It is the first of a series of stories in progress following the struggle of a restaurant trying, like many, to reinvent itself to survive the global pandemic.
Food and beverage establishments were among the most difficult businesses to manage during the pandemic. Many across the country have already closed permanently, while others that have reopened are closing again due to increasing cases of COVID-19 in some locations.
In Boston, where the coronavirus is currently in decline, an English-style pub called Cornwall’s is one of many to try to do so. Cornwall’s mainstay for almost 40 years, Cornwall’s has benefited from pedestrian traffic from Fenway Park and Boston University.
Like every year, the family pub spent mid-March preparing to be filled with people looking for a place to party.
“St. Patrick’s Day is like Christmas,” said Pam Beale, 64, owner of the place with her husband John, 77. The cozy pub, with its mahogany banquettes with Scottish Scottish cushions, has been decorated for the holidays, with clovers adorning the walls and Guinness give key chains and hats stacked for partygoers. The Beales say they have prepared to cook “a lot, a lot” of corned beef, cabbage and soda bread, and ordered extra kegs and bottles of beer.
“People started at lunch time,” says Pam. “It was a great celebration which we look forward to.”
But the state ordered all restaurants closed at 11 p.m. the previous evening.
The Beales ran to pack their perishable goods and put away the decorations. Their regulars came for a last pint and left extra large advice as they wished everyone luck.
“It was heartbreaking,” she recalls. “It was really.”
The owners locked their doors for what they thought would be three weeks, but turned out to be three months.
Last month, on his first day back at the pub, JR Moran fiddles with his key chain at the door.
“I don’t even remember which key it is,” he says.
Moran and his brother Billy, the Beales’ nephews, have worked at Cornwall since their teens. They are chief and general manager respectively.
They came to get rid of the food that went wrong, the equipment that has been idle for too long and will not work, and the beer that has expired. Vinny Gibson of Burke Distributing, the guy who has bought them barrels for over a decade, is here to take it back.
“You get credit for everything,” he says. “All that is not used is a full credit. All that is partial, we just weigh it, give you a partial credit.”
It’s a more than generous gesture in an industry where everyone is suffering, and a welcome little relief for the family business, which has been stagnating for three months.
“The fingers crossed for all of us,” said Pam to Vinny. “I mean, your business depends on my business, and vice versa.”
But the big question in everyone’s mind is whether their owner will be so understanding. The neighborhood is dotted with places that have already succumbed to the pressure to pay Boston’s high rents. Even the owner of the highly successful Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks across the street said it may have to close because its owner plays hardball. The idea that if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone who left them all shaken.
So far, the Cornwall owner has been willing to downsize the pub. But as Billy says, everyone’s patience has a limit, and we don’t know if it will be enough.
“They have been really great so far,” said Billy. “But it’s a real test for all relationship. And that makes me nervous because the possibility for us to do well will probably not present itself until next spring. “
It’s high season for Cornwall. After St. Patrick’s Day, the pub relies on the Boston Marathon crowd that crosses Kenmore Square, then on the two pillars of Cornwall: the crowd of fans coming to Red Sox games at nearby Fenway Park, and families flock to celebrate Boston University degrees.
Fenway has just reopened for practice, and the games are scheduled to be played later this month, but without fans. BU’s current plan is to give students the choice of coming back for fall classes or taking them remotely, but the campus has been virtually empty since March.
“I mean, the two legs of the bar stool have totally disappeared,” says Billy. Kenmore Square, he says, was a “ghost town”.
“It’s very nerve-wracking,” sighs Pam.
Above all, she said, because the issues are not only the livelihood of her family, but the life and death of everyone who comes to eat or work. Although Massachusetts currently has one of the lowest rates of coronavirus transmission in the country, it was a hot spot just a few months ago, and a second peak is still a concern. That is why it did not simply open the doors the first day it was allowed, as many others have done.
Cornwall let a month’s work go by while the Beales spent time studying new pandemic protocols, sourcing PPE, attending webinars offered by the city and the restaurant industry, to thoroughly clean the restaurant and to take additional precautions such as adding new filters to their HVAC system.
