The unpredictable restaurant business is something Jimmy Dietz has been drawn to for most of his life.
What started as intrigue — a 10-year-old boy hanging around the diner where his grandmother worked in Clearwater, Florida — led to opening a New York deli soon after graduating college, before moving to Boston.
Eventually, after managing Legal Sea Foods, meeting his wife and starting a family, Dietz began opening his own places.
Today his personal restaurant empire is two Joe Fish, one Loft Restaurant and Pub and a Dos Lobos American Taqueria & Tequila Bar strong.
“I love everything about this business — everything,” Dietz will tell you, as he did in a 2013 interview with this reporter.
“Did I say that?” Dietz asked recently, sitting in his office in the basement of The Loft in North Andover.
“Wow,” he added. “As crazy as this sounds, even going through this mess, yes, I agree with everything I said.”
Dietz was on a roll before the virus hit. He had taken complete financial control of both Joe Fish and The Loft in North Andover, opened another Joe Fish on Route 28 in North Reading, and then Los Lobos, a Mexican restaurant also on Route 28 near the Andover town line.
Then March 2020 came and he was reminded of something a bartender friend once told him.
“He said, ‘Nothing lasts forever. No matter how good it is. It doesn’t last forever,’” Dietz recalled.
As expected, last January and February the business slowed down; that happens every year. But it’s supposed to pass.
“All of sudden in March we were shut down,” he said. “And it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s my business. I can’t be shut down.’”
Suddenly those words from the past were prophetic.
“My bartender friend was so right.”
Retool or go home
Sunday March 15, 2020, is burned in the minds of people all over the Bay State.
Gov. Charlie Baker shut down most non-essential businesses and public entities, put a ban on gatherings larger than 25 people, and suspended school for at least three weeks, through April 7.
Restaurants, Baker said, would be allowed to offer takeout only, and with restrictions, starting March 17.
“One of the biggest beefs we all have started right then,” said Dietz, whose son, Jim Jr., is part owner and director of operations of the four restaurants. “All of the sudden, we have two days to figure out how to operate a takeout-only business.”
Sure, he said, his restaurants did offer takeout, but not as a primary mode of operation.
“A lot of people don’t understand that,” said Dietz, who lives in North Andover. “You have to retool your business for takeout only. We had never done that before.”
Dietz called for advice from a friend who owns a Chinese food restaurant that does half its business in takeout under normal circumstances.
“We had to retrain the staffs,” Dietz said. “Then we started running into things we didn’t foresee at all.”
There was the curbside pickup and the need for guests to call from the parking lot. But, he said, too many orders at once meant calls being sent to the answering machine.
“They were getting frustrated. We were getting frustrated,” Dietz said. “We had to learn how to do takeout at that level.”
A couple weeks in, things did improve, he said. But business was a fraction of its former self, with North Andover’s Joe Fish faring the best — at 70% below normal.
Spring held promise. That was the hope.
But another blow was dealt when New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu allowed restaurants there to open for outdoor dining May 18.
COVID-19 had hit Massachusetts much harder than the neighboring Granite State and Baker wasn’t ready to move forward.
“Look at it from our perspective,” said Dietz. “We are only a few miles from New Hampshire border, and all of our regulars are heading across the state line. That’s hard to take.”
On June 6, Baker was ready to allow for outdoor dining, too — and said restaurants could open up for it two days later, June 8.
Again, Dietz said he scrambled.
He needed tents and Jersey barriers for four restaurants, among other supplies, and to make preparations such as securing health, fire and police permits from North Andover and North Reading.
It was not cheap.
“Each tent was $2,000 per month,” Dietz said. “And the each Jersey barrier costs $85.”
For all four restaurants, “that’s $12,000 a month in the hole before we open,” he said.
Bumps and barriers
Also from the camp of the unexpected: Dietz had a hard time getting his staff back to work.
“They were making more money to stay home,” he said, pointing out that in addition to regular unemployment benefits they were receiving another $600 weekly from the federal stimulus package.
Due to fewer workers on hand for Dietz’s restaurants, he couldn’t open all of the tables that were available.
“How stupid is that?” said Dietz. “You’re paying people to not work. I just don’t get it. I never will.”
He sold gift cards to customers from which half of all proceeds went to employees who did stay.
“We ended up selling $30,000 in gift cards so we divided $15,000 among 37 staffers,” Dietz said. “Those people really dug in and helped us out. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
The community also stepped up when they heard what he was doing.
“It sent me a message that people really want to help out the little guy, the small businesses,” he said.
For outside dining the ambiance wasn’t ideal, with all of his restaurants located only feet away from extremely busy roads. The two in North Andover are on Route 125 and the two in North Reading on Route 28. But at least it was a start to getting business back, Dietz said.
By mid-September, one of his four restaurants was turning a small profit.
Knowing that Massachusetts restaurants were bound to begin to open at some capacity, Dietz began thinking about what he’d need to do to keep customers safe and operate within state guidelines.
Talking to Terence Sweeney, a friend he went to high school with in the Bronx who is now a contractor in Atlanta, Dietz described what he wanted to do.
“I wanted to put up barriers between the booths, basically separating every booth as its own entity,” Dietz said. “(But) I was scared of the costs, particularly labor, to do it at all of my restaurants. This was 60 booths.”
Still, he knew he had to be proactive, be ready for the opening and to pay for it.
“‘You can’t do it on your own,’” Dietz recalls Sweeney telling him.
“Next thing you know he’s flying up here to help me,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
In mid-August they worked nine hours a day for 12 days, framing, cutting, hammering.
“We ended up scoring these window panes, which cut my costs tremendously,” Dietz said. “So now all of the restaurants have a non-porous barrier between each booth, 6 feet high, and covers all of the COVID standards. I believe we saved $6,000 in labor costs by doing it ourselves. We are in survival-mode. You do what you have to do. And, of course, Thank God for my friend Terence.”
He had other vital help, too, he said — the government. He applied for and received funding for all four restaurants as part of the Paycheck Protection Program. That money can be used for payroll, rent, utilities and related expenses.
Bouncing back with insight
Seven months into the pandemic, Dietz said his restaurants are surviving.
North Andover’s Joe Fish is operating at about 70% compared to a year ago, he said, and The Loft is at about 55%.
The two North Reading restaurants — the other Joe Fish and Dos Lobos — are running at about 50% year over year, Dietz estimates.
“I’ve talked to some of my friends in the business and we’re doing pretty good compared to others,” he said.
And there have been positive developments amid the viral whirlwind. Take efficiency, for instance.
His menus were reduced, which helped streamline some processes. Jay Duffley, his longtime executive chef, took over a lot of the food prep duties. And Dietz himself is more hands on.
“We used to cut our own fish. We still buy it from the same person, but we have them cut it for us. We used to make a lot of dressings from scratch. Now we’re buying them already complete. It means we don’t have to have inventory sitting on the shelf,” Dietz said. “Money can’t be sitting on the shelf in this environment.”
He said in a strong economy, there’s no real pressure to scrutinize everything about a business model — the menus, the labor, the facilities.
“But when they take your livelihood away from you, and you’ve got to go into survival mode and make this work with limited income and limited staff. It’s another challenge,” he said.
“We had to go in survival mode,” he added. “And because of it, I believe we will come out stronger on the other side.”
Bill Burt is executive sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune. You can email him at email@example.com.