September 9, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer (courtesy photos)
HIngham resident Christine Leone -- longtime owner of the popular Bean & Leaf Cafe in the downtown Boston financial district -- knows firsthand about the impacts of COVID-19 on local businesses, including her own, but she remains hopeful that her slowly-recovering but still struggling restaurant will continue serving loyal and new customers for years to come.
March 17 -- the day Gov. Charlie Baker ordered restaurants to close -- was a sad day for Leone and her staff. While the cafe is primarily takeout and could have reopened when state guidelines allowed restaurants to do so shortly thereafter for takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery only, "the streets around Bean & Leaf were eerily empty during April and May -- so it wouldn't have made sense to reopen," Leone said.
That was because her loyal customers working in the financial field -- including a following of Hingham residents -- started working from home and tourism was relatively non-existent.
Leone continued to have a presence at her restaurant in the weeks and months to come, painting and refreshing the inside -- with the help of some of her employees -- and watching for signs of more people returning to the city.
When Leone reopened Bean & Leaf in June, business was slow but she wanted to let people know she was back. "I had to start somewhere," she said. Then business started to pick up in July as some people returned to their nearby offices "and people started to feel safer coming into the city," Leone said. "August is usually slow, but business wasn't as bad as usual, and hopefully people [who have frequented Bean & Leaf in the past] who have been vacationing on the Cape will return to the area and will come back to the restaurant. Hopefully September will be better."
Bean & Leaf, which remains a mostly-takeout business, with a few socially-distanced seats inside and some tables outside, is open Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., serving breakfast and lunch. "Everything is homemade from fresh ingredients every day," Leone said.
For those living in the Hingham area who haven't been able to stop by the Bean & Leaf recently, there's good news. "Anyone wishing to check out our online menu and place an order can call the restaurant before 1:30 p.m. for a delivery later that day," Leone said. The number to call is (617) 261-4727.
"I've already delivered lunches to some Hingham residents when they asked me to, and we can provide whatever's on the menu that day," Leone said.
It's the special touches like getting to know the customers that make the difference. "I have wonderful employees who go above and beyond to make our customers feel welcome," Leone said. "With some of our regulars, we know what they are going to order before they come through the door, and when they walk inside, we already have their coffee and sandwich ready."
When Baker ordered restaurants to shut down March 17, customers who heard the news that morning left generous tips, realizing the tough times to come.
Leone feels fortunate because she was able to secure a CARES small business grant and a Paycheck Protection Program loan, "but these run out, and it becomes even more real to have to make a certain amount of money to be able to pay your employees," she said.
The biggest challenge, she said, is people worrying about whether there will be a need to close restaurants down again in the fall. "I'm trying not to think about that. Some of us can't survive another shutdown. It's difficult living with the uncertainty of not knowing," Leone said. "This has been my life for 18 years, and this is what I do. It's not as though the restaurant business is booming and I could get another job easily."
What she misses the most from the pre-COVID days is the employees who she couldn't bring back, the customers who haven't yet returned, people walking around the city, and the crowds. "It still feels like a ghost town at times. It's a strange feeling," she said.
While business is only at about 30 to 40 percent of what it was before the pandemic, "it was only at about 5 percent in June," so Leone is maintaining a positive outlook. The fact that everyone wears masks in Boston both inside and outside makes people feel safer being there, she said.
As people slowly start returning to work in the financial district, loyal customers are returning to Bean & Leaf. "We've been fortunate. We have wonderful customers -- many of whom come here every day, knowing how hard it is for small businesses to stay afloat -- along with new ones." Leone appreciates every customer who walks through the door.
Because so many restaurants in the area have permanently shut down, businesspeople who normally stop by their favorite closest restaurant to grab a quick lunch during their busy days are now having to walk farther to find one that is open.
As a result, new people have discovered Bean & Leaf -- which is on a side street. "It's crazy and sad how many restaurants have shut down," Leone said.
Many tasty menu offerings
Customer favorites include both the turkey and the buffalo chicken chili, soups, six different kinds of chicken salad -- from Southwest to chicken avocado -- and hot specials that include from time to time, jambalaya, herb chicken with mushroom sauce, and sesame chicken. "Our customers really like chicken!"
Sandwiches range from roast beef and boursin and smoked ham and cheese to prosciutto and brie, tuna melts, and BLT's.
Breakfast customers have a variety of coffee, espresso drinks, bagels, egg burritos, muffins (blueberry, banana nut, corn, and chocolate chip), egg sandwiches (bacon, egg, cheese, and avocado, among others), scones (blueberry, cranberry, and cinnamon) and other offerings from which to choose. All breakfast items are homemade with the exception of the bagels and bread, which are provided by Iggy's of Cambridge.
Looking toward fall, the menu will likely include butternut squash and other seasonal offerings.
Leone bought Bean and Leaf 18 years ago from the former owner, who had run the business for quite a few years. "I would like to continue maintaining that tradition," she said. "It's hard to think about it's not being there. It's all been very stressful, but what can you do? Nobody can predict a pandemic. I'm going to try to hang on until next year. I have to remain hopeful and believe that it will get better."
For more information, visit http://beanandleafcafe.com/