“Look, the most important thing is everyone’s health and safety first, and you can never lose sight of that,” says Pam. “When I see other people opening up, it’s not up to me to judge, but I think:” Take a step back and do it well “.”
It was a steep learning curve. The Beales and their team have changed not only the way they serve, but also what they serve. Because bar seats are banned and they lose big deals at night, Cornwall adds breakfast in the morning.
Last month, they hired contractors to reorganize their long copper bar. It was the crown jewel of a space that offers more than two dozen British and local beers on tap, in the midst of an eclectic mix of vintage beer panels and bobblehead Red Sox figurines. Workers removed a section of the copper top and added plumbing and wiring to accommodate a new espresso machine.
“We are trying to adapt,” says Pam. “You do what you have to do.”
This includes learning how to prepare breakfast. Billy’s wife Lauren Moran, who opened a cafe in the suburbs a few years ago, taught John and JR how to make blueberry muffins and burritos for breakfast. And the owner of Speedwell Coffee Company, Derek Anderson, gave everyone a crash course in coffee making. he understood everything from how to grind and time the coffee. If you don’t, he warns, “you will definitely soak your shorts or pants.”
After decades in the restaurant business, everyone in Cornwall is new to the job.
“It’s the truth,” laughs John. “It’s back to basics. You have to reinvent yourself.”
“It’s almost like starting again in business,” adds Pam.
Resilience is not new to the Beales. Since John started as a bartender in 1967 and the couple opened Cornwall in 1983, he has gone through everything from riots during the bus and the bombing of the Boston Marathon to the gentrification waves at Kenmore Square that have forced Cornwall to move three times – the last time last summer. .
They built a new space two doors from the old one, a renovation that included the careful removal, transportation and reinstallation of a hand-painted mural depicting famous Britons like Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and King Edward.
The relocated pub had been open for just over six months – and was still paying off construction loans – when the pandemic closed it.
The forced closure “couldn’t have happened almost at a worse time for us,” says Pam. “It’s like standing over a cliff and suddenly there is no more safety net.”
Cornwall’s is still waiting to find out if it could get help from the government’s paycheck protection program. Pam says she’s falling asleep worrying about customers showing up or staying too restless to eat out, and grim projections that more than a quarter of restaurants will fail.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” she said. “But it’s not about making money now. It’s about surviving.”
A few days before the scheduled reopening, skeletal staff come in for a dry run – cooking, learning to keep customers properly spaced inside and setting up tables outside on an area of the sidewalk that the city allows the pub. ‘use. Most of the other restaurants with outdoor space started serving a month ago, enjoying a record period of sunny days. But as luck would have it, the Cornwall sidewalk had become a temporary depot for city buses, which made it impractical.
“No one will want to sit outside and breathe in the fumes from the buses,” says Billy. “It just doesn’t make sense to scramble to do it for nothing.”
But now, with the buses finally gone, Cornwall’s is ready to move on. The menus have been redesigned and reprinted, Purell stations and social distancing signs are in place, and the family is worried. But, as Pam says, they are “thoroughly”, both financially and emotionally.
“He’s our baby,” she says. “This is what we created together.”
And like a baby, says John, Cornwall will continue to grow and change over time, which can also lead to headaches. But John says he too would be lost without him.
“What Cornwall is doing now is keeping me alive,” he says. He gets up every morning looking forward to work, and “at the end of the day, you look back and say, we have accomplished a lot.” You know, there is nothing more fulfilling than that. “
After a long day of installation and training last week, Billy stands behind the bar, looking at the empty tables and benches. On a whim, he turns on music on the radio, giving the pub another sign of life – and just one more hint of the old, lively energy he lacks.
“When there are people and there is music and people interact and have a good time, it gives me a kind of haste,” he says.
It takes a minute to record the song that happens to be playing: Bob Marley and the Wailers coo, “Everything’s going to be fine!”
“Oh, it’s so funny!” Billy notes with a smile. “I hope this is a sign.”
Pam shares the feeling. “Knock on the wood to make it happen,” she says.