In March 2020, Chez-Vous Roller Skating Rink’s staff were gearing up to host “Swerve: A Boston Skate Situation,” its annual April celebration of skating and community. Chez-Vous has been open in Dorchester since 1933, and has long been a linchpin of Boston’s Black community, a popular place for birthday parties, school trips, and celebrations of all kinds. On a typical Friday night before the pandemic broke out, the rink would be full of people flowing and dancing their ways across the lacquered wooden surface below their feet, their faces illuminated by flashes of colorful lights emanating from glow sticks, strobes, and arcade games.
But for the last 12 months there have been no typical Friday nights at Chez-Vous, and the only lights emanating from the roller skating rink have been from its kitchen.
When the novel coronavirus broke out in Massachusetts last winter and Gov. Charlie Baker closed all non-essential businesses in the state, including indoor entertainment venues like the roller skating rink, Chez-Vous’s plans changed drastically, but it had a built-in backup plan: it would pivot from roller skating rink to restaurant.
While skating has always been the main draw at Chez-Vous, it’s also known as a destination for good soul food. When the Toney family bought the business in the 1990s, they introduced a menu that was more sophisticated (and of much better quality) than the average concession stand. Diners won’t find frozen mozzarella sticks or stale slices of pizza at Chez-Vous, but they will find crispy, golden fried chicken, mac and cheese, smoky collard greens, candied yams, and an array of daily specials, including fried dough, fried Oreos, and jerk chicken.
Derrick Foster-Toney, who essentially grew up inside Chez-Vous and now manages the business, acknowledged that his family was faced with some tough decisions when the pandemic hit, but said that they were also fortunate because they had a backup plan, and didn’t have to create a restaurant business — or build a customer base — from scratch.
“It wasn’t a second thought,” Foster-Toney says about transitioning from roller skating to food service. “It was the next best thing. People know us for having good food. We make everything from scratch.”
Since the Toneys took over the business all those years ago, Chez-Vous has been more than just a roller skating rink — it’s been a place to gather, a place to form generational memories, and a haven for Boston’s Black youth. That remains the case now, even during a pandemic that has forced the business to reevaluate and drastically change its core operating model.
Dorchester-based musician and activist DJ WhySham, who has been going to Chez-Vous for as long as she can remember, and has continued to be a regular throughout the pandemic, knows that as well as anybody. “Chez-Vous has been a family friendly spot since I was born,” WhySham says. “During the pandemic, a lot of small businesses found a way to keep the doors open. Chez-Vous did that and more by giving the community another place to get a well-balanced soul food meal — and the slushy is a plus.”
Kimberly Hobart, a recent takeout patron, was delighted with her meal. “The fried wings and haddock stayed moist inside, and crisp outside through the pickup and drive home. All the sides — collard greens, candied yams, baked mac and cheese, cornbread — were delicious, and perfectly seasoned. I am grateful I got to step inside to pick up, and get a couple minutes of the Chez-Vous vibe: friendly faces and music you used to dance to. I can’t wait for the rink to open up again.”
Foster-Toney believes that the rink’s reputation for quality food has helped it immeasurably over the past year. “[Customers] know the food is actually good and it’s something they can support — it’s not just about [sustaining during] the pandemic,” Foster-Toney says. “We really stand behind our quality.”
Community has always been key to the success of Chez-Vous, even before the pandemic. To nurture those relationships throughout the pandemic, Chez-Vous hosted Sunday dinner pop-ups and skating lessons at various outdoor parks throughout the city. The weekly Sunday dinners featured anything from fish and chips to fried dough — and, of course, Chez-Vous’s beloved fried chicken. (Diners could even get chicken and red velvet waffles at one point.) The cold winter weather eventually limited what Chez-Vous could offer in terms of outdoor dining, but during the warmer months of 2020, the Toneys would invite takeout patrons to eat their food “in the yard.”
This family-owned and Black-owned business is an icon in Boston’s Black community. The space is family-friendly and nurturing, one that has supported the uplift of Boston’s Black youth for decades. Many Black Bostonians have fond memories of skating at Chez-Vous as kids, and then bringing their own kids to Chez-Vous to learn the craft years later. In that sense, Chez-Vous is both a nostalgic space for many Black Bostonians, but also a part of the community’s contemporary tapestry. The importance of these kinds of spaces can’t be overstated, and can’t be taken for granted.
Now that indoor recreational activities like roller skating are permitted in Massachusetts at 50 percent capacity as of March 1, Chez-Vous can reopen whenever it pleases. But for the time being, the Toneys are keeping the rink closed and focusing on renovations. The owners anticipate they’ll reopen some time in May or early summer. Until then, the kitchen will remain open for takeout (and delivery via Grubhub), and the Toneys will continue to invite diners to have a seat in the yard.
“I am hopeful that this experience will allow people to appreciate what we have as a community — sometimes we lose sight of that,” Foster-Toney says.