By Zoe Allen
Boston University News Service
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the restaurant industry in the Boston area just as it has throughout the United States. Many of the statistics that have emerged from the food industry are bleak, especially for independent restaurants, but some local restaurants have found ways to rebrand, rebuild and reserve.
One of these restaurants is Vincent’s in Cambridge, formerly known as Cafe du Pays. The business converted into a specialty grocery store between May 2020 and May 2021, during which it operated under the name Vincent’s Corner Grocery, selling wine, prepared cafe items and other pantry staples.
“Initially, we thought that we would only be operating as a retail grocery for a few weeks or months, so we treated it more like a pop-up than a rebranding,” co-owner Evan Harrison said. “We adopted the name Vincent’s from a grocery store that had occupied our space at the beginning of the 20th century. After a year or so and a near 100 percent turnover of our staff, we decided we’d just keep the name Vincent’s.”
The store originally switched to a retail model early in the pandemic, Harrison said, because he wasn’t comfortable bringing staff back to work. The new approach permitted him to keep his business afloat with just one of his business partners working with him. He described the experience as “quite different from what we’d done before.”
Emma Leck, the general manager of Picnic and Pantry, echoed Harrison’s thoughts on safety during the height of the pandemic. The grocery store, located in Somerville’s trendy Bow Market, previously operated under the name of In Season Food Market.
“The fact that we weren’t preparing food during the worst of the pandemic made things a lot easier for us,” Leck said. “It eliminated that whole factor of having to get raw ingredients, which for a lot of restaurants was truly difficult. We didn’t have to worry about the health implications of serving food to the public, we were able to just have goods that were prepackaged, ready to go.”
Prior to May 2020, Vincent’s didn’t offer takeout, online ordering or delivery. The store has since switched back to its pre-pandemic model to suit the needs of its customers and community, but has kept practices it implemented during its year of retail.
“The infrastructure of our space is much better suited to the restaurant model, “ Harrison said. “But, pre-pandemic, we didn’t do take out, thus no online ordering, no delivery, we didn’t do lunch or brunch, we didn’t do retail wine, no takeout cocktails, no chef’s dinner and curated beverage subscriptions.”
Vincent’s is now able to offer these new services, in addition to traditional dinners.
“The atmosphere of the restaurant is back to being a really beautiful, cozy neighborhood bistro,” Harrison said, “but with way more moving parts.”
Unlike Vincent’s, Picnic and Pantry has remained retail-oriented. According to Leck, plans to rebrand well before the pandemic were already in place.
“COVID delayed the process a little bit, but the name ‘In Season Food Shop’ was the name born out of the idea of being a little more geared toward seasonal produce and fresh vegetables and fruits,” Leck said. “As the store grew, it became more of a pantry and market and it also became a lot of local dry goods versus just produce. So Picnic and Pantry was born out of that.”
Kiley Richards, who works as Picnic and Pantry’s social media and website manager, said the store’s pandemic model began like that of a pop-up shop, with a focus on supporting small community businesses.
“When COVID first hit, grocery stores were out of pretty much everything and that’s when we were in the middle of our name change,” Richards said. “We would sell things in the courtyard, and as time went on and people felt more comfortable, we started to really focus on having specialty foods that were affordable.”
Over the past year, Picnic and Pantry not only rebranded, but also remodeled its space. A smaller kitchen allows for social distancing and more customer-facing space to display products. Leck said it created a permanent space that “feels safe during COVID.”
Vincent’s and Picnic and Pantry are far from the only restaurants to pivot their operations due to the pandemic. Brookline-based Mei Mei and Somerville’s Tasting Counter have launched virtual dining experiences and classes. Within the last year, Milton-based cafe Steel and Rye opened a full bakery and parking lot patio. Mei Mei’s new slogan, splashed across their website homepage, best sums up the resiliency of these Boston-area restaurants: “Mei Mei isn’t going anywhere—we’re going everywhere.”