Located in a historic building across from the Newburyport Commuter Rail, Metzy’s Cantina serves up smoked pork belly tacos and Buffalo chicken empanadas under twinkling string lights and the watchful eye of colorful sugar skulls. Diners inside might not realize it, but the restaurant wouldn’t have happened without the MBTA. No, the public transit giant isn’t secretly perfecting a homemade tortilla recipe. It is Metzy’s Cantina’s landlord.
The MBTA isn’t just responsible for a transit system that everyone loves to hate. It also has a hand in curating Boston’s evolving restaurant scene. Eater spoke with three restaurant owners who arranged deals with the MBTA. Unlike the Red Line, none of these restaurants have caught fire, but there are a unique set of rules that come with renting from the MBTA, including everything from providing a rest stop for bus drivers to forgoing propane.
When Metzy’s owner Erik Metzdorf bid on the empty conductors building in 2015, he had a Kickstarter campaign and a dozen successful taco recipes. But as a first-time restaurant owner, he had very little idea what he was in for.
The property at 5 Boston Way in Newburyport had been dormant for decades save for a failed cafe concept that drowned in red tape, according to a 2016 Boston Globe article.
Metzdorf budgeted $342,000 to renovate the building. He estimates that it actually took over $500,000 just to get the restaurant ready to open. Under his lease with the MBTA, Metzdorf is responsible for all building upkeep, from water, electricity, and gas bills to maintaining the HVAC system and electrical transformer, fixing roof leaks, and any additional incidents. Metzdorf agreed to take on these costs due to the otherwise favorable terms of the lease. Because the property had been derelict for years, much of those funds went into making the space habitable and safe, including removing hundreds of hypodermic needles from the grounds.
“We took an asset for the T that was worth negative money,” says Metzdorf. “I’m proud of what we’ve done.”
Despite the heavy monetary burdens, Metzdorf says the MBTA doesn’t bother him. In fact, he usually speaks with them only once a year for a check-in. Jason Doo, the owner of restaurant and tiki bar Wusong Road in Cambridge — located inside an MBTA-affiliated building — says that he has had the opposite experience. He has MBTA managers on speed dial.
Technically, Doo doesn’t rent from the MBTA, but he has to get their permission to perform even basic tasks in his restaurant. The MBTA doesn’t own the building but it does maintain an easement on it — which gives them legal rights to enter and utilize the property — because Wusong Road is located directly next to a busway, a road exclusively used for MBTA buses heading into the Harvard Square Station.
When Doo was designing Wusong Road, he had to adhere to certain MBTA-mandated standards. For example, the windows facing the busway must be inoperable because people are not allowed within 10 feet of the wires hanging above the busway. Doo was also required to provide an exterior rest stop for the bus drivers to sit at during breaks.
Doo needs to coordinate closely with the MBTA in order to do routine maintenance like cleaning the grease traps of the restaurant, which are on the exterior side of the building abutting the busway. Generally, it takes about 20 minutes to clean Wusong Road’s grease traps. The MBTA anticipated that the busway would need to be shut down for the cleaning and Doo says it took three months to coordinate. Initially, the MBTA also planned to charge Doo upwards of $3,000 for this cleaning to cover a minimum period of disrupted bus service. After a few months of negotiation, they dropped the charge.
Now, the process has become much more seamless and Doo needs only to text his contact at the MBTA to get clearance for grease trap cleanings.
There have been hiccups along the way, including a memorable incident when a bus crashed into the Wusong Road dumpster which is located directly next to the busway. Doo had the option to appeal to the MBTA to pay for the $2,000 in damages, but the bureaucratic process could have easily taken a year, so he decided to pay for the repairs out of his own pocket. Decorative planters on the restaurant’s outdoor patio have also been smashed by errant buses.
“We’ve had a lot of our property absolutely destroyed by the buses taking the turns too fast or too close,” says Doo.
Alex Tannenbaum, the owner of Cambridge’s Naco Taco, has similarly adjusted his business model to suit the MBTA’s needs. On weekdays, Tannenbaum rents a space from the MBTA for a Naco Taco food truck on Newbury Street, adjacent to the Hynes Convention Center T stop. Due to its proximity to the trains, any food vendor who uses that space is forbidden from using propane. As a result, the Naco Taco truck is specifically designed to hook up to the electricity on the side of the building. The truck can’t be used anywhere but in this space, according to Tannenbaum.
Naco Taco inherited the truck, and the lease on the space, from Clover Food Lab. Tannenbaum pays the MBTA rent and electricity. He declined to share specific financials but says that both are a reasonable rate. “I have a good relationship with the MBTA,” he says. “It’s very, very easy to deal with anything whenever it comes up.”
Tannenbaum previously worked in commercial property management, and he says the diversity in lease agreements seen in these MBTA properties is typical. “Every lease is different, every landlord is different, every deal is different,” he says.
These restaurant deals are just a few examples of the reach of the public transit giant, which has a hand in property development all over Boston. The MBTA is involved in many commercial real estate transactions from land and retail sales and leases to participation in large mixed-use developments like the high-rise above the Lansdowne (formerly Yawkey) Commuter Rail station in Fenway and the New Balance compound at Boston Landing, among others. (However, they say they don’t directly rent the retail and restaurant spaces in all those buildings.)
“The MBTA continues to work productively and collaboratively with the tenants it has agreements with, and welcomes these kinds of opportunities in the future,” an MBTA spokesperson said in a statement responding to Eater inquiries. They declined to share further details about how they work with restaurants or their specific arrangements with the mixed-use, high-rise developments.
Doo says his relationship with the business arm of the MBTA has been positive, his ridership experience notwithstanding. And hey, the next time a train delay derails your commute, at least you can settle in for coconut-glazed spareribs at Wusong Road or a New England-inspired crispy cod burrito at Metzy’s.
Celina Colby is a Boston-based writer covering travel, food, and art.