What hadn’t occurred to me, while we were redesigning our space and our process for handling orders, was that a small fraction of customers would object. The precautions that keep customers safe also inconvenience them. Getting everyone enough ketchup takes longer. We assumed that customers would understand, but, at least on that afternoon in March, not everyone did.
The next day, Loic and I arose after a sleepless night to plot the future of our restaurant, determined never to repeat what had just happened. We made the gut-wrenching decision to convert the Canteen to takeout and delivery only. We would remove menu items, such as lobster rolls, geared mostly to the weekend crowds and instead push the grilled-cheese sandwiches and vegan grain bowls more popular with townies. We would keep our doors locked so that only our staff could enter our building. (In the end, we wouldn’t have had much choice. That same evening, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered restaurant dining rooms closed.) The next day, Loic took a hammer to a pane of glass in the front of our building and replaced it with a makeshift takeout window.
Later that week, we set up a grocery store in what used to be our dining room, and allowed people to order those items online for delivery or curbside pickup. And we started offering free fruits and vegetables, cleaning supplies, and pantry staples to members of our community in need.
Still, the limits of our power are all too obvious. After ordering food and eating it off premise, people have been leaving used cups, forks, and spoons on our grounds rather than throwing them away at home—forcing us to handle items that have been in people’s mouths. Once, when one guest waiting for her takeout order asked another to move a little so that everyone could stand at an appropriate distance, the guest in the middle of it all simply said “no,” and stayed put. Hire a bouncer, someone on Facebook chided me later. But margins in our industry are thin, especially now. And when a casual restaurant can’t sell sandwiches without protection from hired muscle, the real problem lies elsewhere.
Often, when things have been at their worst here, our town’s police officers have walked by, seen what’s happening, and said and done nothing. On paper, of course, this doesn’t make any sense. How can we expect to run a business while also being the sole enforcers of measures meant to keep society safe? But then again, in light of the U.S. government’s paralysis amid this crisis, my team’s current dilemma makes all the sense in the world.
Nothing I’ve said offers a clear answer to those of you sitting on the other side of the equation. People all over the country are in good faith trying to figure out what to do this summer, and if they can still make their pilgrimages without harming their favorite summer communities. And I believe it comes from a place of love: Who wouldn’t want to enjoy at least a version of their usual summer routine this year while also infusing cash into our sputtering seasonal economies?