Charlie Noyes is in the same boat as everyone else. He is working predominantly from his Gloucester home, adhering to evolving restrictions, for himself and his Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub employees, and pining for a return to some semblance of normalcy.
“Knock on wood, no one among our 6,352 employees has tested as definitively positive, which is really kind of amazing,” Noyes, the president of the Ninety Nine restaurant chain, said. “The state regulations keep changing, the local regulations keep changing and we’re just trying to keep up.”
The Ninety Nine is the highest-profile partner the city has in its Gloucester Fresh branding campaign to promote locally landed seafood. For the fourth consecutive year, the Ninety Nine will feature Gloucester Fresh haddock — usually called Cape Ann haddock — on its summer menu at its 105 restaurants.
The dish, Noyes said, remains one of the restaurant chain’s most popular. And the numbers seem to back that up.
Noyes said the Ninety Nine chain will buy 750,000 pounds of Gloucester-landed fresh haddock as part of the Gloucester Fresh program.
“It still runs really, really well,” Noyes said. “And every one of our servers at every restaurant knows the exact boat the fish came off.”
The Gloucester Fresh haddock is landed in Gloucester off the Blue Harvest boats that used to be fished by Jim Odlin out of Portland, Maine.
The fish comes through Fishermen’s Wharf on Rogers Street and then is trucked to New Bedford, where it is cut and processed at a Blue Harvest facility. Initially, it was processed at Gloucester Seafood Processing in the Blackburn Industrial Park before the plant got out of the business of
processing fresh fin-fish.
But there’s more: Ninety Nine is expanding the presence of frozen New England-landed haddock on its menu.
Noyes said it is replacing the frozen North Atlantic cod in its fish-and-chips with frozen New England haddock — some of it landed in Gloucester.
It expects to buy 2.25 million pounds of haddock for the frozen program, bringing its projected purchase of haddock to 3 million pounds — or roughly 20 percent of the haddock caught commercially in New England and the rest of the United States.
Those are the plans, but it remains to be seen when the restrictions will be lifted on on-site dining. Ninety Nine was set to launch its spring menu on Monday and that has been cancelled because of the ongoing crisis.
The tentative launch date for the summer menu and the return of Gloucester Fresh haddock is June 15.
“All things being equal, that’s still a workable date at this point,” Noyes said.
The restaurant business during the reign of the novel coronavirus is not for the meek.
Restaurateurs occupy parallel strands within the complex web that the relentless virus has spun. Because of the social nature of dining out and the unavoidable human contact, the bar and restaurant industry was one of the first to be largely shuttered by the precautions.
In Massachusetts, on-site drinking and dining has been banned for more than a week and will extend at least another fortnight.
At the same time, as Gov. Charlie Baker stated in announcing the strictest precautionary measures, restaurants remain an essential business if we are to retain any notion of social normalcy. So, now we all take it to go.
Noyes said he is doing all he can to keep the chain’s restaurants open in the midst of the crisis by serving to-go items and full takeout meals off specially crafted menus. The goal, he said, is to keep as many employees as possible working while retaining the chain’s community of customers.
Toward that end, Noyes has begun a regular email campaign called Friends & Families to update employees and customers on all things Ninety Nine, including discounts on to-go orders — currently 25% — and other news on special offers, menu changes et al. Patrons can subscribe on the company website.
“The response has been great,” Noyes said. “We’ve received many, many pictures of people enjoying their favorite Ninety Nine meal at their own kitchen table.”