NEW BEDFORD — Steve Silverstein has spent his life in the restaurant industry.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses in March of 2020, he was forced to contemplate what he’d have left to show for it.

“Is this the end of my career?” worried the owner of New Bedford’s Black Whale, Whale’s Tail, Cultivator Shoals and the newly opened Cisco, as well as the Joe’s Original kitchen and bar in Dartmouth. “It was absolute fear, initially. No one knew what was happening. We were prepared for the absolute worst.”

That month, the New York Times issued a dire report from restaurant analysts and operators that predicted 75 percent of independent restaurants in the United States would be left shuttered by the pandemic.

That bleak forecast didn’t include the number of in-the-works restaurants that would never open their doors. Dough Company, known as DoCo, was originally slated to open in the Kilburn Mill in January 2020, but delays in the buildout left the restaurant in limbo when the pandemic hit. Ultimately, DoCo struggled to hold on long enough to open in June 2020.

“Not opening when we did could have put us under,” co-owner Jillian Cotter said. “We were that close. We were hovering around not being able to ever open the business.”

Across New Bedford, in restaurants young and old, the dread was tangible.

“We were preparing — when we saw a 26 percent immediate increase in the unemployment rate — for 10-20 percent (of restaurants) closing,” said Derek Santos, director of New Bedford’s Economic Development Council (EDC). “We had to prepare for that reality.”

Then a strange thing happened: New Bedford’s restaurants simply kept cooking.

While precise data is hard to pin down, the generally accepted number is that New Bedford enjoyed a net gain of five restaurants from March 2020 to June 2021, bucking national and statewide trends. Even in the first three months of the pandemic, from the start of April 2020 to the end of June, when indoor dining was banned and many restaurants shut down temporarily, the city only lost one restaurant permanently, going from 177 to 176, according to data from the most recent state Labor Market Report provided by the EDC.

“They were incredibly innovative,” Derek Santos, director of New Bedford’s Economic Development Council, says about the city’s restaurants during the pandemic.

“Early on, we didn’t quite understand what was happening, but we had to gain that understanding as quickly as possible,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell. “One area we had to get up to speed in was helping our small businesses stay afloat. It’s worked out pretty well,  and we’re really poised to take off in the months ahead.”

According to the foodservice research firm Datassential, approximately 10 percent of restaurants nationwide closed for good during the pandemic. In its 2021 State of the Industry report, the  National Restaurant Association reported sales were down by $240 billion in 2020 and that 110,000 restaurants were still closed, either permanently or temporarily. Bob Luz, CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, estimated last fall that more than 20 percent of the state’s restaurants (about 3,400 establishments) have closed for good.

Yet in New Bedford, only four restaurants are known to have closed permanently during the pandemic, with Cobblestone owners Mary and Anthony Martins and Me and Ed’s owners Peter and Corey Lorenco both citing COVID-19 among the reasons for their closures. Also closing were Libad’s Seaside Tavern and Cafe Bon on Rockdale Avenue, which opened in the fall of 2019.

But Me and Ed’s had been for sale for three years, Libad’s had already been saved once by Spike TV’s Bar Rescue in 2013 and Cobblestone is slated to be replaced with a new restaurant owned by John Mello, who recently closed the Sail Loft in Padanaram. Cafe Bon has already been replaced with On the Run Cinnabun. A fifth restaurant, 222 Union in the Harbor Hotel, has not re-opened. 

Meanwhile, aspiring restaurateurs soldiered on, opening 10 new eating establishments in the past year, spread out across the city. Downtown saw the addition of PLAY Arcade and BesTeas Bubble Tea and the expansion of Cultivator Shoals. The waterfront added Cisco Kitchen and Bar and Back Door Burgers and More. The South End welcomed DoCo, Cali-Rito Burrito Grill and Daily Made Donuts. Butternut Bistro opened in the far North End. Acushnet Avenue not only added Morna Lounge and Grill and All Around Pizza, but it saw La Raza Taqueria move and expand. In the West End, CFC Chicken opened its third location. Even David’s Restaurant, which had been open barely over a month at the onset of the pandemic, made it through.

