We're in the weeds now

Keep heading this direction and the restaurant industry in Worcester is going down hard

Restaurants are in big trouble, and as an employee of a restaurant, I’m worried and downright scared for some of my coworkers who are going to be put in a barbaric situation should we face another shutdown without a significant stimulus package for both restaurants and the people who work in them. 

The shutdown is likely, the stimulus… not so much. 

This week I’ve been thinking about Pomir Grill, one of the true gems of the organically diverse and interesting Worcester food scene. The Afghan restaurant has been on Shrewsbury Street for eight years – that’s 80 in family-owned restaurant years – and they recently shut down. I tried to reach the owners and I couldn’t but I don’t think it’s some big mystery why they closed. Small place like that with nowhere to put outdoor seating, you’re just not going to hit the margins. So that’s a whole family’s life up in the air. In a just world these businesses would be floated by the government but no all the stimulus money for restaurants got sucked up by chains because we live in a constant nightmare. Afghan food you don’t come around too easy, and that was a big feather in Worcester’s cap to have it.

This week I’ve been thinking about a dishwasher at my restaurant who’s in and out of homelessness. I’m pretty sure he has an apartment now, provided through a city rehousing program, but I know for a long time he didn’t. I know the cycle of homelessness is up and down and he might have somewhere to stay tonight but he might not tomorrow. I know that if the restaurant closes or even just shuts down it’s going to be a lot more likely he’s out on the street. I’ve been thinking about him and the other various less extreme or else unknown hardships that my coworkers are facing as the hours dry up and the unemployment isn’t coming in like it used to.

This week I’ve been thinking about this list floating around on Facebook about all the restaurant closures in Central Mass. 

Should be noted that this is curated by a Facebook group and isnt near comprehensive. More just representative.

All the dishwashers close to homelessness and out of work and all the families who staked their lives on their businesses and all the other routine miseries that accompany a restaurant going under and no one’s opening any new restaurants right now. I know mine isn’t really hiring. I know that I’ve been getting two shifts a week and that’s fine for me I’ve got another way to make money (please subscribe haha) but the other guy on the line hitting me up for my hours every week, it’s not fine for him. If he gets four days a week he’ll be good he told me but he’s only getting two or three. 

I’ve been thinking about all my friends who work in restaurants and bars and it’s a good percentage of them and what are we all going to do if Worcester decides to place any more restrictions on restaurants? At this point you’re lucky if you’re getting a couple hundred bucks a week from unemployment. The $600 weekly unemployment assistance (thank you, Bernie) in the first Corona relief package carried a lot of restaurant workers through the early days of the pandemic. That’s gone now, and it’s not looking like it’s going to come back, and the regular aid from the state is just not cutting it. Especially for servers and bartenders whose on-the-books income is a lot less than they were actually making.

Other cities are increasingly looking at the idea of shutting down indoor dining. On Monday, the Cambridge City Council voted to have the mayor look into it and work with other mayors in the area to do a big collaborative close. In Pittsfield, they already have. In Worcester, it doesn’t seem like they want to but if the rest of the state goes that way they’ll likely follow. Here’s what City Manager Ed Augustus said about it on the Talk of the Commonwealth Tuesday. 

“We’ve desperately tried to avoid that. We love our restaurants. It’s part of the renaissance that’s going on in Worcester. All the wonderful restaurants , they’re a great source of jobs. We’re trying to strike that balance between safety and folks who have the jobs and the economic benefit.

Starts about 4:50 down here if you want to listen.

It was one thing to have restaurants and bars shut down in March, when restaurants and bars had relatively full health meters and they could take a couple punches but it’s an entire other thing to shut restaurants down now after they’ve been slowly kicked in the ass by this pandemic and the restrictions it requires. It’s been one good ass kick a day for the past nine months now. Without significant support restaurants are going to close as soon as indoor dining goes away and that’s hundreds if not thousands of people out of work in this city at once and I don’t know if we can handle that in fact I know we can’t.  

This is all to say I really think restaurants and bars should shut down statewide, and even preferably nationwide. A full lockdown for a couple weeks while we pay people to stay home and pay businesses to survive is probably the only way we’ll ever get out of this. But we can’t shut restaurants down piecemeal, city to city, without state and federal support for businesses and employees. If we do that, the long term effects will be disastrous. The industry won’t recover. 

I put out a call for stories from people in Worcester working in the service industry, and I received a long and thoughtful email from Dani Babineau at Redemption Rock Brewery. 

The state is currently reviewing grant applications for their most recent program, and we are hoping to receive some funding through that, but there's nowhere near enough to go around. Everyone keeps saying significant aid has to come from the federal level, but that's unlikely anytime soon. We were lucky enough to receive aid in the spring, which carried us through the first shutdown and through lower sales in the summer and early fall. There's rumors about a shutdown coming, but the state insists there won't be. It'll be up to individual communities, which is honestly frustrating because not only does that create an inefficient patchwork of response, it also creates an uneven amount of need. 

The grant program she references, through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, is not very substantial. Businesses under 5 employees can expect $25,000. Businesses under 50 employees can expect up to $75,000. And that’s if they even get it. Eligibility is strict, as are the restrictions for how to spend it. A grant program like this isn’t anywhere near enough to float our restaurant industry through what could well be a disastrous winter. 

