25 Investigates: 2021 will be another difficult year for MA restaurants, industry expert predicts

BOSTON — After almost a year of COVID-related restrictions and financial struggles, many of our favorite restaurants may be gone for good.

The Massachusetts Restaurant Association estimates that 20% of the state’s restaurants have closed.

But, as 25 Investigates found, there are some restaurants that are booming in the pandemic and their survival is owed to a variety of factors.

Once teeming with activity and customers, restaurants in the South End, North End, Fenway, Seaport to Moody Street in Waltham, and Canal Way in Cambridge now find themselves fighting for survival.

“Usually, you know, the lines are out the door to go to any of the restaurants, and now you just walk in,” observed Michelle Rankin, who works in Boston’s Seaport district.

In the era of COVID-19, it’s not uncommon to see restaurant after restaurant shuttered in once-bustling areas. In some cases, they are temporarily closed or hibernating. In other cases, they’ve gone out of business for good.

The National Restaurant Association ranks 2020 as the most challenging year ever for the industry.

“I had several hundred employees across all of my businesses, I currently have three, including myself,” said Joe Slesar, president of Slesar Bros. Brewing Company.

Slesar is the owner of Brewers Tap and Table in Waltham. He placed two of his restaurants, including Boston Beer Works, which is located across from Fenway Park, in hibernation. He permanently closed three Beer Works locations in Framingham, Salem, and Hingham.

“It was a very hard decision as to what to do,” said Slesar. “The math just didn’t make sense to stay open here with the current restrictions at 25% of your seating, and with no outdoor dining anymore.”

25 Investigates found restaurant pandemic survival is based on factors such as location, menu, clientele, alcohol sales, state and local restrictions, and taxes. That, plus good relationships with vendors, banks, financial backers, and landlords can make the difference between staying in business or shutting the doors for good.

“Some landlords have forgiven some when others have deferred rent. Others are accepting a percentage rent, said Charlie Perkins of the Boston Restaurant Group. “If it’s an older family that have owned a property for a long time. They can afford maybe to discount the rent. But some of these landlords are so heavily leveraged they have to, you know, get full rent payment.”

Perkins is a commercial real estate broker who specializes in selling restaurants in Boston. He predicts the industry will rebound strong, but not until January 2022. He also fears entire neighborhoods will be changed by the pandemic.

“Because (of pandemic) you’ve probably got a 25% fallout,” he told investigative reporter Ted Daniel. “This is breaking my heart. I have a great deal of respect for people who work in the restaurant industry. So this is very tough to talk about.”

Fast food and take out restaurants, on the other hand, have fared well during the pandemic. Already designed to serve individuals who prefer to pick up food and eat elsewhere, these establishments don’t have to reinvent themselves and find new modes of survival.

Shanghai Cuisine in Waltham, for example, opened for the first time last month. The manager says business is brisk.

“Life is a risk,” Robert Lee, manager of Shanghai Cuisine told 25 Investigates. “Everything is a risk. But, you know, you have to take risks sometimes.”

Meanwhile, Slesar, the owner of Beer Works, says he’d like to reopen his three restaurants in the spring. If things fail to pick up then, he says, he’s not sure how much longer he’ll last.

“It’s just bizarre. It’s just a very strange feeling,” he said.

Massachusetts restaurants are currently limited to a 25% customer capacity cap. That limit is set to expire on Monday.

It will be up to Governor Baker to decide whether to extend the cap or adjust it.

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