Pandemic forces Amherst’s Lone Wolf eatery to shutter until spring

  • Rob Watson, owner of The Lone Wolf in Amherst, talks about his decision to close until spring. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Watson, owner of The Lone Wolf in Amherst, talks about his decision to close until spring. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rob Watson, owner of The Lone Wolf in Amherst, talks about his decision to close until spring. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/30/2020 8:07:10 PM

AMHERST — Various eggs Benedict concepts and Southwest dishes such as the Santa Fe omelette, Guadalupe burrito and Huevos Rancheros are staples of the breakfast and brunch menu at Lone Wolf restaurant in downtown Amherst.

At least until April 1, though, customers will not be able to visit the Main Street eatery, whose owner, Rob Watson, on Monday announced that Lone Wolf will be closing for the next four months as a result of the continuing impact of the pandemic.

In addition to the rising COVID-19 caseload across the state, the imminent demise of outdoor dining with the approaching winter weather, along with the fear many customers have of dining inside, prompted the decision.

“It just made good business sense to shut it down,” said Watson, sitting at the counter inside the establishment he opened in summer 2004. “Obviously, I’ve needed to be in more survival mode, and feel it will only get worse before it gets better.”

This will be the second time that Lone Wolf will be closed during the pandemic. The first time was from mid-March, when the pandemic began, until mid-July, when the state allowed resumption of indoor dining. Coincidentally, that reopening came on the 16th anniversary of Lone Wolf’s first day in business.

While Watson said he successfully used a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and saw appreciation from customers for the outdoor dining, he has only been breaking even, despite a slimmed-down payroll and the landlord slicing rent in half.

Lone Wolf was also down to four days a week in operation, with only seven employees in the kitchen and out front, a decrease from the 18 he employed pre-pandemic. Most of his employees, he said, have needed a second job to make ends meet.

“They did a great job and really rose to the occasion,” Watson said, adding that those who need to can collect unemployment.

About 70% of customers were using the outdoor tables, set up beneath canopies, with the remainder split evenly between those picking up orders curbside and those comfortable sitting indoors in a spaced-out fashion.

In addition to the economics of the situation, Watson has scheduled a double knee replacement surgery which will sideline him. “It makes sense for me to go into hibernation, and to get well personally,” Watson said.

Others adapting

Breakfast and lunch places are restaurants that Watson argues have more difficulties from the pandemic than restaurants open for dinner. For one, the customer checks are smaller, on average, and he assumes there has been a greater portion of the customer base lost, with many parents and workers needing to stay home with their children during the day.

Earlier in November, the owners of Jake’s at the Mill, on Cowls Road in North Amherst, a sister restaurant to the Jake’s on King Street in Northampton that is open five days a week, announced that it would only be open on Saturdays and Sundays.

Alex Washut, who co-owns the business with business partner Christopher Ware, said breakfast joints are about packing people in.

“We are a business, like all serving breakfast brunch and lunch, that exist on volume,” Washut said.

But the commuters are gone, which has meant pushing back the opening time from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m., and the restaurants are also missing the hour-long lunch breaks from people now working from home. Washut estimates a 70% reduction in total sales, with weekend sales dwindling even more.

“It’s really hard. It’s really tough,” Washut said. “It’s been pretty rough right now, pretty stressful.”

Jake’s took six weeks off to establish a takeout model that was built from scratch, noting the significant challenge in that “eggs don’t take out,” and also added a dinner-centric menu that was unable to succeed.

He charaterizes the business as hemorrhaging money, but the intent is to roll the dice to stay open and hope the situation will improve, observing that the interiors of the restaurants are sanitized regularly and customers are kept as safe as possible.

“We’re going to try to stick it out and keep our employees going,” Washut said.

Despite the challenges at Lone Wolf, Watson praised the Amherst Business Improvement District, citing the work of Ann Tweedy, the marketing director, and Executive Director Gabrielle Gould for their efforts to promote businesses and work with the town on getting the assistance needed.

“Ann and Gabrielle have been absolutely terrific,” Watson said. He also praised the town’s inspection services for streamlining permitting.

Everyone working at Lone Wolf will be paid and there won’t be any bills lingering over his head, Watson said.

Watson said he looks forward to someday again holding fundraisers, such as an annual Cancer Connection benefit, and catering an annual post-Thanksgiving family reunion.

He also feels blessed, noting that like friends in the business he will adjust to being away from the restaurant.

“Our restaurants are significant in our lives, but they don’t define who we are,” Watson said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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