On Water Street in downtown Boston, the sound of silence is deafening these days — no office workers chirping into iPhones as they pursue their Starbucks fix, no unkempt men heading to the upscale barber, nobody chatting in what used to be the daily lunch line that stretched outside of Casa Razdora for its handmade pasta.
Which is why the cafe’s owner, Giancarlo Baldini, is standing at the door in his white apron rather than in the kitchen, gazing up from the barren street to the empty towers and sky above, as if seeking divine guidance on a question that has no good answer: How do you run a business without customers?
You wait and wonder: Will they ever come back?
Baldini feels this every hour of the day, as does Julie King, who owns the Mexican restaurant next door, and the barber, the printing shop proprietor, and the suit maker whose businesses and dreams fill the storefronts up and down the street. So, too, do the dozens of unseen suppliers who support them — farms, mills, distributors, and those whose trade and labor, in turn, keep those firms going.
The financial devastation felt on Water Street is not confined to this short block. It radiates all over the world. Baldini has never met Billy Don Grant, a skilled tomato grower in the Florida Panhandle. But it’s not hard for him to imagine Grant’s plight. The fact that Baldini sells a sad fraction of the Italian sandwiches he once did means he uses fewer tomatoes. That means Grant sells a fraction of his crop, leaving thousands of tomatoes unclaimed in warehouses or rotting on the vine.
On it goes. The side effects ripple out far and wide, tracing an arc of financial destruction that runs from a delivery driver in Chelsea to a paper mill in upstate New York to a family in Honduras, exposing the vital but fragile dependencies in the modern business world with every failing link weakening the next in line.
Water Street may lack the glamour of Newbury Street, the grandeur of Commonwealth Avenue, or even the funky spirit of Centre Street, but it is as good a place as any to tell the story of this interwoven and badly damaged economy, the one that doesn’t just bind businesses but also the people who run them.
For several weeks this fall, two Globe reporters and a photographer traversed the street, knocked on doors, saw first-hand the pain and hardship of people such as Baldini, who after a decade here knows the neighborhood to its core but barely recognizes it today. Then they mapped out the network of businesses and workers far and wide that make this street hum. Many things became quickly apparent, especially this: One relatively ordinary block of a city can provide a window on the unfathomable financial toll of this pandemic.
The constellations of connection from here to just about everywhere are usually out of view. But they grow plain when you look a little harder or talk to the likes of Billy Don Grant, more than 1,300 miles away.
Grant, the owner of High Hope Farm in Quincy, Fla., grows 650 acres of plum and round tomatoes that he sells to wholesalers across the country, including Peter Condakes Co. at the New England Produce Center in Chelsea. From there, distributors buy the tomatoes and fan out across New England, taking them to grocery stores such as Market Basket and restaurants like Baldini's Casa Razdora and King's Villa Mexico Cafe.
Grant’s tomatoes mainly go to restaurants, so he’s been keeping close tabs on dining restrictions in New York, Chicago, and Boston, and decided to cut back on his second crop of the year, after taking a bath on the first when restaurants were shut down in the spring to contain the virus.
“The June crop was perfect. We had the right yield, the right flavor, the right weather,” said Grant. “The only thing we didn’t have was the right consumption from the supermarkets and restaurant trade.”
The glut from the first crop forced Grant to sell 25-pound boxes for $6 below pre-pandemic prices. He subsequently reduced his fall plantings by 20 percent, keeping fields fallow during the prime growing season; better to have fewer tomatoes to begin with, Grant wagered, than be stuck with tons of unsold fruit. About 50 of his 165 farmworkers didn’t return to pick the fall crop; they were earning more from unemployment checks from the government. Even so, Grant assumed he’d be operating at a loss this harvest, and had already scaled back plans to buy farm equipment and trucks for the coming year.
Then, 2020 delivered another cruel blow. In October, a round of wet humid weather and hurricanes stalled the harvest by two weeks, triggering a sudden shortage of tomatoes around the country that sent wholesale prices soaring. It was a head-spinning turn from glut to shortage; tomatoes now cost too much, so restaurants are buying even less from their wholesalers.
“Mr. Condakes, he doesn’t sell as many because the price is so high,” said Grant. “And we can’t get our money back at these prices.”
In Chelsea, Peter Condakes sniffs the air as he walks into the cold storage room in one of his three shipping areas at the New England Produce Center. Dressed in a brown wool sport coat, he's surrounded by pallets of tomatoes stacked in cardboard crates over 10 feet high, many just shipped in from Florida. This one refrigerated storage facility can hold 12 tractor trailer loads of tomatoes — 480,000 pounds — at a time.
