CHANGING THE MENU

Written By: Joshua Bradford Gray | Photography By: Brian Sager

How Nantucket’s restaurants have evolved amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In mid-March, many of Nantucket’s restaurateurs were so busy preparing for the impending season that few anticipated that the novel coronavirus would threaten to decimate their businesses come summer. Two weeks later, nearly every eatery on island had been shut down, along with the rest of the local economy. The only restaurants that remained open were delivering meals to the island’s elder and at-risk communities.

“At the time it was kind of an unimaginable scenario that this would impact summer,” said Orla Murphy LaScola, co-owner of Proprietors Bar & Table on India Street. “Reopening has been difficult and it has been extremely hard to figure out how to anticipate what’s coming next, along with the guidelines we’ll have to abide by.” LaScola indicated that due to a variety of reasons, Nantucket has conspicuously lacked a restaurant association in recent years. When the potential impact of the coronavirus on their industry became more apparent, LaScola and other restaurateurs formed a representative committee under the Nantucket Chamber of Commerce, which has since worked tirelessly to save our local restaurants and reopen them in an effectively safe environment.

As the state allowed more and more people back into restaurants, the Town of Nantucket endorsed local initiatives enabling island restaurants to seat customers outdoors, either on their own property or in areas belonging to the Town. Three downtown cross streets were also closed to traffic to allow several restaurants critical additional seating. To date, most of these outdoor expansions have been well received, with many restaurants fully booked with reservations days or even weeks in advance.

According to Nantucket’s Board of Health, all patrons dining indoors and outdoors at island restaurants must wear a face mask at all times, unless they are sitting at their own table eating or drinking. Some restaurateurs lamented that enforcing these requirements has been tested by a subset of patrons unwilling to adhere to these guidelines due to personal beliefs. This has often resulted in restaurateurs having to remove stubborn would-be customers. One restaurateur said that the joys of the job have been stripped away by how careful they have to be serving patrons and interacting with them, which has also made it difficult to motivate their staff.

Another challenge includes a percentage of guests who make reservations at multiple restaurants, then decide to pick one at the last minute, letting the others go. While this was already a frustrating trend prior to the pandemic, this summer this loss of business levies a significant blow to small businesses already struggling to stay open. “Every restaurant has an investment in the guest right now even before they show up,” said a restaurateur who wished to remain anonymous. “People don’t realize that this type of behavior is really hurting the industry. We’ve all had to start taking credit cards at the reservation point. It’s not great hospitality, but we can’t afford not to.”

Recent reports in the Inquirer & Mirror and elsewhere indicate a tepid “we-hope-to-break-even” outlook shared among restaurant owners, with some making dire predictions should the economy be forced to shut down again. If that were to happen, many restaurateurs worry that their establishments will be doomed to close for good.

However, with patrons, restaurateurs and the town working together, one of Nantucket’s most cherished industries has a fighting chance. “We were blessed that our town showed leadership on this,” LaScola concluded. “At the end of the day we want people to know we are trying as hard as we can to be welcoming and provide a great experience while keeping everyone safe.”

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