President-elect Joe Biden has called for a $3.4 trillion stimulus package which includes some of the things restaurants and restaurant employees will need, like small business loans and unemployment assistance and another round of Trump Bucks. But he faces a Republican senate which already rejected it in May and if you think the lame duck Trump administration is going to do anything before late January when he’s dragged out kicking and screaming I’ve got a minor league ballpark to sell you. 

This bit of feedback from Ali Shia by way of Facebook.

The $600 unemployment top-up needs to be restored so people can go out and support restaurants (with a shutdown looming curbside pick up and doorstep delivery) and a massive stimulus specifically for bartenders, musicians/club staff and all restaurant workers who get screwed over by unemployment based on the employment categorization and that their hourly wages are slave wages to begin with. Also slightly unrelated to the restaurant business, but small/local business in general has been feeling a steady collapse even when more people were staying afloat in the beginning with extra unemployment and one-time stimulus. The CARES Act funds ended up going to a lot of bigger chains while the little guys got squashed. It could be cool to feature a list of local businesses in and around Worcester people who still have income can buy gifts and support instead of feeding the Bezos cash cow this holiday season.

That’s a great idea!

On the state level, the prospect is even more grim. Governor Charlie Baker has, as recently as a few days ago, continued to hold the line that the state does not need to shut down restaurants but he offered that individual communities can if they so choose. Here’s the thing about that. The state more realistically has the resources to accompany a shutdown with a relief package. Cities and towns do not. None of the $16 million Worcester got from the first stimulus went to the restaurant industry. It went to other, more necessary things except for maybe this weird little bit about using PPE to offset the cost of construction project delays? 

Hmmmmm what construction project you think he’s talking about?

Anyway, what I’m saying is that when the governor says he doesn’t think it’s time to shut down restaurants statewide, he’s also saying that he doesn’t want to pay for the shutdown. Instead, he’s leaving it to cities and towns, which certainly cannot pay for any restaurant relief, especially here in Worcester where we’re already cash strapped by a certain bad idea. Meanwhile the federal government continues to act like the failed state that it very well may be.

The situation we’re left with pits those rightly concerned about the spread of the virus against those rightly concerned about the disastrous effect of sweeping restaurant closures on communities. It’s a lose lose and it’s a familiar story we see it happen all the time like in the nauseating debate over what is and is not allowed this Thanksgiving. 

I’ve had the phrase “large Thanksgiving gatherings, small Christmas funerals” stuck in my head for a while now. No way around that one. It’s absolutely true. 

But on the other hand, the rash of public officials and media figures admonishing people for even considering being with their families sets up a convenient excuse for the inevitable post-Thanksgiving spike. It passes the buck from the state to the individual. It’s your fault we’re in this position, they’ll say. It’s your fault because you stupid idiots had to go visit your loved ones. 

What they won’t say is sorry we made you work every day during the nine months of this pandemic. What they won’t say is sorry you had to make the choice between homelessness and going to a job that puts you in direct contact with a deadly virus that you then take home to your family. Sorry we made you do that every day but we’re saying you can’t do that on the holiday. 

No, it’ll be “you idiots had to have Thanksgiving this year, huh?” And we’ll find a way to make it a culture war problem because that’s what journalism is now it seems like. It’s those hicks who don’t believe in masks and kissed their cousins across the dining room table and shared the same turkey leg and had a food fight with the squash over a QAnon dispute. 

And that’ll be enough for us we’ll have someone to hate as the failures of the state continue to erode of our quality of life and we’ll all laugh at Trevor Noah’s latest bit on the big orange baby and we’ll have a vague sense that things are getting worse out there but we won’t know what to do about it except watch the TV and see if it changes but we sort of know it’s not going to change. 

Living in this pandemic is like living with a thousand predator drones quietly and constantly humming above your head. You know they’re up there but you can’t really see them and you know that one day they could drop a missile on your house but it hasn’t happened yet and it probably won’t happen and after a while you’re just sort of numb to it and you say well whatever if it hits me it hits me.

~/~ 

Happy Horrible Thanksgiving everyone! I hope you stay safe and I hope if you made the decision to visit your family that everyone stays nice and healthy after and you have a good time. I hope if you made the decision to stay home that’s responsible but I hope you’re not too self righteous about it you know let’s keep our eyes on the prize here. You might think other working people are dumb but they are not your enemy. 

As always, it’d be a big help if you considered subscribing. I’m pretty much living off this thing now and it’s exciting and terrifying and every little $5 drop a month helps. 

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I’m sure you saw the Table Talk Pies fire yesterday but if you didn’t there was a fire at Table Talk Pies. 

People were protesting outside about the unsafe work conditions when it happened too which is almost funny except for the whole thing about people literally losing limbs there.

Last week I wrote about the unsafe working conditions at Table Talk Pies and how much they’ve paid in OSHA violations and how much money in tax breaks they get from the city. Check it out if you haven’t!

I’m curious what you guys would prefer as readers. If I have one of these longer newsletters once a week or if I start throwing in shorter ones too? Would you like more posts or would you prefer that the posts stay substantial and spaced out at about one a week? I know that content is content in terms of keeping your name out there but also I know you’re already swimming in it and I don’t want to clog the feed too much. Let me know in the comments my sweet babies. 

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