Few people have been looking forward to colleges reopening – and staying open — this fall, as much as the people who run Cornwall's Tavern in Boston's Kenmore Square. A go-to for students and faculty at Boston University, the family-owned pub has been counting on the back-to-school crowds to help it survive. In an industry hard-hit by the pandemic, it's a test Cornwall's can't afford to fail.
"It's a frightening time," said Pam Beale, who owns the place with her husband John. "It feels like the earth is moving under your feel all the time."
After forty years in business, and four months shut down by the pandemic, Cornwall's reopened in July with a lot to learn. Even as they opened the doors that day, they were still scrambling to work out the kinks in their new takeout and delivery service, set up their new outdoor dining space, implement new safety protocols and master the new breakfast menu they added because new COVID-19 rules put the kibosh on crowded bars running late into the night — the core of Cornwall's business.
The Beales were running around looking for the umbrellas for their sidewalk seating, and printing out new disposable menus. Their nephews JR and Billy Moran, who work in the kitchen and behind the bar, respectively, and Billy's wife Lauren who was helping out, were still working out everything from how to fold a breakfast burrito without breaking it, to how to post on the Instagram account they'd just set up.
They snapped pictures of themselves smiling under their masks in front of their signature copper-top bar, and another one showcasing their new breakfast special: crispy tater tots with avocado, bacon, a fried egg and spicy mayo. It was the first time ever that this long-time institution had to think about marketing. Even figuring out how much food to order is a challenge these days, when nothing is predictable.
"If you see one of us frantically run out the door," cracked Billy, "we're going to buy some milk because we've run out."
At 8 a.m. sharp, one of their regulars, Chris Strang strolled in, and Pam greeted him with a socially-distanced kind of air hug, and reminded him of the new normal.
"No seats at the bar, so you can't sit here and chat with Billy," she said. "You have to sit over there and talk louder." Billy pulled the first cup of coffee from the new espresso machine they recently installed at the bar, and served a hot cup to Strang.
As it turned out, they'd have plenty of time to catch up. Strang would be not only Cornwall's first customer, but also its only customer for nearly two hours. The usually bustling Kenmore Square was drained of virtually any sign of life; no commuters, no students, no hotel guests, and no baseball fans headed to nearby Fenway Park.
"You've got to have patience, that's for sure," sighed Miz Martinez, Cornwall's lone server, who spent long stretches looking forlornly out the window at the empty streets. "We all knew this wasn't going to be a huge crush right when we opened the doors."
Making things even more challenging, a massive construction project was underway outside, and Cornwall's was one of just two open businesses on the block. But there were lots of construction workers out there, and Lauren saw a marketing opportunity. She grabbed a handful of their new breakfast menus and headed out the door.
"We just opened for breakfast," she saed, "and I was wondering if you guys want a cup of coffee on the house?" Several guys took her up on the offer, as several more started to follow.
Meantime, back at Cornwall's, a family of four finally showed up. They were staying at the hotel across the street that had also just reopened. And they were hungry.
Gushing over the menu, they proclaimed, "We want everything! One of each!"
In the kitchen, as a printer spat out their order, Lauren did a little happy dance, as JR kicked into gear, firing up their breakfast tots and frying eggs, delighted to finally be busy again with the job he hadn't been able to do for far too long.
"You take that away, and I'm kind of lost," he said. "I didn't know what to do with myself."
But the celebration was also tempered by a tinge of sadness.
The hotel where the family was staying has its own restaurant, which has been unable to reopen because of a landlord dispute. And that restaurant is owned by a good friend of theirs.
"It's great that we have people coming in, and it's exciting for us," said Billy. "But at the same time its bittersweet, because we know there's collateral damage."
For another hour or so, a few more customers stopped by. By the end of Cornwall's first breakfast shift, they would serve a grand total of six meals.
"Not setting world on fire," Billy shrugged, "but it will get better. It's just a question of whether colleges come back or not."
All summer that's been an open — and anxiety-inducing — question. At BU, faculty held protests demanding that students be kept away.
"I don't disagree with them," Pam said. "But I also feel like if we're stuck like this for a pretty long time, we can't be in suspended animation for years. And life has to go on on some level. We have to find a way to live."
Adding to their worry, and weighing on everyone as a kind of cautionary tale, was the fate of their friend's shuttered restaurants across the street.
"I was just looking over there for signs of life over there. And there's nothing," said Strang.
"Just heartbreaking," sighed Pam.
The owner, Garrett Harker, one of Boston's preeminent restaurateurs, made a point of stopping by Cornwall's on their opening day, to congratulate everyone. But he brought only grim news of his own.
"I can't imagine Eastern Standard or Island Creek not being in my life," he said, referring to two of his restaurants that have yet to reopen. "Emotionally, it's really hard to think about."
But Harker said his landlord is playing hardball, and negotiations are going nowhere.
"Basically we've said 'Here's our books. Let's open them up to you and let's figure out something good for both of us,'" he explained. "I didn't go to business school ... but that's got to be the handbook right now. We have to long-term rely on each other, all the vested partners, to come out of this."
So far Cornwall's is having better luck with the people it does business with. The day the restaurant opened, Billy huddled over the bar with one of his beer reps, going over past-due invoices. It took them just a minute to hammer out a repayment plan.
"We'll start next week, Billy offered. "We just want to start to get a little bit of a cash flow."
Kevin Leddy, area sales manager for Craft Brewers Guild, is more than willing to cut customers some slack. In this industry, everyone's success is tied to everyone else, he says.
