Former North End restaurateur Jose Duarte envisions a future beyond the city
Then everything changed.
“In mid-February, we started hearing about COVID. We have heard of cases and the possibility of it becoming a pandemic. We had booked a good number of team building cooking classes and business meetings for Taranta, but even before the state forced the shutdown we started to feel the business backsliding ” , he recalls.
Cancellations have poured in – mostly from pharmaceutical companies and business travelers. It was a bad omen.
“I started to get an idea of what it would be like. In the North End, Taranta was 100% dependent on tourism, corporate clients, concerts, sporting events, general tourism, all conferences, the seafood fair. We had a schedule with sources of income. guarantees, ”he said. “We trust that. I had a feeling this was going to be a problem.
All the while, he was preparing to open Tambo 22 and pass papers to take full ownership of Trattoria San Pietro.
Fearing the worst, Duarte says he approached his North End landlord to warn him of the business drying up and to negotiate a rent deal. He knew he couldn’t rely on take-out to make his margins.
“We have never been a take-out business. There are so many restaurants here that sell the same thing; there’s no way you can serve 30 salmon to go when you don’t have the business, ”he says.
As March and April dragged on, he struggled with paperwork for various loans as guidelines quickly changed. In the end, he decided to reopen Taranta for take out, despite his instincts. As expected, business has slowed down.
“And that’s when human creativity took place. We had to adapt. It didn’t work. People weren’t buying anything. So I said, ‘Let’s do something that they don’t have here.’ “
That’s how Duarte turned his Italian-Peruvian restaurant into a taqueria in a matter of weeks, hoping to carve out a niche in a neighborhood known for pasta and not Mexican food. He named the pop-up La Reina.
“We started selling $ 3 tacos and got busy, but one Saturday we worked three times more than we normally would in a restaurant and served a quarter of the customers,” he says. “We rented the whole building and used 10% of the space to produce burritos and tacos. It didn’t justify it. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that you can’t afford to pay $ 13,000 a month in rent when you earn $ 1,000 on a night of sales.
He continued to try to negotiate with his owner, he says, to no avail. He also tried to apply for business interruption insurance, which was unsuccessful.
“I was about to pull the trigger on the restaurant. I saw my bank account turn red and I couldn’t put any money into the business. I couldn’t even seek legal advice because I couldn’t afford it. What were my rights? he says.
Ultimately, he turned to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office for help, and he was referred to Lawyers for Civil Rights for advice. He was referred to Ropes & Gray for pro bono assistance. He told his landlord he could pay a percentage of the rent, that he planned to hibernate, and that he would leave permanently if a new tenant moved in. Eventually, at a stalemate, Duarte decided to shut down his 20-year-old restaurant for good in August. Without business travel and corporate events, he could not continue.
In the meantime, Duarte was able to place some of his Taranta employees at Tambo 22, which opened in February 2020. Patio seating throughout the summer kept it afloat, but it had to shut down its doors for 12 days when an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Business fell again when the cold weather struck.
“As soon as the weather changed, the numbers changed,” he says.
A grant of approximately $ 10,000 from the City of Chelsea covered basic expenses, such as electricity, during hibernation. It reopened briefly for Valentine’s Day to maintain its momentum and continues to cook free meals in its kitchen for public school students through the volunteer organization Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.
He will reopen Tambo 22 to the public on April Fool’s Day, a date that is not lost on him.
“We can make a lot of jokes,” he says. “We’ve lost our momentum, but I have no doubt in my mind that we can come back. We have low rents, there aren’t many restaurants around, we are small, unique, and we had already had a few followers.
Duarte lives in Chelsea and sees the city as a solid investment in restoration. The pre-pandemic way of thinking – Boston or bust – is no longer applicable.
“Location, location, location don’t work anymore,” he says, especially if business travel continues to stagnate.
In the suburb of Norwell, things are more stable. His wife has been with San Pietro for many years. The couple adopted papers for full ownership in March 2020 – unfortunate timing, but the restaurant continued to make take out and terraces during the pandemic.
“We have a great owner. He asked, “What do you need? I am ready to help you. Whatever you need, let me know, ”says Duarte.
Overall, however, 2020 had a negative impact on Duarte’s health. He gained weight, he says, with the gyms closed. He was constantly stressed. He felt out of his league: finding radiators, installing plexiglass barriers, keeping up to date with health instructions. The only silver lining was to spend more time with her children. But now, a year from now, he looks forward to a calmer future.
“Travel has always been a great motivation for me, to learn, explore, relax and calm my mind. Once the trip returns, it will definitely be something to help me get back on track, ”he says.
The following ? Perhaps culinary adventure trips to Italy. Closer to home, he is excited to return to the gym and travel more. And, yes, I hope to launch a new version of his beloved Taranta.
“I want to continue the legacy. We have created so many memorable moments here; we have done so many events. He has to continue somehow. When we closed, I was with one of my workers who started with me in 2000, until the last day. He basically said, “What now? I said, ‘We’ll come back to that. We will look for a new location and reopen.