In early March 2020, Eater Boston optimistically published a roundup of 15 exciting Boston-area restaurants that were slated to open this spring; the potential long-lasting impacts of the pandemic weren’t yet clear. Days later, Gov. Charlie Baker announced an initial shutdown of dine-in service at Massachusetts restaurants that ended up lasting around three months. Indoor and outdoor dining are now allowed again, but not everyone is partaking. It’s a difficult time to run a restaurant, let alone open a new one.
This piece is the first in a series checking in with the restaurants from the Eater Boston spring anticipated openings roundup, several of which have opened in some capacity already but most of which are still in the works. Read on to see how Faces Brewing Co. in Malden is handling 2020, and stay tuned for a peek behind the scenes at some of the other restaurants that had planned on spring openings.
One of the few anticipated spring restaurant debuts to actually open in the spring, Malden’s spacious new brewpub Faces Brewing Co. debuted in June at 50 Pleasant St. with an outdoor beer garden. Faces is now offering indoor dining as well, following the appropriate COVID-19 restrictions. A few weeks prior to the start of outdoor dining, the brewery began to-go can sales, which co-founder Bob Martignetti says wasn’t part of the original plan for the opening. “However, with an uncertain picture of restaurant reopenings, we pivoted,” he says. Cans of Progression, a New England IPA, and several other beers were available at the start.
Longtime Cambridge-area folks will recognize the brewery’s name: Faces was a Cambridge nightclub in the 1970s through 1990. Martignetti and his three brothers, along with childhood friend Eddie Ducharme (serving as brewer), are behind the new Faces; the Martignettis’ father and uncles were behind the old Faces. (The family is also behind wine and spirits distributor Martignetti Liquors as well as the now-defunct Cambridge bowling institution Lanes and Games.)
Given the family’s historical ties to nightlife in the region, it feels right that the Martignettis found an appropriately historical space in which to open the brewpub. Faces is situated inside an old bank, reportedly the site of the United States’ first armed bank robbery.
The team is brewing a variety of beer styles, including several New England IPAs, a Mexican lager, a kettle stout, and more, while executive chef Ezra Gold (Alden & Harlow, Waypoint) is serving a beer-friendly food menu with dishes like a fried fish sandwich, grilled cheese, pretzels with beer cheese, pizza, fried dough bites, and more. Weekend brunch is also available; think shakshuka, chicken and waffles, and avocado toast, with coffee mudslides, watermelon rosé sangria, and more to drink.
“As they say in boxing, everyone has a plan, until you get punched in the mouth,” says Bob Martignetti. “Opening during the pandemic has been a lesson in adapting.” The Faces team has been flexible, he says, keeping an eye on day-to-day and week-to-week trends and adjusting hours and offerings as needed. “When we read the tea leaves and guessed that outdoor seating was a few weeks away, we built a beer garden. When indoor dining got the okay, we opened inside and began offering weekend brunch.”
One of the main challenges right now, says Martignetti, is that people are out of their usual routine. “No commuting to work means no after-work drinks. Psychologically, if you aren’t leaving your house as a matter of course every day, then you are less likely to go out of your way to visit a restaurant or meet up with close friends for a drink.” Coupled with the fact that it’s a harder-than-usual time to get publicity for a new business — “news about restaurants has taken a backseat to the issues going on in the world,” he says, and food media has faced a number of furloughs and layoffs — it’s a constant adjustment in terms of staffing, hours, and marketing.
Even word-of-mouth is suffering: “There’s no water cooler talk at the office and no chatting with fellow parents at your kid’s soccer game,” Martignetti says. “Fortunately, Instagram and Facebook still exist. Every can we sell and every customer who posts about us on social media helps increase the awareness of our brewery.”
And of course there’s the standard COVID-era hospitality challenge: “How do we make people feel comfortable in a restaurant environment that looks and feels significantly different than pre-COVID hospitality?” Restaurant owners are struggling to find ways to foster connections between staff and customers in sterile, distanced, masked atmospheres.
Still, Martignetti is finding some reasons for optimism: People are starting to stay out later — a distinct change from a month ago, when everyone would clear out long before closing — and the brewpub is already developing a number of regulars. With the return of sports, more people are finding their way back to a somewhat normal routine, including going out to restaurants. And 99 percent of customers have been great, Martignetti says, when it comes to cooperating with social distancing and mask rules.
It will likely be months — or longer — before brewpubs like Faces can push their tables closer together and allow customers to gather, unmasked, in large groups, but for now, the new business is jumping right into the deep end with the rest, finding out some way to balance limited indoor and outdoor seating with can and merch sales, all while keeping an eye on the state’s ever-changing regulations.
When asked what restaurants need most to survive right now, Martignetti’s answer is simple: “Is it asking too much to say a vaccine?”