenses for 2021 on heels of which comes this mandated curfew.”

Joshua Lewin, who owns and operates Peregrine restaurant at the Whitney Hotel Boston with Katrina Jazayeri, said they are now receiving a break like Bina suggested since its sister establishment, Juliet, is located in Somerville – a city that has in fact waived next year’s fees associated with CV and liquor licenses for its restaurants.

And while Lewin is thankful to the city of Somerville for lending them a helping hand during these precarious times, he believes it will ultimately have a minimal effect on Juliet’s bottom line.

“It’s small, potatoes compared to the amount of money we’re losing on a weekly basis,” Lewin said. “It’s about as effective as Donald Trump’s $1,200 stimulus checks.  We’re in a situation where we need every Band-Aid we can get, but I wouldn’t consider that solving the problem.”

By Lewin’s estimation, Peregrine now generates as much as 30 to 40 percent of its revenue from 8 to 11 p.m., Thursday to Saturday, so the new curfew comes as a crushing blow to the business.

“We’ve really lost access to an important at part of our revenue, which has nothing to do with 2020 or COVID,” he said. “It’s just the way our business works.”

Moreover, Lewin said he is frustrated by what he views as the “lack of transparency” and poor timing surrounding the mandated restaurant curfew.

“There seems to be an issue of people congregating in large groups, crowds and get-togethers, which isn’t what dinner at 9:30 is about,” he said, “and we’re also uncertain what the reduced risk of having dinner at 8:30 versus 9:30 really is.”

While Lewin said he is “disheartened by how much potential impact it will have on us for what seems to be uncertain benefits,” he is quick to add that he doesn’t personally hold  anyone accountable who was charged with making this call.

“I don’t think any regulator means us harm, but it shows an actual lack of awareness about how our business actually works and the challenges of the continued pandemic response,” Lewin said, “because we’re now struggling just to scale back to break-even levels.”

In spite of this latest challenge, however, Lewin and Jazayeri remain committed to keeping their employees on the payroll first and foremost.

“We’re continuing to struggle to provide jobs for people – it’s our only goal now,” he said.  “We’d even support forced closure if it came with security for our workers from the government. What’s happened here is we’re trying to support jobs without government support and have put a significant amount of our revenue at risk so we’d rather they told us just to close.”

G.P. Gaglio, the newly named general manager of Scampo at the Liberty Hotel, finds the new curfew particularly problematic since it can mean that the restaurant has to show patrons the door sometimes before they’re ready to leave.

“[The rush] starts at around 8 p.m., which makes it very challenging to shut it down by 9:30,” Gaglio said. “The restaurant business is about hospitality, and hospitality is like when someone comes to your house, you try to welcome them, not chase them away.”

The restaurant does most of its business between 8 and 10 p.m., Gaglio said, so he expects the new curfew could result in a 25-to-30-percent reduction in revenues.

Moreover, Scampo has been operating at about 40 percent of its pre-pandemic occupancy, and with the new curfew in place, Gaglio expects that number could dwindle to 30 or 35 percent

Scampo has also been forced to furlough much of its staff in response to the pandemic, with only around 20 percent now back at work, and Gaglio expects that the number of furloughed employees could increase with the new curfew.

Meanwhile, Scampo faces a unique quandary compared to other neighborhood restaurants because, by Gaglio’s estimate, guests staying at the Liberty Hotel now account for about 60 percent of the clientele, but these patrons are also frequently from out of town and unfamiliar with the restrictions now imposed by the Commonwealth on its restaurants and its diners.

“They don’t know what guidelines are here where they’re coming from,” Gaglio said, “ and it’s not a law, which often makes it very hard to explain to them.”

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