“We were open for business amid the pandemic, and we gave our restaurants the tools to be successful,” said At-Large City Councilor Ian Abreu, who also serves as director of business development at One SouthCoast Chamber. “There were other cities and towns that reached out to New Bedford for the playbook, so we could share our best practices with them. We kind of led the charge with how to do it and how to do it right.”

So what, precisely, made New Bedford’s restaurant scene so resilient? 

New Bedford Light talked to restaurant owners, policy makers and an economic development expert to break down the reasons why the Whaling City was able to keep its restaurants afloat despite ever-changing regulations, health fears and stay-at-home orders.

The culture

The theory is simple: New Bedford is a unique place that outpaces other communities in its support of local businesses. 

“I think New Bedford has a fantastic and strong culture of supporting the small business scene,” said Cotter, a Westport native who opened DoCo with her husband Jason. “Everyone stepped up and was there for each other.”

New Bedford doesn’t offer many sit-down chain restaurants. Other than fast-food establishments, it’s hard to find a national chain restaurant within city limits. Compare that to Fall River, which supports 99 Restaurant, Applebee’s, 110 Grill, Friendly’s and Denny’s.

Photo by Andrew T. Gallagher

“First and foremost, the people of New Bedford are so loyal to their neighborhood restaurants,” said Kristin Raffa, manager of Pa Raffa’s. “I think that a lot of chains haven’t done well here because people like to know the people they’re working with.”

“We’re a scrappy city,” said Abreu. “We know how to work and grind over here. It’s part of our culture. We’re a city of immigrants … and we’ve all worked hard to really support our community and our businesses and our neighborhoods. That’s built into our DNA here in New Bedford.”

The demographics

In addition to its love of independent restaurants, the socio-economic makeup of the city played a part. 

New Bedford isn’t reliant on the two categories of diners whose eating routines were the most disturbed by the pandemic: Office workers and college students. 

“Boston has tons of people in office buildings, tons of people coming in for physical meetings, and lots of students,” said Santos. “This drives their restaurant industry. New Bedford didn’t see that. … The customers are more local.”

Added Mitchell: “The restaurant scenes that really took it on the chin around the country were the ones in downtowns of major cities or those in close proximity to college campuses.”

Photo by Andrew T. Gallagher

While cities like Boston saw restaurants close due to a lack of lunch business and a dearth of entertainment draws at night, even New Bedford’s downtown and waterfront, its most tourist-reliant neighborhood, didn’t see a large drop-off. 

Visits to the State Pier were down about 40-50 percent, according to the EDC, but The Black Whale, located next door on Pier 3, wasn’t affected, Silverstein said. After closing for three months from March until June, business in July 2020 was “similar” to July 2019. 

“Now the business is better than it’s ever been,” Silverstein said. “Instead of going to Boston to a fancy seafood restaurant, they were going to the one that’s close by.”

The innovators

From the start, restaurant owners were forced to be adaptive and flexible, whether it was designing socially distanced takeout procedures, adding online ordering and delivery capabilities, staying on top of ever-changing capacity limits, adding Plexiglas dividers and re-organizing seating, re-training staff, designing new outdoor dining options or finding ways to run tightly spaced kitchens while keeping employees safe.

“A lot of our restaurants were very nimble,” Mitchell said. 

“They were incredibly innovative,” Santos agreed. “They figured out real quick how to adapt and communicate. … We have to give an insane amount of credit to the folks who own these businesses and the talent they have working in them.”

“We’re a scrappy city. We know how to work and grind over here. It’s part of our culture. We’re a city of immigrants.”

At-Large City Councilor Ian Abreu

At Pa Raffa’s, it was all about taking baby steps back. After closing initially to allow employees, many of whom have young children or elderly parents, to figure out their family situations, the far North End Italian staple slowly opened back up, using just managers, each of whom had their own workstation. Over time they created two separate crews who worked opposite hours and didn’t come in contact, in case one crew was forced to quarantine. 

“We started with limited hours and a limited menu, and the demand was overwhelming,” Raffa said. “At the end of every shift it was like the end of a huge game that you had success in. We were all so thankful and appreciative of our customers and the loyalty and the positive feedback.”

In addition to figuring out health and safety protocols to keep their employees safe, restaurant owners had to deal with myriad external issues, including supply chain gaps.