If the tomatoes sit too long, they will ripen, soften, and get crushed. After a lifetime in the business, Condakes can tell with just one whiff if something is off. He’s on edge for a reason: Because of the high prices and falloff in downtown customers, his tomatoes have been sitting longer than he’d like.
Condakes used to sell blemished tomatoes to sandwich shops that trim off a bruise or chop them for garnish. But those shops are barely functioning right now, so he needs to charge more for his higher grade tomatoes to make up the lost revenue. This comes atop prices that already tend to be higher in the fall and winter when farms in the South wind down for the season.
“We’re at relatively high prices on tomatoes and on top of that, we’re adding an extra dollar to a box because of everything we’re throwing away,” Condakes said. “We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
And he knows that every dollar tacked onto his crates gets passed along the food chain, and can ultimately make it prohibitive for restaurants to buy his tomatoes at all. But with few options, he’s charging higher prices to distributors such as Fleet Fruit Co., a company that delivers produce from his facility to hotels and restaurants throughout the region, making regular stops along Water Street.
Hector Gusman is on edge. The 38-year-old has been behind the wheel at Fleet Fruit for 20 years, making deliveries six days a week for the distribution company since he was just out of high school. It's always been a reliable, albeit tough, routine: Arrive at the market at 3 a.m., then get out on the highways delivering to restaurants in downtown Boston or as far afield as New Hampshire or Maine. But after the pandemic began to rend the local economy, he dropped to just three days a week.
Gusman’s wife, who is a laundry attendant at Brigham and Women’s and Mass. General hospitals, has been at work throughout the pandemic, so there’s still money coming in. But the couple — with three children, 17, 12, and 18 months — have burned through their savings. His bank let him defer car payments and mortgage payments on their home in Revere for several months, which has only pushed off the day of reckoning.
“You still have to pay it at the end,” Gusman said. “I lost a lot of money. It’s not easy. All the savings we had, I’m wasting.”
His boss, John Rossetti, isn’t doing much better. Business at Fleet Fruit is down 60 percent since the start of the pandemic, and some longtime clients, such as Cheers in Faneuil Hall, have permanently closed. Others, including Casa Razdora, have cut back orders from five deliveries to one a week. Already, Rossetti has had to sell two trucks and pare back hours for workers such as Gusman to survive.
The impact of COVID-19 is more than economic for Rossetti. The virus tore through his family in April, infecting his brother, sister, brother-in-law, and parents in quick succession. Both his mother and father were hospitalized, and his father, Jerry, succumbed to the virus. Arriving by ambulance to the funeral home, his mother, Teresa, was able to say goodbye to her husband of 50 years. She is still suffering from long-term complications after spending 13 weeks under doctors’ care.
“Since then, it’s just been trying to keep my mom alive,” said Rossetti.
Now he’s dreading the winter months, worrying about how long downtown Boston will be desolate. One of his clients stocks vending machines and snack pantries at offices throughout the city and told Rossetti that the companies whose workers fill the buildings aren’t planning to have as much office space when the pandemic is over.
“If … if they go back to work,” said Rossetti, “why would you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars leasing a big building like that?”
Scott Ferson was surrounded by moving boxes at his office on the fifth floor of 4 Liberty Square, an elegant brick building that hugs the corner of Water Street. The only signs of life in the seven-story structure that October day were in Ferson's office and the law firm upstairs. Delivery boxes and mail had piled up like tumbleweeds outside other tenants' doors.
On March 15, Ferson sent employees of his political consulting firm home. And like so many other companies he discovered that people could work just as well remotely. That revelation has prompted Ferson and other business owners to reevaluate their use of office space.
Perhaps, Ferson reflected, the office becomes “a place people want to go to … rather than a place they have to go to.”
For two decades, Ferson’s life has revolved around two places: Belmont, where he lives, and the Water Street neighborhood, where he built a company from the ground up. He gets his haircut at the Boston Barber Exchange, fills his contact lens prescription at the optical shop on the corner, grabs gluten-free wraps at Max’s Deli Cafe, and pops into PostNet to have campaign materials printed for clients such as Representative Seth Moulton.
They are all the kinds of little decisions that, multiplied by thousands, keep a downtown business district alive. That define it. When those things cease, what’s left?
