The Invisible Hand
Serving a college town with no students, restaurants in Harvard Square search for patrons
By MARISSA GARCIA
A string of burnt-out lights
It was a Friday night, maybe a Saturday morning, and time felt like sand as I met my close friend, a senior, for her final twilight in Harvard Square. Three days earlier, we had found out that we would no longer have a place to live in Massachusetts in five days’ time. Both hailing from California, we had plans to celebrate the end over boba at the newly-minted Kung Fu Tea, which surely wouldn’t close before 1 a.m. Rounding the corner where Berryline turns into Zinneken’s, we expected to see the familiar flurry, as customers climb up and down the cramped, five-step staircase leading up to its ordering counter. Instead, the vicinity was dark.
“It isn’t closed, is it?”
Kung Fu Tea, or Harvard? It was the season of doubting, of second-guessing—first with indignation, and then with abandon. What we entitled students had once claimed rightfully as ours was now rapidly slipping through our fingers.
We continued walking down a dimly lit Massachusetts Avenue until we found ourselves on JFK. I only then realized how little the street lights mattered to this walk I thought I knew so well. Each storefront was dark. Like a string of holiday lights, once one burns out, the rest follow suit. The front doors were locked by a singular stark paper, announcing store closure due to the virus. An invisible force, a dark shadow.
We finally found our first lit building that wasn’t the 24-hour promise of CVS. The lonely glow of Tasty Burger lured us inside. With President Bacow’s hours-old announcement that Harvard had its first presumed positive case, we distrusted every surface where the virus might live, and so we took our chicken nuggets and tater tots to-go. We had our last supper in a House dining hall. The tables were set with many appetizers, piles of deserted snacks that had been intended to last for the seven remaining weeks of school, a chilling contrast to the cleared shelves of grocery stores nationwide. I wondered if we should pack some, just in case.
My friend hadn’t ordered from Tasty Burger since her freshman year. It was funny now to see it all come full circle, four years later. We ate in the empty dining hall where we were used to fighting for a seat.
An unassuming meeting and a governor’s orders
Tasty Burger closed its doors on Monday, March 16. The pop-up window on their website, which usually collects email addresses, instead shares that the official burger joint of the Boston Red Sox hopes to reopen at a later time, once they believe it is to the benefit of everyone’s health and safety. They closed just before Governor Charlie Baker’s mandate took effect. Announced from the State House during a news conference on Sunday, March 15, the mandate called for all restaurants in Massachusetts to transition to exclusively take-out and delivery. Until April 17, all bars and restaurants could no longer welcome customers inside their doors.
Two weeks earlier, the Harvard Square Business Association had convened for its annual meeting. In a phone interview with the Independent, Ben Snyder, the general manager of Saloniki Greek, remembers that at the meeting, the virus did not seem like a matter of great urgency. He recalls, “There [were] talks about it. It was on people’s minds, but nothing was imminent.” Talks of the virus were merely geared toward developing a plan. He recounts, “We were just kind of planning for a schedule with reduced hours, and maybe [we would] cut a little bit of staff… some product… try to save money where we can, and offer a little bit less of the menu.”
And then, Baker issued his mandate, and Snyder remembers the moment he got word. On Sunday, March 15 at 1:30 p.m., just hours before all Harvard undergraduates were required to be moved out from their dormitories, Snyder learned of the mandate on a sudden phone call from his corporate headquarters. They did the only thing they could. “In the middle of one service, we just decided to serve our last meal, to shut everything down.”
Keeping your home, when you are supposed to stay-at-home
As the virus spreads, rent must still be collected, but paychecks might not be issued, leaving both restaurant owners and employees alike in a nebulous financial state. The well-being of his staff is a foremost worry for Snyder. He reflects, “The thing that hurts the most is the hourly staff essentially left just hoping this would end as soon as possible. A lot of them live check to check, a lot of them have families, and there’s no immediate sense of relief for them. They all got a full paycheck today, but we don’t really know when the next full paycheck is going to come.”
Despite the grim reality of lost profits, Snyder still wants to help his staff as much as he can, igniting his decision to reopen Saloniki Greek’s Fenway location for take-out and delivery beginning Thursday, March 19. He says, “We are opening this restaurant with the hopes that anything we make will be paid to keep the heat on, and then we will set up a fund for the staff, and if we make enough money, we’ll just start divying it up equally, and we’ll try to give some people cash in their pockets.”
Saloniki Greek is not the only restaurant in Harvard Square facing uncertainties regarding employment. Shoshana Garber, owner of Black Sheep Bagels, reports to the Independent that, “Most of our part-time employees have left town to wait out the quarantine with their families, but we have not had to lay off any full-timers (We have 6, not including Manny and myself as the owners) or the two part-timers who chose to stay.” Even so, she admits that this definitely is more employees than they need for how much demand has dropped, but she insists that “as long as the business can afford to pay them we will!” Based on an evaluation of sales up until Sunday, March 22, Black Sheep Bagels had witnessed four out of every five customers disappear.
Zinneken’s Waffles hasn’t been able to keep any of their eleven employees; after Baker’s mandate, they lost 80% of their sales overnight. In an email to the Independent, CEO and co-founder Nhon Ma emphasizes that rent is currently their greatest concern if they want to stay in business, noting that “landlords themselves would need to renegotiate their loan terms.”
Kari Kuelzer, the general manager and owner of Grendel’s Den, tells the Independent that, “We told our employees to file for unemployment benefits if they are able, which many cannot do for many reasons. Like many businesses of our size and type, we have limited cash reserves, and unfortunately, Middlesex County is still not able to access federal emergency loans for reasons I don’t know.” Small Business Association loans became available in Massachusetts as of Thursday, March 19, which may turn out to be a saving grace: Grendel’s Den lost 70% of their profits before being closed by Governor Baker’s emergency decree. Grendel’s Den employs thirty-five workers, and as Kuelzer stresses, these challenges are “particularly time-sensitive to address and manage to avoid a catastrophe for all of these people’s lives.”
