OVER THE PAST YEAR and a half, we all have been focused on a singular mission: survival. Now, as restrictions lift and we begin to venture out, we turn to a new mission of recovery. How we adapt and bounce back stronger and more resilient is a question all of us are facing, and that includes our small businesses.
Unlike large corporations with human resources and public relations departments and even disaster recovery teams, most local small businesses are mom-and-pop operations in which family members, friends, and a few employees carry the entire load. During the pandemic, responding to federal, state and local advisories that changed almost daily was a herculean effort, and we could not have survived without the support of all the local agencies, initiatives, and community partners. These same partnerships will be the key to our collective recovery.
Spinelli’s Ravioli Mfg. Co. Inc. has been a neighborhood institution in East Boston for over 57 years, and we have been able to bank on our reputation and the loyalty of our customers. Because of that, we have enjoyed growth and a great deal of evolution since changing ownership in 1983, from our inauspicious beginnings as a corner pasta shop feeding the working masses in East Boston, to a bakery and purveyor of prepared take-out items, to a full-fledged function facility and beloved event venue with two locations. As 2020 neared, we were in the process of unveiling our extensive renovations to our Lynnfield venue and preparing for a banner year – particularly for weddings. Then the pandemic hit.
In a matter of weeks, life came to a screeching halt for the event, catering, and food service industries. Our operations were limited primarily to serving other frontline employees, and our perennial meals on wheels program for the elderly became more important than ever. Our once-bustling 24/7/365 business slowed down to a trickle. We were fortunate not to have to lay anyone off. As demand slowed, our resources pivoted to implementing guidelines and determining how we could most effectively meet the needs of our customers and our community.
Just as our business and our way of life changed, people’s needs changed. Customers were reaching out to us to deliver meals to their loved ones. We reimagined our menu to be able to provide individually-packaged offerings. We began receiving calls from community advocacy organizations, with whom we have partnered for many years, looking for any assistance we could provide to help meet the overwhelming need. And as the pandemic brought food insecurity to the forefront, we worked together to forge new partnerships.
One such partnership offers a roadmap for how agencies, organizations, and foundations can help leverage federal funding to provide free, healthy food, and to do so in a way that benefits both businesses and residents in need. Last month, in partnership with the YMCA of Greater Boston and the Shah Family Foundation, Spinelli’s launched the “Local Lunchbox” program, an initiative by which anyone 18 or under can walk into our East Boston location and receive a free breakfast and lunch – including things like milk, fruit, chicken, broccoli, pasta, and more. The food is cooked fresh on-site, and no ID is required. And every meal is reimbursed by the federal government – a reimbursement that covers food expenses as well as staff and equipment needs.
Supporting our community through programs like Local Lunchbox is a key part of who we are as a local institution. Similarly, through our relationships with the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we have provided meals for frontline workers, National Guard members, overflow hospital sites, and shelters. With the advent and growth of these initiatives, we have even been able to grow and bring on additional staff.
Our story is just one example of the ways in which hundreds of thousands of struggling small businesses nationwide may be able to adapt. As we all emerge in the post-COVID era, let’s continue to show how the recovery of our small businesses and the recovery of our community can go hand-in-hand.
Celeste Ribeiro Hewitt is an operations specialist at Spinelli’s Ravioli and Pastry Shop in East Boston.