Pa Raffa’s struggled to get pizza boxes, and at one point, flour supply was questionable. Meat prices rose to the point that the restaurant had to stop offering meatballs. 

“Running a business through this period of time is like running a football team,” said Silverstein. “You call a play, but you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

That was particularly true for restaurants in the midst of opening.

Mateus Barbosa and Salo Afonseca purchased a building on Acushnet Avenue and were renovating it to create their first restaurant and entertainment venue, Morna Lounge and Grill, when the pandemic hit. They ended up opening their doors nearly a year later on March 5, 2021.

“We delayed as much as possible, but we just got to a point where we couldn’t do it anymore,” Barbosa said. “We had to open to make money to pay the bills.”

But they never considered folding the project, which they envision as a celebration of Cape Verdean culture — joining food, music and events — meaning they were hit hard by capacity limits and prohibitions on large gatherings.

“There was no backing down,” Barbosa said. “It was difficult, and it’s still difficult. There’s still challenges. Right now, we don’t have enough staff, but it’s getting better.”

The coalition

Beyond the loyal customers and adaptive restaurateurs, there was a third invested party: government. In addition to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which multiple restaurant owners cited as a life raft that allowed them to keep paying their employees, the City of New Bedford and State of Massachusetts altered how they do business.

“The city did a great job in reacting and accommodating the way they did,” Silverstein said. “The city did everything it could.”

Jillian Cotter seconded that opinion: “The city was great working with us to get everything done. They were accommodating and understanding with what we were facing.”

Mitchell said one of his first actions was to start promoting local restaurants using his social media channels.

“As restaurants were being hit with capacity limitations, I wanted everyone to know that takeout was encouraged,” he said.

The city set up a Restaurant Re-Opening Group, which was co-chaired by Silverstein and former city planner Tabitha Harkin. It also featured representation from the City Council, planning office, building office, licensing departments and about a dozen restaurants, including Churrascaria Novo Mundo, No Problemo, Destination Soups, Inner Bay and Airport Grille and EndZone Sports Pub.

Photo by Andrew T. Gallagher

Abreu, the council’s representative on the restaurant working group, cited it as an example of a successful public-private collaboration.

“We brought people to the table who have signed the front of a paycheck,” he said. “It was really tremendous to see. We brought all these people to the table, and they all brought fantastic feedback and ideas.”

Several policy changes came from the working group, including eliminating the permit fee for outdoor dining (the state also significantly reduced its permitting requirements), subsidizing parklets for restaurants with limited outdoor space, allowing temporary loading areas and eliminating downtown metering.

“I can say for a fact that the restaurant folks didn’t get everything they wanted, but the city folks also did stuff they weren’t sure about,” Santos said. “For me, that’s perfect.”

Perhaps the most significant change that city government enacted was speeding up its processes, slashing red-tape and fast-tracking permits.

“It’s hard to change local government really quickly,” Santos said. “It’s really hard. I thought New Bedford did a really good job of going from something that would have taken 2-3 weeks and making it happen in 2-3 days.”

Not everyone, however, agreed the city was working as efficiently as possible.

“It was a challenge dealing with City Hall being shut down,” Barbosa said. “That kind of delayed things a little. Trying to get inspections done, we couldn’t do it in a timely manner. All of that stuff delayed the process a little bit.”

The momentum

All these reasons factored into New Bedford’s restaurant resiliency in percentages that are difficult to quantify. 

But there’s another well-accepted theory: The city’s dining reputation had so much momentum behind it, even a pandemic couldn’t reverse its fortunes.

“I was talking to a young kid, 28 years old, and I asked him how he liked living in New Bedford and he said, ‘New Bedford is the coolest place.’ When I was 28, New Bedford was the last place in the world to go to.”

Restaurateur Steve Silverstein

This was the first explanation proffered by Silverstein, who opened an ambitious waterfront destination Cisco Brewers Kitchen and Bar this month, which came ahead of the reopening of the Whale’s Tail on Pier 3 and following the expansion of Cultivator Shoals on Union Street.

“I think New Bedford is in an upswing,” he said. “New Bedford has gone from not very desirable to cool and happening. … I was talking to a young kid, 28 years old, and I asked him how he liked living in New Bedford and he said, ‘New Bedford is the coolest place.’ When I was 28, New Bedford was the last place in the world to go to. To me, that is the No. 1 reason. New Bedford is enjoying a huge momentum swing in the positive direction, going from tired to cool. It’s a pendulum swing.”

