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Berkshire eateries push through in unforgiving business climate

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NORTH ADAMS — After a few days under a statewide order to cease all eat-in restaurant service, some local restaurant owners aren't sure they will be able to sustain very long with only takeout and delivery service.

Some are just closing for the duration, without attempting to take call-in orders. But even with the uncertainties, many are willing to fight to the end to keep their businesses afloat.

Nevertheless, the closings have led to hundreds of restaurant workers in Berkshire County — millions nationwide — who have found themselves out of work in a matter of days. Many of them were low-paid part-time employees and were living from paycheck to paycheck.

At The Capitol Restaurant on Main Street, 13 people were laid off, said owner Mark Meehan.

At Desperados on Eagle Street, 14 people lost their jobs.

"It set me to tears," owner Peter Oleskiewicz said. "For some of them, this was their only source of income. It sucks, because we're all close, and I just had to let all my friends go."

That's part of the reason Oleskiewicz is planning on taking out a low-interest small business relief loan.

"I don't have a choice," he said. "I want to keep my business, and I want my crew back — I want to keep putting shoes on their kids' feet. So it's what I gotta do."

The Trail House Kitchen and Bar on State Street closed on Tuesday, the first day of the statewide order, laying off 15 employees, said Colleen Taylor, co-owner of the Trail House and the Freight Yard Pub.

Unused food stuffs went to the laid-off Trail House employees.

At the Freight Yard, where pick-up and delivery are still offered, owners were able to keep eight people working, but laid off 17.

Some of them were part-time, and some of them are facing "dire situations," Taylor said. "And if someone is in a bad situation, they know they can come to us. But I think mostly they'll be OK. I have told all my staff that I will call them back in as soon as possible."

According to Jared Decoteau, owner of District Kitchen and Bar in Pittsfield and Public Eat + Drink in North Adams, between both restaurants, 50 people lost their jobs.

"Most of them were part-time, but it was still the only income for some of them," Decoteau said. "It's absolutely devastating."

For the most part, eateries are doing a bit of experimentation for the pick-up and delivery business. With smaller crews, reduced volume and unused inventory, new menu items and family-style dinners are becoming commonplace.

But with only a few days of service so far, restaurant owners are waiting to see if the weekend business will pick up, and from that whether this will be enough to stay open, for a time.

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"This is a bit of an adjustment for everyone," Decoteau said. "It's a bit of a curve — we're still getting used to it. But obviously the volume is way down. So we're playing it day by day."

He said Tuesday and Wednesday were both slow in Pittsfield, with a little bit better showing in North Adams.

Paul Brassard, co-owner of the Berkshire Palate in Williamstown, said they are "trying to be creative and re-invent ourselves, but it's tough."

While he hasn't had any layoffs, the shutdown still has had an effect.

"We lost a $20,000 catering job in one day — that was a rough day," he said.

Family-owned restaurants run on a thin profit margin. What makes this worse is that alcoholic beverages are a higher profit item, but restaurants are not allowed to sell those in a to-go fashion, so that revenue stream is dead for now.

But Brassard and his team are giving operation during the shutdown a try.

"It's definitively going to be a challenge," he said. "And the rules are changing daily. But we have a lot invested here, so we'll try to see this through."

Taylor from the Freight Yard Pub said it's too early to tell if the pick-up/delivery business will sustain the restaurant. She was looking forward to seeing how the weekend business turns out. So far, she said, volume is down to about 30 percent of where it should be.

And she is also waiting for another aspect of the situation: When people who have stocked up start running low on food, and when families whose kids have been home from school start getting tired of cooking three meals every day.

"We'll have to see how things go next week," she said. "But it's not just us. This will affect everybody."

Oleskiewicz said he is looking for new ways to market the new menu and service.

"You gotta grasp at any kind of revenue you can get right now," he said. "I want to try to hold out."

And to make matters worse, according to Meehan at The Capitol, some food distributors have gone to a cash-on-delivery policy, suspending credit lines for closed restaurants during the crisis.

"Some people just can't do that," he said. "But we're too stubborn to just quit, so we'll go as far as we can."

Meehan predicted that if this does go on for six to eight weeks, around 50 percent of restaurants and other small businesses will file for bankruptcy and shut down for good.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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