Restaurants remain optimistic despite challenges

Sara Creato and Chloe Combra

Over the last nine months, restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard have adapted to social distancing guidelines and various other restrictions. Many members of the MVRHS community have experienced the ongoing challenges firsthand, either because they work at a restaurant or belong to families who own restaurants. 

According to the Boston Globe, 20% of Massachusetts restaurants have permanently closed since March. The pressures on the restaurant industry have been felt acutely on-Island. Restorative Coordinator Nell Coogan is a co-owner of her family-owned restaurants Rockfish and The Wharf in Edgartown. She said, “If you’re a seasonal restaurant owner here, you’re not really worried about this time of year, but for us we really need it.” 

However, Nell followed up by saying that the beginning of shutdown was more worrying for her family’s business than now. “It was terrifying, I’ll be honest. All of a sudden we needed to close. And when we closed, we definitely panicked.”

As the weather started warming and seasonal restaurants started opening, an increased demand for employees caused an Island-wide employment crisis. Many employees stopped working due to health concerns, and summer employees had trouble coming to the island due to travel restrictions. For some restaurants, restrictions in the workplace also reduced the number of staff allowed in the building.

This proved to be one of the biggest difficulties for the seasonal Sandbar & Grille owned by the Wallace family. “We were very understaffed,” said senior Michael Wallace. “Tourism in [Oak Bluffs] didn’t seem to decrease by a lot, so we ended up having a lot of customers but not nearly enough employees.”

Junior Ashley Brasefield worked at Taco MV during the summer and said that there were only five employees. The adult staff worked seven days a week and the rest worked five to six days per week. 

“It was a little harder but we were able to manage it and everybody was willing to do whatever. Nobody had a bad attitude,” she said. 

Freshman Elena Giordano, who worked at her family-owned restaurant, Giordano’s, also mentioned that due to reduced staff, every employee took on additional responsibilities. “This year there was only one busser working, so I had to clear and clean the tables quickly to get more people seated,” she said. “I had to make sure everything was clean and sanitized.”

Freshman Catherine Langley worked as a counter person at her mother’s restaurant, The Right Fork Diner. She said that they hired eight new employees. “Most of the counter people were new because a lot of the kids who had worked in past years for the counter weren’t able to come back or they didn’t feel comfortable coming back because of COVID,” she said. 

Due to having a small indoor space, they chose to set up picnic tables on the lawn.

“The inside was not as it usually is. There were tables in the corners and chairs everywhere because we had no use for them being all spread out like they normally are…it was kind of crowded inside,” she said.

Gio’s kitchen manager and Elena’s father, Bill Giordano, said that despite the negatives of the pandemic, there have been some positive outcomes for business owners. 

“The biggest benefit has been the addition of online ordering and that we’re able to have another option to order takeout food from the dining room. We probably would never have done [online ordering] if it hadn’t been for this.” 

Mr. Giordano said Giordano’s will most likely continue to expand online ordering and curbside pickup, which he hinted at possibly even turning into a delivery service. He is hopeful that these changes will make it easier for customers to order.

Despite setbacks, Ashley also feels that there are positives and sees the pandemic as a testament to restaurants’ strength. 

“I feel like it shows us that we can power through it because keeping a restaurant open year-round can be pretty hard, but especially during a pandemic. It shows that we’re able to persevere through hard times,” she said.

Nell remains positive for the future of her restaurants.

“We’re cautiously optimistic. To just keep going every day and feel like you’re supporting your community and your workers is the biggest thing,” she said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time to get back to where we were, but we made it this far, so we’re just going to keep on chugging along.”