HAVERHILL — As restaurants in the city switch to takeout-only in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, operating with fewer staffers and a fraction of normal revenues, measures are underway locally ensure the businesses will be healthy once the threat is over.
The city will increase temporary downtown parking for takeout service, the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce is starting a matching gift certificate campaign and local legislators are considering allowing the sale of alcohol with takeout.
"We're sadly going to lose some of our restaurants ― there's no way around it ― but we're going to do everything we can to assist," Mayor James Fiorentini said. "Even worse off are the employees of these restaurants, bars, fast food establishments, doughnut shops ... many are working for tips, and others, like cooks and dishwashers, are living on minimum wage, which is sometimes low, particularly in the fast-food industry."
Having grown up in the restaurant business, Fiorentini knows that many in the restaurant industry do not have the cash reserve to weather this storm.
Jason Petrou, a chamber board member whose family runs Krueger Flatbread and Olivia's Restaurant on Essex Street, said he's been in touch with state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, as well as state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill and Chamber President and CEO Dougan Sherwood to discuss what resources are available to help Haverhill's restaurants survive.
"We continue to discuss immediate options such as deferring restaurant utility bills," he said.
Petrou held a meeting of restaurant owners and says the current state of Haverhill's restaurant business is "panic."
"We just don't know what the future holds for our businesses and our employees," he said.
Petrou estimates there are hundreds of "front of the house" workers in Haverhill who have been let go.
"We're not generating enough revenue and you can only last so long before operating funds go dry," he said. "We don't need bartenders as we can't serve liquor, which is where most of our income comes from, while waitstaff are also affected as the rely heavily on tips as do bus staff, who also receive tips in addition to their pay."
He said that as restaurants cut their payroll, the best course of action is for affected workers to apply for unemployment.
"We are starting delivery this week while many others are already doing it," he said. "It's also a way to give our employees more hours."
Fiorentini said he contacted downtown restaurants on Wednesday and was told they have lost 80 to 90% of their business since the governor's order went into effect.
"We do not have a lot of tools to offer them, but we are going to be putting up some free, 10-minute takeout spaces for their customers," he said. "We all wish there was more that we could do."
He said the city ordered 25 signs that will arrive early next week. The signs will note 10-minute parking only in front of each restaurant, with three designated spaces per restaurant (except when shared).
"We will make sure the rule is enforced," the mayor said, noting it will apply to restaurants throughout the downtown.
"We won't be enforcing the current parking rules for the 10 minutes it takes to run in and get your order," he said.
Meanwhile, the Greater Haverhill Chamber announced the creation of a GoFundMe account to support Haverhill's restaurant community.
Sherwood said this is an experiment intended to help them survive.
"The response so far has been incredibly encouraging," he said.
With support from its board of directors, the chamber kicked off the campaign on Wednesday morning with a $2,500 donation and is reaching out to the community to help reach the goal of raising $10,000 or more.
All proceeds will go to the city's restaurants.
Mention this program before purchasing a gift card and the chamber will match the amount up to $50 (limit one per household at this time). So if you purchase a $50 gift card, the restaurant will hand you a $100 gift card then will be reimbursed through the fund, Sherwood said.
For a link to the restaurants that are members of the Greater Haverhill Chamber (the chamber will honor this for any restaurant in Haverhill and any chamber member restaurant outside of Haverhill), visit haverhillma.chambermaster.com/list/ql/restaurants-food-beverages-22.
Sherwood said he's shared this program with other chambers in the area.
Petrou said the response to the chamber's gift card program has been "phenomenal."
"I imagine every restaurant is selling more gift cards, which will at least provide some immediate cash flow that will help at this point in time," he said.
He said the mayor's 10 minute parking plan should also help.
Sherwood thinks allowing the sale of alcohol with takeout would help as well.
St. Patrick's Day, which was Tuesday, was a bust for Haverhill restaurants that are usually packed with patrons, Petrou said.
"My cousin's restaurant, Butch's Uptown, had a corned beef and cabbage special to go, while we did a corned beef pizza to go special, which our customers really liked," he said.