The pandemic has been fundamentally disruptive for restaurants, requiring rapid pivots — mostly on the fly. Such has been the case for Boston wine bar haley.henry, an eatery known for small plates, tinned fish and all-natural, small-batch wines shipped from all over the world.
When the pandemic hit, there wasn’t much at first for the James Beard award-winning site to do but close its doors, owner-operator Haley Fortier told PYMNTS in a recent conversation. But in some regards, the eatery was actually very lucky.
“The good thing for us was we started an import company for our tinned fish 2-1/2 years ago,” she said. “So we actually directly buy everything from our importers overseas, and we're buying things in bulk. When we buy it, we're looking for the entire year's inventory of something.”
That meant that in terms of the restaurant’s signature tinned fish, haley.henry has yet to hit any supply-chain snags. Instead, it’s fully stocked up through the holidays and beyond. Similarly, the eatery’s wine-import partners have been extremely good about making sure the small-batch wineries that supply the business continue to do so.
But that good luck has also been augmented by lots of hard work and big changes that started six months ago and will likely be ongoing as the season changes and introduces entirely new challenges.
After a few weeks of closure, haley.henry reopened for limited delivery of its goods — greatly aided by the fact that Boston had legalized alcohol deliveries as part of take-out orders. But Fortier said it initially only offered limited delivery, as the business didn’t bring its chef back at first.
All the eatery had to offer at first was tinned fish and wine in bottles and half-bottles. But once haley.henry's chef was back on-site, the wine bar expanded its menu offering but kept up with its own delivery drivers for the duration.
“We just did it all ourselves, because there were so many outlets like Caviar and DoorDash and all those kinds of things that you could order from,” Fortier said. “But the reality is that they take 30 percent of your profit, so it just didn't make sense for us. We just did all of our deliveries ourselves to conserve money and give it back to the business.”
Haley.henry has also been able to reopen for outdoor dining, claiming enough sidewalk space to end up with the same number of tables as it had indoors before the pandemic. Fortier said customers have shown a willingness to return, sit outside and enjoy some unique wine and small-plate dining while enjoying what had been Boston’s warm summer weather.
By contrast, enthusiasm for indoor dining — which haley.henry now offers at eight tables from a pre-pandemic 30 — has certainly dimmed. But on recent cooler nights, the eatery is seeing customers venture back into the wine bar’s indoor-dining area as well.
Readying For Winter
And with summer over, haley.henry now has some fresh repositioning to do. As a New England-based restaurateur, Fortier knows that things will get colder in the next six to eight weeks and enthusiasm for eating outdoors will wane dramatically.
Her customers might like European wines, but dining al fresco year round as Europeans are fond of doing in overcoats might be something Americans are more hesitant to adopt.
“What restaurants are thinking about is: ‘If we spend all this money on heaters and warming lights and everything, are the people really going come to eat out in December?” Fortier asked.
Moreover, she said that as the holiday season draws close, haley.henry is resetting its plans away from relying on company holiday parties. “We used to have so many events — especially during the holidays — that this year we are going to be hopefully taking to [customers’ houses],” Fortier said. “Our pitch is: ‘OK, we can't have your party here, but we'll come to you.’”
But Fortier said that challenges and changes to the side, she believes that given the year that we’ve all had thus far in 2020, we all need a little fun for the grand finale.
“Hopefully, we're going to be able to still be a part of that — even though it's not going to physically be here at the bar,” she said. “I think we all need to keep holding our heads up high and offering kudos to anyone who has made it this far.”