Conversation: A look into how one local restaurant has worked through the pandemic

State Road restaurant in West Tisbury. — M.V. Times

Mary Kenworth owns State Road and Beach Road with her husband, Jackson Kenworth. Edible editor Tina Miller talked to Mary about her experiences with the pandemic and her business over the last six months. 

The restaurant industry has been hit hard. Many restaurants and hotels will not survive. What do you think the local, state, and federal government should have done and can do to help this struggling industry? Providing economic assistance for independent restaurants is one of the most critical investments the government can make to help bring back the economy. Even with the challenges of COVID-19, this year independent restaurants could generate more than 650 billion dollars in sales. On average, 90-plus percent of that revenue goes directly to employees and suppliers. We had a sweet, strong surge of business on the Island this summer, but it would be a mistake to interpret that as a recovery. Getting back to normal won’t happen overnight. There are challenging months and years ahead. The Payroll Protection Plan was a bandaid at best. There are state and national coalitions fighting to secure the assistance needed to survive, repair, and rebuild our industry. It is distressing that it is such a fight.

You have two year-round businesses. Were you affected by not getting any J-1 student workers this season? Yes. Absolutely. Seasonal staffing is always a near-impossible task. Without J-1 student workers, this year it was impossible.

Describe how your plans for your restaurants evolved during the time the pandemic was unfolding: When did you first think Wow, this is going to be something to deal with?  State Road and Beach Road each close for a staggered month. Beach Road had reopened for two weeks before the shutdown. The first week we wondered, “Will anyone want to go out to eat?” The second week we wondered “Should we be open? Is it a responsible choice for our team and the community?” Then there was the mandatory shutdown. Beach Road closed and State Road, due to open that week, remained closed.

When the governor issued lockdown orders, what were you thinking then: By spring this should be over? Or maybe, We should plan for this to last a while? We were monitoring carefully what was going on in Europe and New York. It seemed probable to us that the shutdown would last for quite a while. We did a hard close. We cooked off perishables and shared what we had with our staff, the food pantry, and the West Tisbury School lunch program.

At what point did you decide to not open Beach Road? Did you consider that a temporary decision that might change, or did you just kind of write off the whole year ahead? Since this started, every decision we make is with the goal of having both restaurants open and both teams employed when this is over. There was simply not enough staff to operate at both locations, so we combined staff and opened one restaurant.

We’ve been lucky to have a low virus incidence on the Island. What do you think we can credit for that? The Island community took it seriously. Cooperation with mask wearing and social distancing. Canceling large events. A great hospital. Islanders and Island businesses doing their part. Generous assistance from seasonal residents. We are always aware of how lucky we are to live here, but never more so than now.

What are plans for the winter? We hope to keep State Road open for takeaway until the end of the year.

How has this impacted your overall way of operating your business? Any permanent changes after a vaccine arrives?  We will see. Certainly, some things need to change. Hopefully, we remain adaptable, creative, and sustainable.

What great takeout meals from other restaurants have you enjoyed since March? We wish we made it to more places for takeout, but it has been mostly home, to work, and back again for us. We have heard great reports about Island restaurants all season. Everyone has been working so hard, staying creative, and rooting for each other. We did get some amazing sandwiches for a staff meal from The Fish House the other night …

What are you most grateful for, out of all this challenge? That my mom stayed healthy. That we get to work with such a dedicated and inspiring team. That the Island community was so supportive.