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Spring Brings Hope For Boston Restaurant Struggling To Survive

Grad students Julian Geltman and Kailey Slavik savor a cold beer and the warm weather on the first day that Boston restaurants are allowed to put tables out on the sidewalks again, and Cornwall's delights in the extra business.
Grad students Julian Geltman and Kailey Slavik savor a cold beer and the warm weather on the first day that Boston restaurants are allowed to put tables out on the sidewalks again, and Cornwall's delights in the extra business.

After a long, brutal winter, Cornwall's Tavern in Boston's Kenmore Square is finally getting what it's been waiting for. Or at least a taste of it. The first day Boston restaurants could start putting tables back out on the sidewalks, turns out to be during a stretch of sunny days of temperatures in the 60s, and the tables are full.

Harvard medical student Kailey Slavik — who steered clear of indoor dining since the pandemic started, is almost giddy now to be able to go to a restaurant again.

"It's just a treat to just catch some warm weather and have a beer outside," she says. "Like I'm just having the best beer of my life at this like cute little patio."

Just as the spring light has changed in the past few weeks, the whole vibe here has too. You now hear more chatter about who got a vaccine, than whose mother or brother is sick.

There's buzz about opening day at nearby Fenway Park, that will soon allow fans in the stands again, even if it's only 5,000 per game. And neighboring Boston University is planning a scaled back, in-person graduation.

"That's a good deal," says Cornwall's manager and bartender, Billy Moran. "That's a win for us."

As part of Cornwall's skeletal staff, General manager Billy Moran does everything from bartending to cooking and delivering take-out. The restaurant is adding more staff now, hoping that business will pick up this spring.
Tovia Smith / NPR
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As part of Cornwall's skeletal staff, General manager Billy Moran does everything from bartending to cooking and delivering take-out. The restaurant is adding more staff now, hoping that business will pick up this spring.

Moran, and his brother JR, have been running the place with their aunt and uncle, Pam and John Beale, Cornwall's founders and owners. After a year of shutdowns, and strict COVID-19 rules that left the business barely hanging on, the English-style tavern is slowly returning to life.

"It's great to get some energy back," Pam says. "People come in and you can just feel it," she says before turning to greet another customer. "It's a little bit of encouragement."

Pam's also encouraged by $28.5 billion dollars in relief funds for restaurants, that's part of the recently enacted American Rescue Plan. It could mean a significant grant for a place like Cornwall's to hire more staff, pay off invoices and back rent, and maybe even start drawing a regular paycheck themselves.

"You feel like the government is now sort of starting to build a bridge to the other side for you," Pam says. "It's not like you're standing over an abyss and trying to figure out do you jump? Do you not jump? There's a bridge! And that's a big relief."

The help comes too late for many. Some 3,400 Massachusetts restaurants — and 120,000 nationwide — have already shut down, according to industry groups. That includes most places in Kenmore Square, where businesses depend on Red Sox fans-who've disappeared, and college students-who've been scarce during the pandemic.

"You know, we lost everything in this neighborhood," says Chris Strang, a Cornwall's regular, as he rattles off a list of the casualties. Everything from fast food places, to little independent joints, big chains and three once-thriving hotel establishments have all succumbed. "Literally everything we had is gone for good except for Cornwall's, and we're left with a barren neighborhood."

The pandemic hit just as Kenmore Square was undergoing a massive redevelopment project, that many are hoping will now help revive the neighborhood.

"We have obviously seen a lull in activity over here, but we're excited to get people back to Kenmore Square," says Alex Provost, the project manager for the developer, Related Beal, (which is not related to Pam and John Beale.) With 120,000 square feet of new office and lab space ready to lease around the end of the year, they're betting on the long-term. Related Beal is also Cornwall's landlord, and the company's willingness to offer the restaurant some short-term relief on its rent, is what's enabling Cornwall's to stay open.

"We're all in this together," Provost says to Pam, when he stops in to see how they're doing. He too is hanging on even the smallest signs of life in the square, — a few extra days of warm weather, a few more students in the square, a few more days until Sox fans will be back.

