SALEM — Many restaurants are starting the new year by keeping the doors closed.

It's a consequence of COVID-19, as the pandemic has forced many businesses to sharply reduce indoor capacity. The limits hurt the bottom lines for businesses but pose a special threat for restaurants, where the outdoor dining options that kept them going last year dropped with the temperatures.

"When the weather started getting cold, it got really brutal," said Steve Feldmann, owner of Gulu-Gulu Cafe in Salem, which is closed for the winter. "People just aren't comfortable dining inside."

Feldmann is in an interesting position. He owns not just Gulu-Gulu, but Flying Saucer Pizza Co. next door, and the pizzeria is still in operation. That's because bagel sandwiches and London Fogs don't do as hot with delivery as pizza does.

"This last year was really tough for Gulu. Even with the amazing patio, we were way, way, way, way down," Feldmann said. "On the other hand, Flying Saucer has been able to transition relatively OK to takeout, so we're keeping Flying Saucer open."

Some businesses have had to completely shift their operations. That includes Ledger in downtown Salem, which spent the first wave of COVID-19 running a prepared meal service called Ledger Basket.

Now with the pandemic worsening again, Ledger Basket is returning with upgrades, owner Matt O'Neil said. It will run as a Ledger Basket Club subscription service, with a limited number of slots for sale either at the end of this month or early February. 

"You select boxes that you like based on the offerings we have," he said, "and you either get delivery or pickup based on where you live."

Even with the ability to launch a full-scale food operation like Ledger Basket, staying open wave to wave is still a struggle, O'Neil said.

"When you're doing takeout at a full-service restaurant of that size, it's difficult to hit the numbers you need to hit," O'Neil said. "The whole team worked really hard all last year, through all the different forms of Ledger — whether it's Ledger Basket, Ledger Jr., Ledger indoor and outdoor, Ledger with just outdoor. It's almost like you were opening a new restaurant with each one."

Others, meanwhile, have chosen to pair operations in a way to keep the spirit of two locations alive in one. That includes George Carey, owner of Pickering Wharf mainstays Finz and Sea Level Oyster Bar.

In Carey's case, Sea Level is on ice for January and February, given the low demand for two-story sunroom dining and the current indoor restrictions. But because Finz operates in a much larger footprint and has a higher capacity than Sea Level, Finz remains open and will further sport some of Sea Level's menu.

"Sea Level is just hibernating until March 1," Carey said. "Seasonally, as a waterfront restaurant, those are our two slowest months anyway, coupled with the 25% restrictions which are going to be in place at least for the entire month of January. So we made the decision to, A, hibernate, and B, do some renovations."

Carey's looking forward to the spring, he said, because "hopefully the vaccination program will be hitting full force, and we hope for '21 to end on a much stronger note than '20."

Carey's not alone. While Feldmann was talking, the example of Bambolina and Kokeshi merging — where offerings from the Ramen joint are now available alongside Neapolitan pizza on Derby Street — came up.

It's something Feldmann said he wished he could do for Gulu-Gulu.

"If we had the plumbing to run some coffee out of Flying Saucer," he said, "we certainly would've done that and put the two together."

That said, things like the Payback Protection Program — or PPP, the federal program providing payroll help to businesses during COVID-19 — are a life-saver. Another round of payments are coming down, all three business owners mentioned. At Gulu, for example, the cash will help the restaurant kick things off strong when the doors reopen.

"It just so happened, as we were shutting things down (at Gulu), the fed got their act together and came up with a financial package to help out my staff," Feldmann said. "That's honestly what kept us afloat this last year, and hopefully this will get us through the winter."

To respond to this story or suggest another, contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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