"If they're not open, I don't have a job, and my guys don't have jobs. We need them as much as they need us," Leddy said, before avowing, "we probably need them more."
The bigger question looming was whether Cornwall's landlord would be as accommodating. They'd been very friendly so far, and they said they want to have a meeting about the past-due rent. But so far, they hadn't set it up, and so far, Pam wasn't exactly chasing them to nail down a date.
"We don't know what they're thinking," she said. "All of it hangs over my head. I don't sleep well anymore."
The longer she waits, she figured, the better news she might have to report. Indeed, even after their slow start at breakfast on opening day, happy hour turned out to be markedly happier.
Regulars streamed in with squeals and excited greetings, catching up and comparing notes on how everyone had been managing for the past four months.
It felt like a family reunion.
At one table, Chris Strang, who's back for dinner, clinked glasses with another regular, Curt Hall.
"It's been too long," said Hall.
"This is where we were on March 16th," recalled Strang.
"And probably the 15th, and the 14th , and possibly the 13th," said Hall, only half-joking.
"It's cute. We have our neighborhood regulars, and what we call irregulars," added Pam, as she and John made their way around Cornwall's cozy English-style tavern, schmoozing with all of them.
Kathy Conley, 56, who's been coming since she was in college, recalled how her grandmother used to call Cornwall's looking for her when she was out too late.
A 20-something grad student told Billy she and her friends biked across town as soon as they heard Cornwall's had reopened.
"Wow!" replied Billy. "We're feeling the love right now."
Cornwall's energy and bustle builds, and like family, everyone seemed to be picking up right where they left off. Strang teased 77-year-old John, the restaurant's original founder, asking how his experience during this pandemic is different from the last one in 1918. Laughter filled the room, and Pam's heart.
"I can't even put it into words how much it lifts me up," she said. "Cornwall's isn't just our livelihood. It's our life. It means the world."
In the livelihood department, however, the day didn't do much for the bottom line. All the opening excitement would add up to just about a third of a normal pre-pandemic day. And it was nowhere near the 150 dinners they'd be cranking out on nights when the Red Sox play up the street at Fenway Park. The team's opening game drew in a decent crowd to watch the game on TV, since fans aren't allowed in the stadium. But since then, game nights have been a bust.
On one evening, when the Sox were at home playing the Yankees, just two parties were seated in the restaurant, and neither was there for baseball.
"I honestly didn't realize it was a game day," said Justin Wright, who was eating out on Cornwall's front sidewalk, where you can usually hear the roar of the Fenway faithful from inside the ballpark.
"It's way too quiet to be a game day," saed Terrell Blackmon. "It's weird, for sure!"
"It's just a desert," said John, shaking his head.
"Like nothing we've ever seen," added Pam.
Part of the challenge was a lingering reluctance among many to venture out. Even though Massachusetts' COVID case numbers are among the best in the nation, some would-be diners remain skittish, especially as so many other states are dealing with outbreaks.
"I watch the news and I freak out, like 'Oh God, why am I doing this?'" said one customer still trying to get comfortable with the idea. Another regular who came out on opening day to show her support, said she wouldn't really be a regular again for a while.
"This is a one-off for us," she said. "It's not something I expect to do regularly at all."
But the pandemic has left others doubling down, including Nelson Feliciano, who works just across the river as an assistant director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a last-minute decision has most students learning remotely. But Feliciano wanted to make sure that whenever students do come back, a vibrant city life will still be there for them.
"I feel somewhat responsible," he grinned, working his way through an order of chicken tenders and a beer. "This is my portion to make sure some of our local spots don't fall away, and hopefully it makes a difference. We have to make sure we all do our little part."
By the time the end of summer rolls around, Cornwall's was drawing a somewhat steady business, but still just barely covering its costs. The bump from the pub's opening day fizzled out fast. And BU's back-to-school had so far been a bust. Cornwall's saw a little extra business from parents who were in town to drop off their students, but the students had so far not begun to stream in themselves. It was still not enough for anyone in the family to draw a paycheck.
"BU is still the big thing for us. It's really dependent on that as to whether we do well, or whether we just sort of hang on by thread."
"It's a crap shoot. It's a real toss up," said Pam. "But you have to decide if you're in or out. That's the reality of it. We're committed to this space and we're going to do whatever it takes to make this work no matter what it means."
When they opened their doors in July, she says, no one had any delusions it would be easy. The goal was always just to work out their new normal and get in a groove so they'd be ready to catch the wave when the city comes back to life.
"It will eventually," said JR, wolfing down a burger at the end of a long day. "It's just a matter of lasting that long, and being there when it does. That's the key."
Meantime, they hoped their landlord noticed their commitment, and that it weighed in Cornwall's favor. At the end of August, Pam finally spoke to the landlord about it. Sort of.
"He stopped in for coffee, and I said you know, I'm not ignoring you," she said with a simper.
He asked Pam to keep collecting numbers tracking their business, so they can discuss it after Labor Day.
"It's nerve wracking," she said. "But you have the sense that if you just work hard, and you keep treading water, and you can still see the horizon and breathe, then you're going to survive this."
It may be too late for their friend across the street. One of his former bartenders, John Rodriquez, stopped by and told Billy he and other staff have been told to look for other work. Billy offered to connect him to a restaurant that's hiring. Much as he'd love the extra help, so far, Cornwall's is not.
Then, after a hard, 15-hour day at Cornwall's, Billy poured himself a Guinness, and let out a sigh.
"I'm going to sleep good tonight," he said. "But not for long. I'm coming back to do it all again tomorrow. And hopefully the day after that and many days after all of those."
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