"Those little wins are really, really good to hear," Provost says. "They're what everyone needs right now, right?"

But just as hope seems to be mounting, the family is dealing with another curve ball that's come out of nowhere. JR, the Beale's nephew and Cornwall's cook, ends up in the emergency room with stomach pain, that he'd been chalking up to pandemic stress.

Take-out has been a big part of Cornwall's business through the pandemic.  GM Billy Moran is hoping the resumption of outdoor dining and the upcoming return of fans to nearby Fenway Park will mean more people opting to eat at the restaurant.
Tovia Smith / NPR
/
Take-out has been a big part of Cornwall's business through the pandemic. General manager Billy Moran is hoping the resumption of outdoor dining and the upcoming return of fans to nearby Fenway Park will mean more people opting to eat at the restaurant.

Alone in the hospital because of COVID-19 rules, he was texting updates to his family. When he told them it was cancer, they all thought he was joking.

"No," JR replied. "It really is bad news."

Indeed, it's now an unfathomable challenge, atop unfathomable challenge, both for the family and the business.

Cornwall's has been running on a skeleton crew of the four family members and just a few paid staff. As JR undergoes treatment, Pam and John, who are 65 and 78, take on more hours, staying until midnight a few times a week, to close the place, and getting up at dawn to open.

A new guy they'd hired to work in the kitchen part time, just months before, gets bumped up to about 50 hours a week, and more hires are in the works. But it's scary to be increasing payroll, Pam says, given how unpredictable business still is.

"It really is hard to know," she says. "You don't want to go too fast and then lose people because they're not making any money or because there's no business. It's really hard to navigate."

Saint Patrick's Day last week was a case in point. Cornwall's is usually packed on the holiday from lunchtime to closing. This year, by mid-afternoon, Strang was one of just a handful of people in the whole place.

"You could forget it's St. Patrick's Day, sitting here," he says, facing the empty tables.

But everything changes as happy hour approaches, and things start to pick up. There's a party of five in the front tattooing each other with leprechauns and shamrocks, and toasting the holiday with green drinks. One of the guys came in a kilt.

"Show off those legs dude," a friend called out as they all posed for pictures.

By evening, every table is full, and Billy is spending more time doing crowd control at the front door, than he is behind the bar. He's taking phone numbers and calling people back in when a space opens up.

It would turn out to be their busiest night of the whole pandemic, and a sweet victory coming exactly a year since Cornwall's was abruptly forced to shut down.

"It's a milestone, Pam says. "It's another corner that we've rounded, and you're just so happy you hobbled it together and survived."

But even their best night is nowhere near an average night, pre-pandemic. Business is still hovering around half what they used to do. While Massachusetts' strict curfew has been lifted, social distancing requirements still mean they can only fit about half the tables they used to. And unlike others, Cornwall's is adamant about enforcing the rules.

"I worry when you hear about outbreaks and you know, it's important that people remember how hard we fought to get here. So, don't throw caution to the wind — or your masks or the wind — because we're going to we're going to regret it." Another surge or shutdown, Pam says, would be crushing.

Indeed, staff are bracing themselves to do more reminding, and more policing of COVID-19 rules this spring and summer, as more people come out of hibernation and baseball fans turn out in droves. But that's a challenge Cornwall's would love to have. In the meantime, they're clinging to hope.

"You sort of feel like if you've been lucky enough to hang on, even if it's by your fingernails, there's going to be something to celebrate at the end," Pam says.

"It just makes you want to come to work, and see what happens when the door opens," John says. "Like I told you before, it keeps you alive."

Maybe we're on the brink of another Roaring Twenties, the exuberant years of drinking, dancing and debauchery that followed the 1918 pandemic, Pam says. But with COVID-19 cases still high in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, she's not celebrating yet. She says she's taking her cue from the nation's top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's imploring people to "wait until [we] get into the end zone."

"Don't spike the ball on the five-yard line," he warned.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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