YARMOUTH — Gather, a Yarmouth Main Street restaurant housed in a former Masonic hall, has taken advantage of outdoor seating opportunities this summer, expanding the amount of clientele it can serve given indoor seating restrictions forced by the coronavirus pandemic.
But as temperatures drop amid winter’s approach, owner Matt Chappell seeks innovative ways to keep the customers coming.
Gather was among businesses across the state that had to close its doors in the March lockdown. Chappell and his staff immediately filed for unemployment and, thanks largely to about $100,000 in Paycheck Protection Program funds, has been able to retain all of his staffing, which varies from 20-22.
“The only reason we’ve been able to survive is because of the PPP,” Chappell said.
The restaurant started offering curbside takeout in mid-May and on June 1 opened its lawn and deck, which can seat 50. Gather opened indoor service shortly afterward, “but maybe 10, 20% of people want to be inside,” Chappell said. “If the weather’s not great, I’d say most people will come inside.”
The capacity inside is normally about 85 people, but the need to space people apart for health reasons has reduced that number to about 35.
Revenue now is about 60%-70% of what it was before COVID-19, he estimated.
“Once this goes away,” Chappell said of outdoor service, “I think it’s going to be tough.”
He has added fire kettles on the lawn and heaters on the deck in order to keep outside diners warm through next month and hopes takeout numbers will supplement reduced indoor dining levels.
Still, “that is probably not going to be enough; we’re probably going to need some help to get through, depending on how long this goes,” he said, expressing hope that the government will approve more business loan funds.
According to a National Restaurant Association report at restaurant.org, that industry suffered greater job losses during the pandemic than other sectors due to lockdowns. Although nearly 3 million employees were rehired in May and June, job levels were still more than 3 million below February’s peak.
Hiring slowed in July and August, with employment now nearly 2.5 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels, the report states.
Michael “Gil” Gilroy, owner of the Frontier Cafe in Brunswick, was hit by two life-changing circumstances the same week in March: the pandemic and his wife being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He has kept the restaurant and bar – also a movie theater and event venue – closed since March, although has offered an online virtual cinema that has helped him keep tabs with Frontier’s community.
Gilroy estimates that his business, with a staff of nearly 70 early this year, will by year’s end have lost between $1.5 million and $2 million in revenue, largely due to the cancellation of concerts and other events in the past six months.
“It’s a major blow,” he said.
Gilroy’s wife “has successfully completed radiation treatment and surgery, and is now recovering,” he said on Facebook. He now looks to reopen Frontier on a curbside-only basis next month and has brought a limited staff back to do a major overhaul and deep clean of the space.
While other restaurants have reopened for dinners and films, “we’re still not comfortable trying to do anything indoors,” Gilroy said.
Frontier’s “curbside market” will offer “some of our favorites from the old days and we’re really shifting our menu to be more curbside and takeout friendly … (with) comfort food, and also give us a way to have some contact with our community again,” Gilroy said.
Gather has in recent, slower months been among restaurants that have used their kitchens to help those in need. Through Cooking for Community, Gather produces about 150 meals twice a month, Chappell said. Gilroy also plans to establish a donation arm through Frontier through which its kitchen can support the food insecure.
Despite his family’s own challenges, “there are people who have it much worse right now and I think as we go into the fall and winter that’s going to increase,” Gilroy said.
And restaurants will meanwhile likely have to keep pivoting in the wake of the pandemic. In the next two seasons, Gilroy predicts, “most businesses are going to get into some kind of pattern and maybe reassess as the weather changes.”
Meanwhile, Chappell continues to appreciate a challenge. He considers COVID-19 “just one more layer of, ‘okay, how are we going to do this?’ And we found a way to make it so far and survive.”