Immediately after receiving word from Mayor Martin Walsh’s office on March 15 that restaurants would have to cut their capacity in half, Babak Bina set to work reconfiguring the floor plan for Bin 26 Enoteca.
“We physically removed tables and chairs from the dining areas, and as our sweat was literally drying, the governor announced we were totally shut down,” said Bina, who along with his sister, Azita Bina-Seibel, owns and operates Bin 26 on Charles Street, as well as jm Curley and its steakhouse, Bogie’s Place, in Downtown Crossing.
Prior to this, however, his restaurants had already established sanitary procedures, including wiping down all metal surfaces, pepper mills and “anything anyone would touch every two hours,” besides placing the tables further apart from each other, Bina said.
“It’s not unusual for us in the restaurant business to have to think about people’s safety; in fact, it’s what we do every day, and we often do it prior to the city or state telling us what to do,” Bina said.
Then, Bina learned that Gov. Charlie Baker had temporarily prohibited all on-site consumption of food and drink at restaurants throughout the Commonwealth beginning Tuesday, March 17, with the ban originally set to expire on April 17.
“We were one step ahead of what was ultimately [imposed on] us regarding separation of tables and sanitation, but then the shutdown happened,” he said.
When Bina learned his restaurants could offer takeout and delivery, he immediately took action. “That week, we began making preparations, and we immediately implemented measures to ensure the safety of restaurant staff, as well as the workers delivering our food,” Bina said, adding that Bin 26 offers delivery via Uber Eats.
Business started out slowly at Bin 26 with just a skeleton crew working in house as word got out to neighbors that the restaurant was still open.
“At first, we kept it to the same crew doing same thing at same time,” Bina said. “Initially, it was a very slow start with a limited number of staff, but as soon as we started to let our neighbors and clients know what we were doing, things began to pick up slowly. It took probably three weeks for people to really appreciate they have the option of fine food in the neighborhood.”
His other restaurants – jm Curley and Bogie’s Place – also began offering takeout at the same time, but they temporarily abandoned the idea after generating a mere $50 in sales over the course of the first week. Both of those establishments have since resumed delivery via Uber Eats, as well as takeout operations, and jm Curley has also applied for a temporary grocery-store permit, with the intention of offering meal kits that come with pre-portioned ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes to cook at home, Bina said.
But despite his best efforts, Bina was forced to temporarily furlough 20 employees of Bin 26 and the entire staff of 35 from jm Curley and Bogie’s Place.
So in an effort to provide some relief to struggling employees, Bina’s restaurants began offering gift cards at a 25-percent discount, with 50 percent of sales going to his furloughed staff members.
“The staff were incredibly touched by this gesture, and our patrons purchased gift cards from all over the world, knowing they couldn’t use them immediately, but they wanted to support for our staff right now,” Bina said.
Bina had previously taken the step of reaching out to the 10,000 patrons on BiNA Family Hospitality’s mailing list to outline safety precautions his restaurants were already taking.
“There is a time and place for everything, and right now our biggest priority is the safety of our employees, and maintaining our kitchens unwavering availability to the communities we are a part of and love to serve,” the email read in part. “In moments of trial and tribulation, it is important to recognize what the important things in life are, and how to weigh all things accordingly.”
Bina faced additional obstacles when he applied for financial assistance through the federal CARES Act.
“As soon as we heard about it, we immediately contacted Cambridge Trust and informed them we intended to take advantage of the program,” he said. “We filled out the application as soon as it became available, only to be informed by the bank that a new process had been put in place. About two weeks later, we learned that the application had been approved.”
In the meantime, Bina began trying to better understand what the CARES Act mandates through conversations with his CPA and his lender, Cambridge Trust, as well as through his own online research. But he said, “To this day, we don’t have 100-percent clarity.”
He realizes this money came with strings attached, however.
“Once the money hit our account, the Act requires that we begin spending it immediately,” Bina said. “We’re supposed to spend 75 percent of it on staff and the remaining 25 percent on other costs like utilities and rent, but what if it’s only 50 percent we spend on staff because we can’t fully employ everyone or because people refuse to come back?”
On Monday, April 27. Bina conducted two Zoom meetings – one for the staff of Bin 26 and the other for employees of jm Curley and Bogie’s Place – with 75 to 80 percent of all employees tuning in. When he informed his furloughed employees they were all being called back to work because he had received money under the Payment Protection Program (PPP), some staff members balked.
“Some raised the question of how much they would be getting paid,” Bina said. “The dilemma for many people has been that they are collecting 100-percent unemployment and additionally getting $600 a week on top of that, so ostensibly many are making much more now than they were making before on a weekly basis.”
Bina added, “PPP is an excellent act in trying to support small business, but in summation, it’s been poorly implemented.”
Other employees posed questions that Bina simply couldn’t answer.
“Some staff members have asked us, “why don’t you have more information?’” Bina said. “Our leaders at the city, state and national levels don’t have the answers, so I was befuddled because these are unprecedented times and we as a small business are doing the best we can.”
Still, Bina remains optimistic that the PPP can help his restaurants weather these uncertain times. “Our hope is with the PPP, we can bring everyone together and rejuvenate our businesses and prepare for a full opening,” he said.
Bina extends his gratitude to State Rep. Jay Livingstone, City Councilor Kenzie Bok and Jerome Smith, Director of Mayor’s Neighborhood Services, for continuing to reach out and show their support for him and his staff. “They’re doing all they can to help us with unanswered questions and checking in with us all the time,” Bina said.
With restaurants tentatively set to reopen for dining-in statewide May 18, Bina has already begun taking new safety precautions, such as ordering touchless thermometers to take the temperatures of staff and potentially patrons, as well as creating posters instructing patrons with a temperature not to enter his establishments. But he too is uncertain of what the future holds for restaurants throughout the city and the state.
“There’s a misconception that on May 18, the doors will open and everything will go back to like it was before,” Bina said. “If they do decide to tell us on May 18, we’ll finally know more details, and that’s TBD. Regardless, we’re looking forward to reopening in some way, shape or form.”