Of course, Silverstein has plenty of reasons to promote the state of the city’s restaurant industry, but as Santos notes, he’s also put his own skin in the game.

“These are the moves he’s making, and if he’s bullish, that’s a good sign,” Santos said. “We feel very strong about the hospitality sector as a growing sector in the New Bedford economy.”

While New Bedford lost 1,129 businesses from March 2019 to June 2020, according to data from the EDC, it gained five restaurants in that time. It now appears the city has gained 10 restaurants in the past 27 months, if 2020-21 estimates prove true.

Fare from Back Door Burgers and DoCo.

“What we’ve been trying to cultivate the last few years is a destination restaurant scene,” Mitchell said. “We have a critical mass of restaurants downtown that are competitive anywhere, and there’s room for more. As we’ve seen, there’s growth along the waterfront. Most people would agree that the quality of the restaurants is higher than it was 20 years ago.”

The future

While many of the challenges the pandemic presented are in the rear-view mirror, others remain. 

Food and staffing costs have increased, leaving restaurants short-staffed and margins shrinking.

“It’s getting better, but there’s still challenges,” Barbosa said. “We need staff and there’s not enough people to work.”

Original Joe’s in Dartmouth was able to do 80 percent of its normal sales with just takeout, and actually increased revenue once its dining room re-opened, Silverstein said. But margins shrank.

“Restaurants are really busy right now, but now we have a whole new problem,” Silverstein said. “While business is great, the profitability is not what it was.”

As restaurants battle to stay profitable and wrestle with a flood of customers, owners are expected to rely on some of the changes they made in the past 15 months, whether it be new delivery or takeout options or freshly created outdoor dining spaces. The city has promised to continue allowing parklets.

“When you’re forced to do something different, some stuff you say, ‘I can’t wait until this is over,’” Santos explained. “But other stuff, you realize, ‘I can’t believe we didn’t do this before.’ I think a lot of these sort-of temporary solutions to get us through will turn permanent.”

Abreu agreed, even suggesting the city could expand some of its pandemic-era nimbleness.

“I have yet to meet a restaurateur who doesn’t plan to keep their outdoor dining,” he said. “Especially when the city has made a commitment. We’re not charging for them. We’re streamlining permits. … What we’ve done with dining parklets and restaurants could serve as a battering ram to promote streamlining of other services throughout the city.”

Whether city services are more efficient in the long term or not — and there are certainly skeptics — New Bedford can look back on the past 15 months and feel confident about the state of its restaurant scene.

“When it hit the fan with the pandemic, I can honestly tell you, the mayor’s office, City Council, department heads, we put the rhetoric aside and rolled up our sleeves for the greater good,” Abreu said. “That was refreshing for me to see. There was no political theater being performed. We worked in a bipartisan manner and got it done. It’s not just by chance that we’re at plus-five (restaurants). It’s because we worked very hard at it.”

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

COVID-19 regulations in place on restaurants (as of May 29, 2021):

Capacity limits: None
Time limits: None
Party size limits: None
Curfews: None
Dividers between patrons: None
Table placement: None
Masks: Not mandated  
Reusable menus: Allowed
On-table condiments: Allowed
Bars: Fully open
Live Music: Allowed
Beer Gardens/Breweries/Distilleries: Open

RELATED STORIES

Summer arts explosion

‘Now we’re seeing a return to in-person events, which is so exciting,’ said Margo Saulnier, New Bedford’s creative strategist.

Make your voice heard

If you have a short comment, a first-person essay, a poem or a topical opinion piece, an image, a short video — or some other form of creative expression — you’d like to share, please submit it here or email us at VOICES@newbedfordlight.org. We want to hear from you. Comments must be civil and will be edited for clarity and length.

Sign up for free

Our free newsletter will drop into your inbox weekday mornings, giving you all the highlights of our in-depth news stories and community arts and culture coverage.

SUPPORT OUR WORK TODAY

As an independent, nonprofit news outlet we are reliant on reader support to help fund the kind of in-depth journalism that keeps the public informed and holds the powerful accountable. Thank you for your support.