Even without its regular bustle and vibe, it is easy to fall in love with this part of downtown. Water Street is one of the city’s oldest blocks; its name comes from the original spring that drew Boston’s founders to the Shawmut Peninsula. Today, its well-worn sidewalks are dotted with architectural gems that sit in the shadows of the showy, modern office towers nearby. Hollywood was charmed by it last year, taking over the square to film scenes for the upcoming action Ryan Reynolds film, “Free Guy.”
When Ferson does venture downtown these days, he finds it deserted. Fewer than 15 percent of workers in downtown office buildings come in regularly. With so little foot traffic, some mainstays have yet to reopen, including the neighborhood Starbucks and Ferson’s favorite lunch spot, Max’s Deli. Lately, homeless people have camped out on its stoop.
The veteran Democratic political operative loves the neighborhood so much he even named his company after it: Liberty Square Group. But paying $13,000 a month for a 3,000-square-foot office during a pandemic doesn't feel like the best use of money. He began thinking about moving and approached his landlord about the lease.
“You can’t be attached to a street address anymore,” said Ferson.
After office workers in and around Water Street went remote, Tom O'Connor could feel the seismic shift nearly 200 miles away, beyond the end of the Massachusetts Pike, in upstate New York.
O'Connor is the third generation in his family to run Mohawk Fine Papers, headquartered in Cohoes, N.Y., just outside Albany. Customers reach for Mohawk's premium paper and stationery stock when they want to impress. These days, the notion seems quaint. Airlines aren't printing as many first-class menus. Hotels aren't restocking stationery, and glossy presentations passed out in a conference room are obsolete in this age of Zoom.
In March and April, as governors in major markets such as California, New York, and Massachusetts shuttered economies, Mohawk’s revenue plummeted 75 percent, said O’Connor, who serves as chief executive.
Among those cutting orders: PostNet, a cozy store tucked into the bend of Liberty Square that serves the basic needs of businesses, from shipping to printing brochures and posters. Staples it is not; owner Matt Kaplan can always be found behind the counter ready to take orders. In a virtual world, no one needs as much printing or copying services.
“Poor guy at PostNet,” said O’Connor. “How many times are they coming in for a presentation booklet?”
Mohawk sales have been improving, but not enough for O’Connor to justify operating its two paper mills at full capacity. In August, he temporarily shuttered Mohawk’s mill in Cohoes, furloughing about 50 workers. Mohawk is also winding down operations at its facility in North Adams, Mass., where Crane stationery is printed.
With about 200 employees in Cohoes, Mohawk is the city's largest private employer. The Cohoes mill came back online in November, but so far only at half capacity. That wasn't much help to the restaurant across the street, the Pig Pit BBQ, where hickory-smoked pulled pork sandwiches used to draw a line of factory hands. Owner Larry Russo has been able to keep all eight employees on the payroll, though at reduced hours, since most of the remaining business is takeout.
“It’s just another hit that you’re looking at,” Russo said with resignation.
All those hits to local businesses are reverberating inside Cohoes City Hall, where a steep decline in tax revenue and state aid tore a $1.4 million hole in the municipal budget. Mayor Bill Keeler laid off administrative staff and froze positions, including some in the police and fire departments. He also had to dip into the city's rainy day fund.
“This is not a good time to raise taxes,” Keeler said. “If the government is hurting, the people who pay taxes are hurting.”
For Marco Amaya, the turmoil of the pandemic economy connects his daily routine to his distant homeland.
His work is hard and these days there is less of it. On this day, Amaya maneuvered his red Honda CRV between tractor trailers at the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, silhouetted by the first purple blush of dawn. The 51-year-old arrived at the market before sunrise to move food through the region’s supply chain, unloading bananas, plantains, lettuce, and tomatoes from shipping containers, many of which originate in Central and South American countries that he and his colleagues left behind.
Immigrant workers throughout Boston's food service industry have long used their paychecks to support not just their families here but relatives back in their native countries. Amaya's among them: His job in shipping and receiving at New England Banana Co. pays his bills, but his side hustle delivering produce generates another income that he uses to support his family back in El Progreso, Honduras, and to save for retirement.
For the last 15 years, Amaya brought Villa Mexico Cafe a twice-weekly order of 15 to 20 boxes of tomatoes, plus lettuce, limes, cilantro, avocado, onion, and jalapenos that he’d purchased from Peter Condakes and other wholesalers at the market. He’d typically make deliveries to convenience stores as well, the gig bringing in an additional $600 to $1,000 a week.
