Chris Perry Column: Can I Get A Table For Four?

Chris Perry •

It’s an annual problem that has been getting worse.

However, it can be solved with a dash of common sense, a sprinkle of patience, and a cup of good old-fashioned peer pressure.

And if corrected, it will signal a commitment to the island by a new network of restaurant owners that will undoubtedly come back to them in spades.

The issue is how can we as a community help keep more restaurants open during the offseason. But before we wrestle with that question, it is imperative that we acknowledge and thank those restaurant owners who now make a commitment to staying open. Your fellow islanders, neighbors, and friends greatly appreciate it.

Secondly, I want to be clear that the solution to this problem is not forcing a restaurant to stay open during the winter. But considering Nantucket’s unique circumstances, I do believe there is an unwritten code of responsibility to the local community that permeates several island industries and one of them is the restaurant business.

Island restaurants are part of the fabric of the community. Having said that, I understand that there are many establishments that simply cannot stay open year-round. Whether it is the lack of heat or an isolated location, you and the local licensing boards knew that going in and your business model reflected that seasonal approach.

But for a number of restaurants that presented a business model that showed some sort of year-round commitment to the community but are now asking to shutter for an extended period(s) of time, the local community deserves better. This trend is creating a growing gap between those restaurants that do commit to the off-season community and those that don’t. Ultimately, this shift is exacerbating the dining void that presently exists on Nantucket.

Again, I am not advocating that the Town of Nantucket “force” restaurants to stay open, but calmer heads must prevail here because idealistically there is more to this than just the bottom line.

When Patrick Ridge, owner of Island Kitchen, says, “I want to stay open year-round. Last week, I was cooking in the kitchen and we did 120 lunches one day and there was a ‘specialness’ to the fact that I knew just about everyone who came through our door” - I believe him.

Island Kitchen Owner Patrick Ridge
Island Kitchen Owner Patrick Ridge

When Tom Fusaro, owner of Fusaro’s, says, “It’s tough. We just try and break even during the winter months, but I feel I have an obligation to my employees, my customers, the community, and to the Fusaro family to stay open year-round” - I believe him.

Patrick and Tom are not alone. They were quick to point out a handful of other restaurant owners who have historically tried to stay open during the winter months by exhibiting the same attitude and approach toward the local community. Unfortunately, that sentiment is becoming less and less popular around the island.

When it comes to local restaurants staying open during the offseason, we are all familiar with issues such as staffing, housing, the negative effects of COVID-19, M.G.L. 138, Nantucket’s off-season audience, the variety of licensing categories, and even the issue surrounding the number of illegal kitchens serving meals to the island’s workforce. Most people are sympathetic; and on the surface, all of that and then some have contributed to making it appear that it is economically unfeasible to stay open.

But, I sense the Nantucket community is confused and hungry too. All we really want are a few additional dining options. So, how can we cut through the gristle and get to the meat so we can secure a four-top for dinner during the winter?

Select Board Meeting: Attend the upcoming Select Board meeting when it takes up licensing matters. Amy Baxter is the town’s licensing administrator and she will be front and center via Zoom as she presents a growing list of restaurants that are requesting permission to close for an extended period.

Over time, the potential of a mass migration of restaurants moving from annual to seasonal is real and it will only add to the number already closed. Baxter’s department has been sympathetic to the financial struggles of restaurants especially after Covid. In fact, since adopting a new fee schedule in 2019, the Select Board with Baxter’s blessing has not fined anyone who has exceeded the closure ceiling for annual license holders. To date, this appears to be a wise move since the ceremonial “fine” is nominal; and if levied, it could send a signal that some restaurants are part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

The Nantucket Restaurant Association: This association needs to re-energize. The once influential Restaurant Association has faded away quicker than fond memories from the Mad Hatter, Ropewalk, and Vincent’s. Sadly, that is a statement about the rapidly changing faces of local restaurant ownership today as it is about the inability of these entrepreneurs to see the benefits of working together as a single, powerful voice to solve local restaurant issues such as off-season schedules and closures.

Literally and figuratively, the loss of island restaurant giants such as the Diamonds, Larry Wheldon, the Raynors, the O’Connors, Phil Read, the Janelles, Robin Harvey, Doug Wolf, and many others - all of whom wielded a great amount of well-earned respect and influence throughout the community - has left a huge hole in the Association that has yet to be filled.

Peter Burke and Nantucket’s Chamber of Commerce: Burke is the ideal candidate with muscle, clout, and experience to host / moderate / facilitate a community-wide meeting of the critical players including restaurant owners, Health Dept., licensing, Select Board, etc.

Certainly, the Chamber has the foresight to see how this island problem is also their problem. Moreover, regularly bubbling up to the surface is criticism by some in the community of the Chamber’s “over marketing” of Nantucket by the present administration. With island restaurateur rockstar, Patrick Ridge, as the President of the Chamber, what better time than now to silence those critics and help the entire local community by brokering a deal that addresses the need for additional year-round dining options instead of focusing their mission solely on their membership.

There is momentum out there to continue this conversation. In fact, the topic came up during the meet and greet session last Friday with the new chief of police, Jody Kasper. Tomorrow’s Select Board meeting is an opportunity for the offseason community to familiarize themselves with the issues knowing the ultimate goal is to have more dining options available next winter.

We all own a slice of the blame pie if something does not improve. Despite the mischaracterization of the frugal spending habits associated with the island’s offseason diners, Nantucket does have a history of supporting restaurants during the winter months especially those with realistically priced menus that reflect the offseason demographics and not Wine Festival or Race Week in August.

Ultimately, it’s up to the restaurant owners. And thankfully, a handful have braved Nantucket’s cold temperatures and rising prices associated with staffing and housing plus the cost of butter doubling in three years, olive oil up 25% in one year, and meat products up 15% in six months to fulfill a commitment greater than the bottom line.

“I was up at 6 a.m. last week cooking breakfast because a couple of my staff members were on vacation”, said Patrick from Island Kitchen.

“You just have to do what you have to do to make it work because it can. I do not want to charge high prices and frankly, it’s almost unfair but we have no choice. Nantucket is an expensive place to do business, but I am committed to staying open through the winter”, said the owner who holds seven different permits to keep his restaurant open.

“It’s like 10 people fishing off the same dock trying to catch one fish. It’s a challenge staying open during the winter, but I am committed”, said Tom Fusaro who originally opened his restaurant on Daffodil Weekend in 2011.

“Maybe I am just too dumb to close during the winter, but I feel a sense of loyalty to my employees, my customers, and to the community”, continued Tom, whose business card picturing his mother, Jean, on the back side has got to be the best on-island.

Fusaro continued, “At least once a night during the offseason, a customer says, ‘Thank you for staying open’ and that means a lot to me."

How can you argue with that?

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