Café Pamplona, a Mediterranean-style café nestled half-underground, right before Bow meets Arrow Street, usually invites passersby with its bright marigold door, as it has in Harvard Square for the past sixty years. When the Independent reached out to the business, Raffi Hovagimian, co-owner alongside his wife, responded via email, “We are getting 2 to 4 customers a day. As you know, we are not a take-out or delivery place… we had to tell our employees that we can’t support them. The business is down over 90%. We don’t know what is going to happen to our home situation.”
The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance, in combination with the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, is granting unemployment benefits to those whose workplace does not expect to open in four or fewer weeks. Massachusetts residents are also eligible for partial unemployment benefits if the virus results in reduced hours or wages. This still permits workers to continue working for restaurants that have remained open for take-out and delivery but may have had to cut hours due to drastically reduced profits. This helps prevent workers from having to sacrifice their food-service jobs because they may make more money from unemployment benefits exclusively, helping these restaurants continue operating. These policies, however, still leave out undocumented employees.
The virus forces Massachusetts’ residents to stay-at-home, and yet many employees and owners of Harvard Square restaurants don’t know what will happen to their own homes.
Platforms for lost profits are now the only sales
With many frequenters of Harvard Square moved out or forced to self-quarantine at home, not many customers remain locally. If customers wanted to purchase food in Harvard Square, they may be dissuaded by the chance of contagion while taking public transportation. In a time where dollars are scarce, the price for parking in Harvard Square may prevent even more customers from choosing to self-isolate in their cars. Nhon of Zinneken’s Waffles suggests that the City of Cambridge could help by “allowing free parking in the city in order to allow more people to come for take-out orders.”
Even so, on Monday, March 23, Governor Baker announced a Stay-at-Home advisory, encouraging Massachusetts’ residents not to leave their homes with the exception of essential trips. This will heighten the need for restaurants to collaborate with food-delivery apps. Traditionally, though food-delivery apps may increase the number of orders placed, they take out a percentage of proceeds and have thus been implicated as actually decreasing the profits made by local restaurants. Nhon says, “These companies take between 15-30% of the gross sales.” In response to the virus, however, some of these apps have reduced this percentage, giving restaurant owners something of a lifeline.
Snyder of Saloniki Greek notes, “GrubHub did eliminate their commission, which is fantastic. A really classy thing to do. Caviar is doing a similar thing—it’s not 100% free commission, but it’s severely reduced.” Saloniki is currently “leaning heavily on GrubHub and Caviar” as they reopened for take-out and delivery on Thursday, March 19.
The Snackpass app, though not a delivery service, facilitates undergraduates ordering from restaurants in Harvard Square by making it easier to order on a mobile device; after ordering, all that’s left to do is await the notification announcing that your food is ready. Though most undergraduates have left campus, and thus the Harvard Square location of Saloniki Greek remains closed, Snyder credits Snackpass as being essential to their sales: “Until we were forced to close, Snackpass was about the only thing keeping us alive.”
The Invisible Hand
“You know, [during] 9/11, at least you could hang out at rest stops and bars. That seems easy by comparison. 9/11 was like a bullet to the head, and this is like pancreatic cancer.” Snyder is solemn.
The restaurant industry of Harvard Square had fewer than two weeks to assemble a plan they were not expecting to implement. Even so, the task at hand was immense: to create a business plan for unrecognizable market conditions.
“The trials this situation presents don’t create the normal conditions that would cause a company to struggle,” says Kuelzer of Grendel’s Den. “We are not losing customers to a competitor, we don’t have an undesirable product per se (I’m sure people wish they could go out to eat and drink—they just cannot do so), we don’t have property damage or power loss that would allow us to invoke insurance clauses.”
What instead threatens these restaurants is the unobservable. The anxiety can be traced in reduced take-out orders, in a well-planted fear that exposing ourselves to groceries beyond our own may put us at greater risk of infection. In its aftermath, loyal patrons with lost jobs can no longer afford to support the restaurant where the cashier remembers their lunch order. When the invisible hand creates noisy unrest—packing-tape being abrasively peeled off the roll, shopping carts unsteadily rolling along, nurses picket-lining for protection beyond bandanas—it silences market demand.
In times destabilized by the invisible hand, even if the restaurants stay open to provide jobs, their profits are uncertain. But they provide a sense of purpose, a virtue that has been challenged by the forced self-isolation of the quarantine. Synder of Saloniki Greek emphasizes the importance of creating this purpose and even mentions how they are “giving free meals away to some hospital workers at MGH.”
“The hardest thing about getting to the hospitals now is most of the admin folks are not there,” Snyder tells us. “So, we tried to run over to MGH today, and nobody was there… and none of the nurses could come down, and so we just kind of stood there for 30 minutes in the rain.” They’ll keep trying.
When their profits run empty, their hands still come up full. When the invisible hand forces restaurant food to lose value as a commodity, it resurfaces as sustenance for those on the front lines; on top of restaurants like Saloniki Greek helping to feed health-care workers at MGH, the City of Cambridge is helping put these restaurants back in work through contracts to feed the homeless, as vacancies in the volunteer force of local homeless shelters run high.
Persisting tirelessly, these Harvard Square restaurants endure in a way I struggle to describe as anything other than heroic.
You can help out these restaurants by purchasing gift cards to use for the next time you dine in Harvard Square.
Marissa Garcia ‘21 (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes Forum for the Indy.
Illustration by Natalie Sicher ’21.