But now, Villa Mexico is his only client, so Amaya is sending less money to his sister and 78-year-old mother in Honduras, which was recently pummeled by hurricanes. “I used to be able to send $300 a month, now I send $150 or $200 when I can,” he said. It pains him to know that they have less to rely on. “Things there are worse than here.”
Still, Amaya has seen COVID-19 ricochet through his world in Chelsea; his wife contracted the virus in the spring, and then it was his turn in late fall. He has only just returned to work after two weeks in quarantine.
Meanwhile, Romelia Perez, a farmworker in Immokalee, Fla., hasn't been able to return to work after her bout with COVID-19. For her and many workers in far-flung reaches of the food industry struggling through the pandemic, there has simply not been enough of a safety net.
An immigrant from Guatemala, Perez has worked the fields for 25 years at Pacific Tomato Growers, a string of farms in the Southeast that sell crates of tomatoes to Peter Condakes. Those crates can eventually make their way to Amaya’s car and into Villa Mexico’s salsa.
But in May, the 47-year-old single mother contracted COVID-19 from colleagues who showed symptoms out in the fields of grape tomatoes. She was hospitalized until August and still has trouble breathing. Her doctor tells her she shouldn’t return to field work at all.
Perez is living on food stamps and unemployment, and getting assistance from a local church and a farmworkers union. She’s thinking about getting a job at a bodega now, something less hard on her body.
“I get horrible headaches,” she said. “When I go out in the sun it feels like I have electricity running through my whole body.”
When ARI Boston doesn't sell as many $2,000 Canali suits, owner Ari Gil doesn't so much worry about the effect on the venerable Italian menswear label; it'll manage. He's more concerned about the boutique merchants who provide him with designer jeans and chenille scarves.
“Our customers want us to be here in six months to a year,” said Gil, standing in the middle of his store, brimming this day with impeccable suits, crisp dress shirts, and silk ties. “We want our vendors to be here in six months to a year.”
ARI Boston has been in business for nearly a quarter century, opening first in Liberty Square where PostNet is today and now in a bigger space around the corner on Broad Street. It’s the ideal locale for a luxury menswear shop, which depends on the expensive tastes of the well-paid executives who work — or rather, worked — in the office towers nearby.
Ari and his wife, Desiree, closed the store in March, then reopened in June to find themselves stuck with spring merchandise they could not move. With revenues down about 70 percent, the couple has used savings to pay vendors.
Not everyone is able to keep up with their bills. Galina Mironoff, a New York City distributor of premium denim brand MAC from Germany, can attest to that. Some clients have been slow to pay their invoices but not ARI Boston, which buys jeans and corduroys from her.
“Ari,” said Mironoff, “is an honorable man.”
Some 230 miles north of Boston in Orland, Maine, Dunlap Weavers makes hand-loomed chenille, wool, and cashmere scarves. With so much uncertainty, ARI Boston, for the first time in more than a decade, did not place its usual order of 30 chenille scarves.
“There goes another one,” Jenny Dunlap recalled thinking, when she heard through her sales representative that the Boston shop would not be buying new merchandise.
The four-decade-old family business is now just Jenny and her mother, Susan. They’ve sold just over 900 scarves in 2020, about half in a typical year.
“We’ve been through a lot of financial messes,” said Dunlap, the hum of a loom in the background as her mother weaves. “This is the one time, you say, ‘Will we survive?’ ”
The few office workers who have returned downtown are more like visitors.
Take Tim DeLouchrey, director of operations for Blue Lab, a political training program run out of Liberty Square Group. He stops by the office once or twice a week, largely for a change of scenery from his Cambridge apartment. He never needs to be downtown. He used to be one of the people who bought lunch most days of the week, keeping a rotation of hole-in-the-wall places busy.
Now he doesn’t have much appetite for eating out. Hardly anyone comes into the office. Lunch is not the same without colleagues.
“It makes me sad,” explained DeLouchrey.
Pita Thyme was a staff favorite at Liberty Square Group. There was even a must-have dish: the chicken shawarma plate with a choice of sides but always the crispy spicy potatoes, which some declare the best menu item on Water Street.
The one time DeLouchrey stopped by the restaurant during the pandemic, he was outnumbered by employees six to one. “It kind of hits you on your way out,” he said. “You might have been the only customer in the last half hour.”
It hits Elias and Louma Khoury, too, as they stand in the corner of Pita Thyme, looking anxiously at the door. It's 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, the hour when the shop's assembly line of food workers would normally whirl to life serving a crowd that would stretch out onto Water Street.
But the few customers today have the place to themselves.
