Small-town Massachusetts restaurant recovers from big changes

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When COVID-19 shut everything down in March of last year, it hurt many businesses and restaurants to the point where they couldn’t recover. Bueno Malo, a small restaurant in the suburban town of Andover, Massachusetts, was not one of these. Despite the suddenness of the lockdown, co-owner Franco Lozano said that he even felt a little more prepared than most people when the world shut down.

“We went through the gas disaster a few years ago,” said Lozano, referring to the gas explosions that hit three different Massachusetts towns in September of 2018, affecting many businesses. On the day of the explosions, a gas burner in the kitchen of Bueno Malo caught fire causing them to close. “This taught us a lot on how to be prepared for anything both paper-wise with financials and on the front-end side, just being able to pivot quickly and being able to adjust accordingly.”

In early March, Lozano said he had a feeling things were going to shut down soon, which helped them prepare even more.

“Maybe mid-March, I was seeing videos coming out of China at the hospitals and it was horrible,” Lozano said. “So I started stalking up on Gatorade, pasta, rice and water bottles. I had a feeling we were going to be stuck at home for a few weeks at one point in the summer and everybody laughed at me but what I predicted came to fruition.”

This restaurant, which only opened four years ago in 2017, was a way to “bring a little bit of California to here,” as co-owner Michael Reidy describes it.

“I come from here; I grew up in Andover,” Reidy said. “Especially New England in general, growing up, there wasn’t this style of Latin/Mexican food, it was mostly your traditional fajita and that’s fine but there was not this sort of fresh, high quality, larger sized taco.”

On March 16, 2020, the day after Gov. Charlie Baker announced things would shut down, owners Lozano and Reidy decided to close down the restaurant until further notice.

“We did fully close for about six or seven weeks because we were really scared about this illness that was going around,” said Lozano. “Nobody knew what was going on, so I didn’t know that if we came in, just to open up as takeout, were we going to be transmitting the virus through our takeout, we had no idea.”

During that period, they had to let all of their employees go, but Lozano said that they were able to get the government grants for the Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed them to continue to pay their employees.

After this six- or seven-week period of being closed, Lozano and Reidy decided to partially open up with takeout only. 

“We didn’t just open up for the whole menu, we started doing take-out taco bars, that was kind of the thing at the time where it would feed a family of four,” said Lozano. “It was a logistical problem because we did online orders and curbside pickup, so this was all kind of new.”

Gabriel Pelegrini, the head chef who has worked at Bueno Malo since it opened, said he had to change the menu to successfully do the takeout period.

“I had to change it like almost every week,” said Pelegrini. “One because we wanted to do something different and also because, since COVID hit, everything changed. Even the food was hard to get, so we had to work with whatever we could buy.”

Like many other restaurants during the pandemic, Bueno Malo faced a shortage of food, which Lozano explained was their biggest problem. Everything from beef, chicken and even tequila has been hard to get and more expensive. The increase in food and labor costs around the country has also forced them to raise their prices.

“We’ve never had to raise prices since we opened,” said Reidy. “This month is the first time that we’ve had to raise prices minimally.”

During the pandemic, Baker signed an executive order allowing restaurants to expand their permits to double the seating capacity by way of outdoor seating. At the same time, the state also allowed restaurants to serve alcoholic beverages with their takeout meals. Lozano and Reidy said both of these additions have really helped them.

“The outdoor seating has been tremendously helpful,” said Lozano. “Hopefully, when it comes up again next year, it can be voted into law permanently. Also, 50% of takeout orders included some type of alcoholic beverage.”

Bueno Malo’s outdoor dining on the patio.
Bueno Malo added more outdoor dining in this alley once customers were allowed to din-in.

While Bueno Malo does have a bar, it has been closed since the pandemic started and Reidy, who has taken up the position as the bartender, is not sure if he should open it back up.

“I don’t want to say never but I think that would take us renovating and expanding,” Reidy said. “ It actually takes away a few chairs and we noticed that when you have tables, people tend to order more. At least for now, financially, it doesn’t make any sense to open it.”

Bueno Malo’s bar has been closed since last March. When they allowed customers back in, they decided to add more tables instead of opening the bar back up.
Bueno Malo’s main dining area, three hours before it opens for the night.

While Reidy said the money was down from past years, they still did fine during this takeout period because they were seeing amazing community support. 

 “We did extremely well and people were just so excited to have something not home cooked,” said Lozano. “When we reopened back up for the taco bars, in this community in Andover, there’s only a limited amount of restaurants, so we were one of the places that people started making their weekly dinner routine.”

Even now with the restaurant fully reopened, both co-owners and the chef have noticed ongoing and overwhelming community support. 

“Now that we are fully opened, we’ve been doing great,” said Pelegrini. “I think since people stayed home for a long time, they really want to get out and dine in and they don’t have any problem going out anymore.”

“We’ve made it through two unprecedented things that not many people can say that they would survive,” Reidy said. “But this community has kept us totally afloat. I’ve been more than blown away by the outreach and concern.”