Campus-adjacent businesses anticipating revenue hit following student departure

Mediterranean+restaurant+Garbanzo+opened+on+Emerson%27s+campus+in+August.+

Photo: Parker Purifoy

Mediterranean restaurant Garbanzo opened on Emerson’s campus in August.

By Camilo Fonseca, Assistant News Editor

Businesses around Emerson’s Boston campus are anticipating a dropoff in sales after most students left for an extended seven-week winter break.

The imminent closure of residence halls and departure of most on-campus students—which comes two weeks earlier than usual this year because of the pandemic—threatens to impact restaurants on Emerson’s Boston campus that rely heavily on college clientele. Many of these eateries are scrambling to keep business up through the holiday season, to avoid joining the more than 3,500 Massachusetts restaurants that COVID-19 has closed.

John Schall, the owner of El Jefe’s Taqueria, estimated that the restaurant’s Emerson location gets between 50 and 60 percent of its business from the student body. He fears revenue will fall off substantially between the campus closure on Nov. 25 and its Jan. 19 reopening.

“It’s a huge portion [of business that we are losing],” Schall said. “When students leave for Thanksgiving, now they won’t come back until the middle of January. Those six [sic] weeks we’ll have to work hard.”

El Jefe’s, which opened on Boylston Street in March, is one of several local restaurants that accepts Emerson Board Bucks. Consequently, its limited-capacity seating is often filled with students—a sight that will likely diminish after this week. 

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Garbanzo’s Mediterranean Fresh, a national chain that opened its Emerson location over the summer, is facing a similar situation.

“As the market adjusts, we are going to adjust with it,” owner Derek St. George wrote in an email. “As business owners, we have not experienced anything like COVID. All we can do is try to position ourselves to be successful once the college [students] leave.”

Schall said that El Jefe’s Taqueria will still serve students that remain on campus over winter break due to a number of concerns—including travel safety and immunocompromised family members—related to the coronavirus.

“There’s a fair number of students that are going to be on campus over those six weeks, and I don’t think the Dining Center is going to be open during that time,” he said. “So the use of our restaurant from students that remain on campus I think will be pretty significant.”

Less than 30 students are expected to stay on campus over the break, Christie Anglade, director of housing and residential education said. Schall said he was waiting on Emerson to communicate the exact numbers.

El Jefe’s, among other businesses, is keeping its operating plans fluid in the face of the steady surge of cases in Massachusetts and across the nation. In response to the uptick, Gov. Charlie Baker recently implemented a mandatory curfew, restricting in-person dining after 9:30 p.m—another blow to local restaurant owners. As cases rise, so too do the chances of further restrictions on restaurants.

“If you’re not preparing for six more months of significant pandemic impact, you’re crazy,” Schall said. “Maybe the world is going to spin on its axis in a different way, and things will be better by February, but you can’t prepare for that.”

“We talk about the possibility of not coming back for the start of the second semester,” he continued. “There’s just so many uncertainties at this point that you have to be ready for anything for the next six months. If you plan on anything resembling the normal before, then you’re just not being careful enough.”

Schall said he appreciated the college’s assistance in helping local businesses weather the difficult landscape brought on by the pandemic, specifically highlighting the expanded use of Board Bucks this semester—the default residential meal plan now includes 700 Board Bucks to be used at off-campus merchants, as opposed to the 150 of the 2019-20 academic year.

“Clearly, we’ve been hurt by the pandemic, but Emerson’s dining policies have helped offset part of that,” he said. “[El Jefe’s is] one of the lucky ones. In terms of the number of restaurants that are just being devastated, we’re fortunate.”

Other nearby businesses have not been so fortunate. Boloco’s Boylston Street location, which for 12 years was a popular destination for Emerson students, has been temporarily closed since the first wave of the virus hit Massachusetts in March. The extended winter break has not made reopening any easier, Boloco’s owner John Pepper said. However, he expressed deeper concerns about the local restaurant industry during the pandemic.

“We know [Emerson]’s schedule very well,” he said. “But reopening is bigger than that.”

Boloco, another New England Mexican food chain, was in serious financial straits early in the fall but has since rebounded, Pepper said. Now, he said they aim to have its Boylston Street location reopened by January, around the time students return to campus.

“There’s only so much you can do before you start to just say, ‘We can’t operate anymore. We have to close for good,’” Pepper said. “[Boloco is] not there. But we were close.”

Hoping to serve up burritos to students again after they return from break, Pepper said the college population is paramount to the success of his business.

“We want to be energetic in the communities we’re in, and it’s harder to be that way these days,” Pepper said. “But we built our business by being very engaged with students. Students bring a lot of energy to businesses like Boloco.”

Looking ahead to the future, Schall remained optimistic about El Jefe’s prospects despite the constantly shifting economic landscape.

“This is a long-term project for us,” said Schall. “We’re going to be in this location for decades. So we’re getting through now as best we can, but we’ve had incredible support from the college [and] from the Emerson student body. We’re going to do fine.”

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