What is beyond the pandemic? Mass advance is MassLive’s series examining the journey of Massachusetts businesses beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
On a Wednesday morning in late May, customers periodically walked through the doors of Crust Bakeshop on West Boylston Street in Worcester. They flocked to the new bakery location for late croissants and morning sandwiches.
Foot traffic in Crust’s second location revealed demand in a building that previously housed a Stakbuck’s and a Steam Energy Cafe.
Alexis Kelleher, the owner of Crust Bakeshop, recently sat outside the restaurant in an area where some patrons were sitting with friends and their dogs. It’s a space Kelleher has always envisioned, but something she also categorized more as fantasy than reality. It doesn’t matter whether you perform the feat during a pandemic.
âI can’t believe that with last year we are where we are,â Kelleher said.
In February 2021, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association said about 4,000 businesses in the state had closed their doors permanently due to COVID-19. Worcester County was not immune to iconic establishments like Crown Bakery or Skylite Rolling Skating Center closing their doors for good. But from the crippling pandemic have also emerged companies that have gained a foothold during the chaos and have grown.
Crust Bakeshop is one of a handful of restaurants, including Atlantic Poke, BT’s Smokehouse, and Taqueria Del Pueblo, which not only kept their businesses in their original locations during the pandemic, but also expanded in fall 2020. .
âFor everyone, it was a pivotal year, but for us, it was [really] a landmark year, âsaid Nate Rossi, Kelleher’s business and life partner. “If we ever have a lot to do, we’ll just say you remember 2020?” “
Rather than looking for a second location, an opportunity found Kelleher.
When the space at 1 West Boylston St. opened, the owner assessed Kelleher’s interest before hitting the market in August 2020.
âAs a new mom, in the midst of a pandemic, we were also moving,â Kelleher said. âThere’s that ambitious part of you that’s like, that’s what I’ve always wanted for my business, but also, how are we going to be successful? “
A month later, Crust opened their second location as they moved into a new home.
âThe two of us, I think we like the chaos a little bit,â Kelleher said. “[We thrive in it] the more it gets crazy.
Around the same time, Michael Tomaiolo, founder of Atlantic Poke, planned to expand his restaurant in Shrewsbury.
Unlike Kelleher, Tomaiolo started 2020 with the ambition not only to grow but also to start franchising Atlantic Poke. The pandemic has abruptly interrupted his ambitions.
âWhen COVID hit, like any other business, we felt it pretty good at the start,â Tomaiolo said. “Then from our business model, the way we treat people, our cleanliness with the food, all of that, we were able to get back on the horse and keep going.”
Because Atlantic Poke is based on take-out, Tomaiolo said business stabilized at the end of April. At the end of the summer, Tomaiolo started looking for a second location, which he eventually found at 237 Boston Post Road W. in Marlborough.
âThe stars aligned and we were able to seize the opportunity if we wanted to take our chances,â said Tomaiolo.
The pandemic has hit BT’s Smokehouse differently.
Partners Brian Treitman and Bill Nemeroff already had plans for BT’s fried chicken and barbecue in Worcester. For two years, they have planned to open a space on the corner of Park Avenue and Chandler Street with a scheduled start date of March 2020.
âWhen the pandemic hit, it all stopped,â Treitman said.
But the work continued even if it was sometimes impossible to finish.
Due to social distancing protocols, only one entrepreneur could be in BT’s second restaurant at a time, extending the timeframe for opening from March 2020 to fall.
âI couldn’t get the plumber and electrician in at the same time,â Treitman said. âAnd getting inspections was brutal as well. One of our plumbers is missing. There were all kinds of things that just pushed things back. “
Months after BT opened in Worcester, a car smashed through the front door.
The plywood still covers the damage as the pandemic has made it difficult to obtain windows and doors.
âWe kept gaining a little momentum and then we were shot in the foot,â said Treitman.
When Tomaiolo first entered Atlantic Poke’s second location, it featured subway decor.
Brown faux brick covered the walls behind the counter with light beige walls and brown faux wood along the counter. The color of the tiles, intended to hide dirt, looked dirty even though it had just been cleaned. The lights from the drop-down ceiling provided a dark, damp setting.
“I am not a player, but I bet on myself,” said Tomaiolo.
In two months, the combination of more natural light, sleek modern tables and white tiles on the counter and back wall completely transformed the space, mimicking the pattern he created in Shrewsbury.
The lack of manpower, however, complicated the expansion. Small businesses have faced employees who are reluctant to return to work.
âThere is such a shortage. I have spoken to people on all sides of the political fence, âsaid Tomaiolo. âThey all agree that this unemployment story is killing small businesses. The extra $ 300 is killing businesses big and small. This time around, we had more difficulty hiring.
The $ 300 amount Tomaiolo is referring to is the weekly federal unemployment increase that Massachusetts continues to register for.
Tomaiolo still relies on some of his employees in Shrewsbury to help the Marlborough restaurant run as smoothly as he wants.
Kelleher also thanks her employees for helping her through the pandemic and an expansion.
At the lowest of the pandemic, Crust’s workforce fell to six people. As Massachusetts lifted its COVID restrictions on May 29, Crust now has 21 employees at its two sites.
In a year of turmoil and surprises, including an impromptu decision to expand, the thought of more than tripling its staff during a pandemic puts a smile on Kelleher’s smile.
âOur team is so amazing,â said Kelleher. âThe people we were able to bring on board who are with us last year or many of them are with us even longer. The enthusiasm they had, we all managed to get out of it. It was really huge.