The Khourys received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan early in the pandemic, but burned through it paying workers while they were still closed. They convinced their landlord to let them defer some of their rent payments, but they haven’t taken a paycheck in months and are drawing down on their savings. They had to approach their children’s Catholic school for a break on tuition. Their daughter is a senior, and they worry about being able to afford college next year.
“Whatever money we had saved,” Elias Khoury said, “it’s all but gone.”
As they look to the door for customers, the Khourys can see Villa Mexico across the street. Owner Julie King had been a lawyer in Mexico, but was unable to practice law after moving to the US. So she opened a small Mexican restaurant two decades ago in Woburn, then relocated to Beacon Hill where she sold burritos from a gas station across from Massachusetts General Hospital. She and her daughter Bessie opened the Water Street location in 2016.
This was supposed to be a milestone year for the Kings. After 20 years, they were set to pay off their loans and own Villa Mexico outright, and had planned a block party on Water Street to celebrate.
But 2020 didn’t go as planned. The Kings have used savings, donations, and other aid to cover rent and payroll throughout the shutdown. Outdoor dining got them through the summer — just barely — with additional help from salsa sales. Bessie took a second job to bring in extra money.
Shelby Lum/Globe Staff
Now, the Kings have gone from nearly owning their business outright to being more than $30,000 in debt.
In October, more bad news: Julie’s 91-year-old mother fell gravely ill, prompting her to fly to Mexico City to be with her, leaving Bessie to run the restaurant on her own. It became a Herculean task: Bessie worked behind the counter all day, then in the afternoon logged into her second job in marketing, toiling away until 10 p.m.
Reaching a breaking point, Bessie convinced her mother to let her briefly shut the restaurant in November so she could visit her ailing grandmother in Mexico, as well. It made financial sense; they were spending more than they were making at that point. But she worries how her employees will fare while the cafe is in hibernation.
“That really is what’s keeping me up at night,” King said. “And I can feel it, I’m physically tired. Now really is when we’re starting to feel the rope a little tighter.”
Each morning at 7 a.m., Samuel Valle, a custodian at One Liberty Square, raises an American flag on the flagpole outside the majestic nearly 100-year-old limestone building with a bird's eye view of Water Street. There's a plaque on its Classic Revival facade of a goddess and in Latin, the phrase, "In Omnia Paratus," or "Prepared in all things."
But who was prepared for this?
One of the enduring memories of the once-in-a-century pandemic will be how it emptied out a bustling Boston, where tourists and office workers jostled each other on the sidewalk and patrons sidled up to bars elbow-to-elbow.
“My goal is to see humanity again, if I can see one person a day,” said Desiree Gil of ARI Boston.
It’s an open question whether office workers will return in numbers that matter, whether downtown will ever fully recover, and, if so, will it be enough to sustain the many lives that it once supported.
To David Greaney, who has been buying up buildings in Boston since 2005, the answer is unequivocally yes. What he can’t tell you is, when.
“Cities have been around for 10,000 years,” he said. “People need people, not just for work. Our soul needs other people.”
Still, Greaney acknowledged that among the 500-plus tenants in the buildings that his firm, Synergy, owns or manages, “dozens” are seeking to renegotiate their leases.
Among business owners who were set to abandon downtown, Scott Ferson, founder of Liberty Square Group, has had a change of heart. After starting the arduous process of packing up, he decided to hold onto his office overlooking Water Street for a little while longer. He negotiated with his landlord to stay another year, though he has no immediate plans to bring staff back downtown.
For restaurant and shop owners, when Water Street will brim with life again is perhaps the most salient question of all — and whether they can hold on until then. And whether that future is even here in an urban business district. Days after closing Pita Thyme temporarily in early December, the Khourys opened a location in North Andover.
The owners of Casa Razdora are also thinking of opening a restaurant outside Boston. “The same reason why we went to Boston is the same reason we should leave Boston,” said Denise Santini, Giancarlo Baldini’s wife. “If I had my business out in the suburbs, I’d make a killing right now.”
Bessie and Julie King, meanwhile, are relentless optimists. They refuse to close Villa Mexico, but they, too, worry how much longer they can survive. They understand what’s at stake is bigger than them. It’s the countless lives and livelihoods — those toiling in the tomato fields of Florida and the refrigerated produce bays in Chelsea, working massive paper mills in New York and on looms in Maine, and stretching to extended families in Honduras and Revere — that are inextricably intertwined. The economic ripple that begins on Water Street extends to the world.
“It’s not only me,” Julie King said. “It is us.”