Editor’s note: This version includes a restaurant that responded to questions after The Item’s deadline.
Restaurants have been hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions such as the curfew and capacity limits during the pandemic.
But many have adapted. Loosening restrictions, and the end to the curfew, come as many hope to have customers for a usually busy time – Valentine’s Day – and as the vaccine rollout, despite some glitches, gives hope for the spring and summer.
At The Mill at 185, on Route 12 in West Boylston, the live music continues, in a way. It is virtual, and customers can still enjoy it while eating.
“We’ve always had a following,” owner Tony Topi said. For The Mill, “the challenge is more promoting takeout. We’ve never really been a takeout place.”
But Topi has taken it a step further, offering access to local performers through the restaurant’s Facebook page so people can enjoy the show, whether eating at the restaurant or at home.
He encourages people to get takeout, which has become a greater part of the business, even if from other restaurants.
Down the street, NOLA Cajun Kitchen, which had opened a small patio and even occasionally offered jazz music, had to go to all takeout. New England weather not being favorable to outside dining in the winter, people have been getting the New Orleans fare to go.
“We are working hard to maintain safe conditions to continue operating in order to provide some sort of normalcy for those who need us,” owner Robert Nguyen said. “We’re very fortunate to have a loyal customer base that continues to support us through these tough times, as well as new customers who are giving us the chance.”
In good weather, the outside tables at both restaurants were popular, but limited inside capacity has proved more problematic.
“One of the challenges is for us not to lose our identity as a local music and hangout place,” Topi said.
And NOLA had taken to offering occasional jazz sessions featuring local musicians on the outdoor deck during nice weather.
Getting creative, Topi partnered with The Reunion Tap and Table in North Grafton and now offers the music virtually.
For those not at the restaurant, “They can still watch from home. We’re trying to do the experience from home.”
And he kicked it up a notch.
A local musicians competition each Thursday night through February offers eight performers a 10-minute slot and the audience votes. It drew over 3,000 views the first week, he said. It is continuing and given the popularity, once the four-week competition ends, another may be held.
“We might consider doing another one after the first round. People are enjoying it,” Topi said. And local musicians might still be able to get one of the slots in coming weeks.
It has helped for people following local musicians as well, he said.
“We keep doing what we used to do,” Topi said, using the restaurant’s Facebook page as a portal for updates.
He said a country performer is planned Friday, Feb. 5, and Elvis (not the real one) on Feb. 12.
“It has increased our takeout business,” Topi said and with the addition of a line of organic wines “we are trying to be creative.”
In the spring, more things may occur outside given the success from last summer.
“The town has been great to work with,” Topi said of West Boylston’s officials.
Continuing the music theme, Topi said Valentine’s Day food specials are being planned and he is working with a group of local musicians on a musical special.
“The feedback I’m getting is great,” Topi said, noting that the sound comes out great on the system and he had gotten a comment at the restaurant asking if the musicians were hidden in an adjacent room.
Topi, like most restaurant owners, are planning specials for Valentine’s Day and encourages reservations since restaurants, which often fill up for that holiday, still have reduced capacity limits.
At Clinton’s Sunshine Cafe, takeout has helped.
And while Deb Sargent’s breakfast-focused cafe does not usually have a lot of Valentine’s Day business, with the holiday falling on Sunday this year she sees potential.
“Valentine’s Day is not particularly busy for us, but this year it falls on a Sunday and that is obviously the busiest breakfast day of the week, so we anticipate being busy.
“We will have our normal menu, we may have some heart shaped pancakes or something, not sure yet,” Sargent said.
Adapting has meant more takeout and delivery.
“When the pandemic first hit and we had to close for dine in for a few months, we really attacked our take-out business,” Sargent said. “We began offering free delivery anywhere in Clinton. We ramped up our web page to offer online ordering with contact-free pick up.”
Along with using Door Dash for those outside Clinton, “this small adaptation helped us keep our doors open during the restricted dining months.”
Looking to the future, Sargent said that, not having a crystal ball, “we are just rolling with whatever the governor tells us.
“We are sanitizing and following all the rules set in place by the governor. We are encouraging people to use the sanitizer in the entry way. We are wiping down all heavily touched surfaces like door handles, pens, etc. We don’t want to get anyone sick,” Sargent said.