NOEL KING, HOST:
Cornwall's Tavern in Boston is right next to Boston University. It's a family-owned business that is really relying on students and teachers to come back to campus this year. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: After nearly 40 years in business and nearly four months closed by the pandemic, Cornwall's reopened this summer with a lot to learn.
BILLY MORAN: Can I get a quick crash course here?
LAUREN MORAN: From me?
SMITH: Cornwall's manager and bartender Billy Moran gets help from his wife Lauren posting to the Instagram account they've just set up. It's the first time ever this longtime institution has had to think about marketing.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What do I do here?
L MORAN: I'm sorry.
B MORAN: OK. It's OK. I'll just retake the photo.
L MORAN: OK.
SMITH: The learning curve is just as steep in the kitchen, where Cornwall's is working out a new breakfast menu they hope will compensate for not being allowed to run their bar, as usual, late into the night. Plus, they're still figuring out new COVID protocols, their new takeout and delivery service and even how much food to order at a time when nothing is predictable.
B MORAN: If you see one of us frantically run out the door, we're going to buy some milk because we've ran out.
CHRIS STRANG: Hey, Pammy. How are you?
PAM BEALE: Hey, Chris.
STRANG: First customer.
SMITH: At 8 a.m. sharp, one of Cornwall's regulars, Chris Strang, gives a social-distanced air hug to co-owner Pam Beale.
STRANG: Place looks great.
P BEALE: Thanks. No seat at the bar. So you can't sit here and chat with Billy. You'll have to sit over there and...
SMITH: It's a great start, but as it turns out, it'll be Cornwall's only customer for nearly two hours. Kenmore Square is empty, and adding to the challenge, a massive construction project outside has left Cornwall's one of just two open businesses on the block. But there are also lots of construction workers, and Lauren sees a marketing opportunity.
L MORAN: We just opened for breakfast.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, really?
L MORAN: And I was wondering if you guys want a cup of coffee on the house.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'll have a coffee.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you.
SMITH: Lauren brings the orders back to Cornwall's, and soon a family of four shows up hungry.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Everything - we want everything.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I think it's one of each? No, I'm just kidding.
SMITH: The kitchen kicks into gear, and Lauren does a little happy dance.
L MORAN: Yay. Jumping for joy.
SMITH: But it's not without mixed emotion. The family has come from a hotel across the street that has a restaurant that's been unable to open because of a landlord dispute, and that restaurant is owned by a good friend of Billy and the others.
B MORAN: It's great that we have people coming in, and it's exciting for us, but at the same time, it's bittersweet because we know there's collateral damage.
There we go.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: OK. Thanks, man.
B MORAN: Cheers, bud.
SMITH: By the end of Cornwall's first breakfast...
B MORAN: Six total people - so not setting the world on fire, but it will get better. It's just a question of whether colleges come back or not.
SMITH: But while Cornwall's is banking on students' return...
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)
SMITH: ...Faculty at nearby Boston University are protesting to keep students away for fear of a COVID outbreak. Pam watches their rolling rally from the restaurant.
P BEALE: I don't disagree with them, but I also feel like if we're stuck like this for a pretty long time, we can't be in suspended animation for years. And life has to go on on some level at - we have to find a way to live.
STRANG: I was just looking yesterday just to see if there are signs of life over there, and there's nothing.
P BEALE: I know. Heartbreaking.
SMITH: Conversation at Cornwall's turns frequently to the fate of their friend with the shuttered restaurants across the street.
GARRETT HARKER: It's - I can't imagine Eastern Standard or Island Creek not being in my life, right?
SMITH: Garrett Harker, the owner, stops in to congratulate Cornwall's on their reopening, even as he bemoans his own predicament with a landlord who he says is playing hardball.
HARKER: Basically, we've said, here's our books. Let's open them up, and let's figure out something good for both of us. You know, we have to long term rely on each other to come out of this.
KEVIN LEDDY: So that'd be your total of all your other invoices due.
B MORAN: OK.
SMITH: So far, Cornwall's is having better luck with the folks it does business with, like Kevin Leddy, one of their beer reps.
B MORAN: So we'll start next week. We just want to, you know, start to get a little bit of a cash flow.
SMITH: But the bigger question looming is whether Cornwall's landlord will be as accommodating.
P BEALE: We don't know what they're thinking about that. Of course, all of it hangs over my head. I don't sleep very well anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Hi, Billy.
SMITH: But by happy hour, things are much happier.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: How are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You know, having a Jamison.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You look good, healthy. Knock on wood.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Yeah.
SMITH: It's like a family reunion.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: It's been too long.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: This is where we were on March the 16.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: And probably the 15.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: And the 14.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: And the 14.
P BEALE: You know, it's cute. You know, we have our neighborhood regulars. Some of them are what we call irregulars (laughter).
SMITH: There's 56-year-old Kathy Conley, who's been coming since she was in college.
KATHY CONLEY: My grandmother used to call Cornwall's - is my granddaughter there?
SMITH: A couple of 20-something grad students.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: We literally just biked here from Somerville just to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Wow. We're feeling the love right now.
SMITH: And Chris, who loves to razz 77-year-old John Beale, Pam's husband and Cornwall's founder.
STRANG: You look good, John.
JOHN BEALE: I feel good.
STRANG: Yeah? How does this compare to the 1918 pandemic?
SMITH: Cornwall's energy and bustle is back, but business is still off. All this opening excitement will add up to just about a third of a pre-pandemic day, and it's nowhere near the 150 or so dinners they'd be cranking out on nights when the Red Sox play at nearby Fenway Park.
B MORAN: It would be packed, wall-to-wall people in here.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Right fielder, No. 5, Kevin Sloan (ph).
SMITH: But this summer at Fenway...
(SOUNDBITE OF STADIUM AMBIENCE)
SMITH: ...It's just fake fan noise piped into the ballpark, where real fans are not allowed.
J BEALE: It's just a desert.
P BEALE: It's really like nothing we've ever seen.
SMITH: As summer winds down, Cornwall's is drawing steady but slow business. It's still not enough for anyone in the family to draw a paycheck.
B MORAN: Like, BU is still the big thing for us. So it's really dependent upon that as to whether we do well or we just sort of hang on by a thread.
SMITH: Meantime, Pam finally spoke to the landlord - sort of.
P BEALE: He stopped in for a cup of coffee, and I said, you know, I'm not ignoring you.
SMITH: The landlord asked Pam to keep numbers on their business to discuss after Labor Day.
P BEALE: It's nerve-racking, but you get the sense that if you just keep treading water and you can still see the horizon and breathe, then you're - you know, you feel like you're going to survive this.
STRANG: See you tomorrow, Pammy.
P BEALE: Goodbye, darling.
STRANG: We'll be able to hug again one day.
P BEALE: Yes, and we'll be here and ready for that day when it comes (laughter).
STRANG: I will be, too.
SMITH: With everyone gone, 15 hours after opening, Billy pours himself a Guinness.
B MORAN: Ah, I'll sleep good tonight. Come on back, do it again tomorrow and hopefully the day after that and many days after all of those.
SMITH: Cornwall's, as they like to say here, is their life as well as their livelihood. So far, they've got the first part back, and they're hoping for the second this fall.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR JR. SONG, "PLANS")
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