Our last blog focused on the insurance claim experience of a local restaurant, Piattini. We asked owner Josephine Oliviero Megwa to tell us how the pandemic crisis has affected her business, and what she’s doing to make it work in these trying times.
SMW: Tell us how COVID has affected your business.
Josephine: We had to close like everybody else. Our situation was unique, because our landlord expanded the back of the building, and when our leases came due, we had the opportunity to either take the space or relocate. Well, I had just refurbished, so obviously I took the space – that was in December of 2017. Then we planned to close for kitchen repairs in February of 2020, but it got delayed to March. Then, Murphy’s Law, we decided to close the kitchen on March 15 – a Sunday. We ripped out the whole kitchen, thinking we would reopen in a week. Then the Governor said all businesses had to close. But we couldn’t do takeout because our kitchen was closed!! We ended up getting big requests from our regular customers – takeout, catering etc. Some customers really depend on us. So, we lost a lot of opportunity. And then, when the construction could resume on May 25 2020, we were ready – contractor, materials, all ready to go. It should have taken 2 weeks. But unfortunately, state approval agencies weren’t prepared. There was a backlog. You couldn’t go in person; you had to make an appointment. So, we were caught in a web of uncertainty. They weren’t accepting plans anymore, and they needed to approve them for the process to continue. We reopened on July 21, but should have reopened the first week in May, adding 8 weeks to the timeline. Reopening is like opening a brand-new business. It feels very different. COVID protocols are hard, and customers are nervous. Just last night we had a customer move from an inside table to the outside. Normally we move drinks, bread etc. I went to assist, but of course we couldn’t do it in a conventional way. It all goes against the norms of service. But I’m grateful we could reopen.
And the city gave us additional outdoor space. We applied for that in June. I partnered with my neighbors. As tenants we had to separate the barrier. There wasn’t a guideline at that time. So, we had to imagine what would be comfortable. We were thinking of something in Italy. And customers needed that relaxed setting. Normally people like to look at Newbury Street, but here people wanted peace and quiet. Se we invested in that with my neighbors. We got planters and put cement into them at the bottom, and added tall trees. I’m hoping it’s a very warm fall!
SMW: Your outdoor space is the best-looking dining area on Newbury. What are you thinking about as it gets colder?
Josephine: During quarantine, we were considering how we could pivot. People might not want to come inside. I was at home cooking like I had never cooked before. So, we came up with the meal kits idea. It’s all the components of a chef-made meal – artisanal fresh pastas and sauces. We have 12 dishes, including fettucine alfredo. We give you fresh broccoli and chicken. All you have to do is put it together. We cover all the dietary needs. We would do Zoom calls between manager and chef. We would give out samples to test it. We documented what did and didn’t work and came up with the 12 best meals. We also did a cheese kit, with a description of where each cheese came from. And we partnered with an artisanal gelato maker for 12 Piattini flavors. I challenged my kids to choose their favorites. And we made them individually pre-packed and sealed so you can feel safe taking it home. Those are the pivot ideas we have had since closing. For winter…well, I look at all the restaurants that have closed. It’s scary, of course. I wanted to say, ‘just hold on. This will pass. Don’t cave. Don’t give up.’ That’s kind of my mentality every day. Let’s make the most of it today. And we will see what tomorrow brings.