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'I think we'll make it through'

Area restaurants are struggling financially amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, with many laying off employees and maintaining a smaller staff to handle takeout and meal delivery, as well as gift certificates for when the crisis lifts.

On its first day of delivery, Sauce Restaurant in Ashland reported business was “pretty quiet,” but fans of its mostly vegetarian-organic fare may not yet be accustomed to the new crisis regimen, where you can order and pay for delivery or grab-n-go via saucewholefoodcafe.com. It also accepts orders via text and can bring it out to your car.

“It’s definitely quite a few adjustments for everyone,” says Sauce manager Mary Strock, “but it’s best to hold the team together and not cut too many hours. We only laid off a few people. I think we will survive, though our sales are cut in half now. People are attracted to our unique position in the food we offer. I hope they build trust with us in this climate, how we are taking all the precautions we can.”

Customers can’t dine in restaurants anymore, but they need to have confidence that takeout is handled with utmost sanitary care. Strock emphasizes that all kitchen help wear surgical masks and gloves. Everyone entering the door and going to the cash register gets hand sanitizer. All of the employees have their temperatures read when they arrive for work. There’s much wiping with Lysol. All the self-serve items have been pulled.

“I feel really good with the precautions we’re taking,” she says, “and it will be interesting to see where people are at, what the community needs ... it’s a good time to come together and help each other. If there’s any silver lining here, it’s what’s blooming with the sense of community.”

Porter’s, a long-term downtown Medford restaurant, closed and is not doing takeout. It laid off 52 employees and is reassessing its mission, says General Manager Katie Stumpf.

“We don’t have many options, since we’re casual dining,” she says.

Gil’s in Ashland remains open, on an “unnerving test run,” and will only offer takeout of its pub grub, including growler refills.

“We’ve had to shave everyone’s hours,” says Manager Jessica Harnois. “It depends on sales. We might close everything (for the duration), but I think we’ll make it through. It will be quite a blow to everyone. The landlord is supportive. She’s a wonderful lady, and we’ve had her for 10 years.”

Three restaurants owned by Tom Beam — Pie & Vine, Falafel Republic and Sesame Asian Kitchen — are open for takeout and free delivery, including wine. Everyone at Pie & Vine is on reduced hours and six people were laid off, “including us” (the owners), Beam adds.

The less visible impact, he says, is on contractual partners, such as vendors, landscapers, window cleaners, bakeries, advertising sales people, on and on.

“All nonessential services have been canceled,” he says.

On the question of survival, Beam says, “My family will be safe. People come first, the ones who have to work.”

Acknowledging the city’s pullback on utility payments and fines, he adds, “Still, we need the city to put out a statement and step up. They can do a lot for business by coming up with creative ways to alleviate expenses. We haven’t seen that yet.

“We’re not going to have a summer, and there’s no way we make it through next winter, as we need to recover and recoup — and God forbid we have another smoke season.”

Assistant City Administrator Adam Hanks said the city is lining up all the pipelines and working with our state legislators and the governor’s office so that when new coronavirus-related aid programs — hopefully new and not just the familiar SBA disaster loans — come online, the city will be primed to plug in.

Hanks, who has worked for the city 28 years, says, “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened here, much more significant than the ’97 flood and likely more longterm in recovery.”

Beam adds, “There is some beauty in the struggle, that it takes something like this to bring us together as a country. I’m hopeful that this gets used as a bridge in a lot of arenas, not just politics. The most important thing is, if we’re going to go through this crisis, this is the place I want to go through it. So thankful to live here.”

Photo by Denise BarattaMary Strock of Sauce Restaurant in Ashland delivers a curbside takeout order.