EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories exploring the state of businesses in town and their strategies, struggles and successes as cold weather arrives and COVID-19 cases rise.
The gas disaster was hard for businesses. The pandemic is even has proven to be even worse.
"With the Columbia gas (disaster) it helped us build up our resiliency," said Danielle Berdahn, owner of Yella. "We are looking at this (pandemic) as one moment in time and hope to be back in full during the warmer months of the spring."
Yella has taken a hybrid approach to get through the winter — they are reducing hours and focusing on takeout for dinner, Berdahn said. Others like LaRosa's are staying open all their hours and adding to their menu while Palmer's Restaurant and Tavern is "hibernating" during the winter, owner and chef John Ingalls said.
"We will be reopening in the spring," Ingalls said after shutting down for the season Tuesday. "We did OK with the outdoor dining, but obviously things weren't the same. I do a tremendous amount of bar business and functions and we aren't allowed to do that."
And he agrees with the restrictions in place, there just isn't another option for the 33-year restaurant owner who has seen an even further decline in business since the fall.
Berdahn, Ingalls and Chiara Raponi, manager of LaRosa's of Andover, all agree that the Andover community has super supportive over the years and are extremely thankful at this time.
"The town and everyone is super community-driven and the citizens have the means to take of each other so we see that happening," Raponi said.
She's thankful that businesses in town are working together to address health and safety measures responsibly and that residents are staying and shopping closer to home, she said.
LaRosa's, like Yella, both do lots of catering during the winter months. At LaRosa's, Raponi's staff is working to create a catering menu for Christmas, just like its Thanksgiving menu, that's smaller and better suited for the small gatherings people are currently having, she said.
Both have also expanded their online ordering and are keeping customers informed with new offerings like to-go beer, wine and cocktails through their websites and social media.
Raponi hopes that people take advantage of the online ordering system because it helps keep the phone free for her and others to answer the many questions about health and safety pouring in, she said.
Yella is going to be working with the delivery app Grubhub for the next three months and is also selling gift certificates online and doing their annual sale for gift certificates, which Berdahn said.
Berdahn's biggest worry is helping her employees. She closed the Gloucester location early this year on Nov. 1 instead of January, like they typically do during the slow season, she said. She still has 12 on staff for the Andover location, she said.
"Even if people can't dine out, we are blessed to keep serving people at their own homes," she said.
However, a second surge of COVID-19 in the Merrimack Valley comes at the same time weather gets colder and restaurants have to pack up their expanded outdoor dining areas. This is why Ingalls closed for the winter.
"There's been the uptick (in COVID cases) since the middle of October and now especially with what happened with people traveling for Thanksgiving they are predicting a few very dark moths," Ingalls said. "It's not worth getting customers or my staff who have been here for 25 years sick."
Across the country, restaurants are facing a financial crunch during the pandemic that has upended the social scenes of towns and cities across the country. A June study by the Independent Restaurant Coalition found that without federal aid as many as 85% of independently owned restaurants might not make it through the pandemic.
The coalition and other national restaurant groups are calling for government assistance to the industry that employs over 15.6 million people nationally, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Palmer's is one of the local restaurants that already benefited from the Payment Protection Program loans given to small businesses to keep people employed.
"What went on behind the scenes was (me) and a lot of other restaurant (owners) got the PPP loan which helped us make up for the loss of revenue," Ingalls said. "But with the continued lack of diners going out and the restrictions — which I respect — eventually you are going to go through that money. It can only take you so far. We need another stimulus package.
"This makes the gas explosions look like a day at the beach," Ingalls said, explaining why he was going into hibernation. He wants to use the time when the business is closed to do some upkeep and strategize for reopening.
"The unknown is just horrible," Ingalls said. "You feel it in your regular life, never mind your business. We hope for the best, that's all."