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Boston Tavern Pivots To 'Plan B' To Try To Survive The Pandemic


Bars and restaurants are among the most challenging businesses to operate during the pandemic. One place called Cornwall's has been a mainstay in Boston's Kenmore Square for nearly four decades. Now with nearby colleges shut and Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, closed to fans, NPR's Tovia Smith reports the first in a series of stories about the English-style pub, which plans to reopen tomorrow with a new operating plan.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's something Pam and John Beale have counted on every year. Mid-March means their place will be packed with people who want to party.

PAM BEALE: St. Patrick's Day is like Christmas. The room is decorated - all the corned beef and cabbage, soda bread, all the different beers. And people would start at lunchtime.

SMITH: Except this year when Massachusetts ordered restaurants closed by the night before. Pam and John raced around, ripping down the Guinness shamrocks and packing up their perishables.

P BEALE: It was gut-wrenching. It really was.

SMITH: They locked their doors for what they thought would be three weeks but turned out to be three months.

BILLY MORAN: Can't even remember which key it is.

SMITH: Pam and John's two nephews, J.R. and Billy Moran, run Cornwall's with them.

B MORAN: Here we go.

SMITH: They've come in to get rid of food gone bad, equipment that lay idle for too long and beer that's lost its fizz.


JR MORAN: How are you?

GIBSON: Good. How are you doing?

SMITH: Vinny Gibson, their beer distributor who's been getting them kegs for more than a decade, is now here to take them back.

GIBSON: So basically, you're getting credit for - anything untapped is full credit.


GIBSON: Anything partial we just weigh it.


GIBSON: So we're taking - we take everything back.

SMITH: It's a generous gesture in an industry where everyone's hurting. But the big question is whether their landlord will be as forgiving. The neighborhood's dotted with places that have already succumbed. Even the owner of a hugely successful place across the street says he may have to close because his landlord's playing hardball. So far, Cornwall's landlord has been willing to cut them some slack, but Billy says they don't know if it'll be enough.

B MORAN: You know, this is a real test for any relationship. And that makes me nervous 'cause the opportunity for us to really do well probably won't come until next spring.

SMITH: That's when they count on crowds from the Boston Marathon and then Cornwall's mainstays, Red Sox games at nearby Fenway and graduations at Boston University.

B MORAN: Those are - I don't know what you want to call them - two legs of the bar stool that are totally gone.

P BEALE: Yep. It's very, very hard, very nerve-wracking.

SMITH: Especially when the stakes are not just their livelihood but literally life and death. While Massachusetts now has one of the nation's lowest COVID transmission rates, it was a hot spot just a few months ago. And Pam says a second spike is always a fear. It's why she didn't just fling the doors open the first day possible like many others. She gave up a month of business as they studied protocols and took extra precautions like adding new HVAC filters.

P BEALE: Look. The most important thing is everybody's health and safety, first and foremost, and you never can lose sight of that. That's why, like, when I see other people opening up - not for me to judge - but I think, take a step back and do it right.

B MORAN: All right, Lee. So here's what we're thinking.

SMITH: Finally gearing up to go, Billy gets a contractor to revamp Cornwall's coppertop bar.

B MORAN: So we're going to pull this off for the short term.

LEE: Yep.

B MORAN: We're going to put an espresso machine here.

LEE: Yep.

SMITH: Because bars can't open at night, Cornwall's is adding breakfast in the mornings. They've revamped their menus, added outdoor seating in the front, set up online ordering and delivery and they've been learning the art of iced lattes.

DEREK: I'm Derek from Speedwell Coffee. So we're going to just do a quick introductory course on pulling shots of espresso, steaming milk...

SMITH: A skeletal staff is in for barista training.

DEREK: When we're making a drink, we're going to push up. Make sure they're not pointing at you 'cause you'll definitely soak your shorts or pants.

SMITH: After decades in the restaurant business, John laughs, even he's a rookie again.

JOHN BEALE: (Laughter) It's the truth - back to basics. I mean, you have to reinvent yourself.

P BEALE: I mean, it's almost like starting in business all over again.

SMITH: Cornwall's is still waiting to hear if it'll get government PPP assistance. Pam, who's 64, says she loses sleep worrying that people are still too skittish to eat out and about grim predictions that more than a quarter of restaurants will fail.

P BEALE: It's not going to be pretty. It's not. But it's not about making money now. It's about surviving now.

B MORAN: Yeah. So we have 10 feet out by 20 feet long.

P BEALE: Yeah. So I think maybe put it this way so that they're 6 feet between.

SMITH: With their outdoor seating finally in place, as well as the Purell stations and social distancing signs, Pam says they're all-in on reopening, both financially and emotionally.

P BEALE: This is our baby. Yep. It's what we created together, you know? It really is.

SMITH: And like every baby does, Cornwall's will continue to grow and change, says John, and cause headaches. But at 77, John says, he, too, would be lost without it.

J BEALE: What Cornwall's does now is it keeps me alive. At the end of the day, you can say we accomplished a lot. You know, there's no more fulfilling thing than that.

SMITH: Looking out at the empty tables and mahogany benches, Billy flips on some music, giving Cornwall's one more sign of life and a hint of that old bustling barroom that he misses.

B MORAN: When it's busy and there's music on and people are interacting, having a good time, it gives me sort of a rush.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Everything's going to be all right. Everything's going to be all right.

SMITH: It takes a minute for Billy to realize what song he happened to tune into.

B MORAN: It's too funny that it was that song. Hopefully it's a sign, and everything's going to be all right for many years to come.

P BEALE: Knock on wood, you know, it should happen that way, you know?

SMITH: Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

[Editor's note: Since this story aired, Vinny Gibson has told us he was wrong about his company's return policy. They were not offering partial credit for partially used kegs, as he stated in our story.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.