Local restaurants are facing tough times as the coronavirus outbreak continues to escalate across the state. Even though people are still ordering take out, it's not enough to keep some restaurants running without regular foot traffic. That's the reality for the local restaurant chain Boloco. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Boloco co-founder and CEO John Pepper about the hard choices he's had to make so far, and how he's trying to keep business alive and workers employed in such uncertain times. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Joe Mathieu: Your appeal broke our hearts a little bit and we wanted to talk to you. What have the last two weeks been like for you?

John Pepper: They've been sort of escalating, right? We were coming off of a really good beginning of 2020 [with] a lot of optimism. We've had our own fair share of self-inflicted wounds over the years. As one of the founders and the longtime CEO, mostly I'm responsible for those. But this is one where we realize reasonably quickly we didn't have much control over, and we watched, starting from two weeks ago Wednesday, sales start to just drop precipitously, which for good reason. We understood the reason, but it didn't mean that we didn't fret about those for days on end. So, yeah, it's been very challenging. One other thing we tried to do is just we tried to keep the restaurants going. We tried to deploy the safest measures we could, but after about a week, we couldn't keep four of the restaurants open. The Financial District in Boston specifically was absolutely a ghost town. I think we served 27 customers in our Atlantic Wharf restaurant before deciding to shut that one.

Mathieu: Wow. Without that business lunch traffic, I know it's impossible. So you have closed four locations so far, is that right?

Pepper: Yeah.

Mathieu: How many will survive the next four days? I know that you could be dealing with more.

Pepper: Yeah. So, it's funny, I had spoken to a small group of people earlier in the morning on whatever day I posted that video — it just seems like one big, long day right now, doesn't it?

Mathieu: It does.

Pepper: But I had this sense of watching all of these restaurant peers of mine. I'm on the phone with CEOs of restaurants all over the country, and other businesses, too. Businesses have a tendency not to say anything before they go and close. They they just close and you read about it after. I've often thought it's really hard [and] it feels it feels very vulnerable to say this is what's going to happen. It feels a little weak. But I just decided that morning I was going to say something to just, in case it mattered, let people know here's what we've been doing [and] here's how we pivoted our business model to really focus on the people who are out in the streets working still, who have to be at jobs, who are central workers. We dropped our prices to five dollars, that wasn't working. But I will say when I put that put that video out, I really did believe we were going to be closing our Lynnfield, Mass store after the close of business the day before. It was open yesterday. All the restaurants were open yesterday. The other thing that we did is we had to quickly put up a fundraiser, which we call "Feed the Frontline". It's not that unique now in this time, but over 24 hours we raised over $16,000 towards feeding the front line. So that gives us a reason to exist for at least four more days. So it's really been exciting. As I said, it was like a miracle on Wednesday.

Mathieu: Does that suggest that people responded to your video appeal?

Pepper: They did. The video itself, I think, on our channel alone was 8,000 views. Another guy, @BostonTweet Tom O'Keefe, had posted it, too. He said it was another 8,000 views. So people definitely saw it and they really responded to the ability [to] if they couldn't get to the restaurant or order from us, at least they could put money into the hands of Boloco to then take the food to the people who need it most right now. And so we're really excited. That's over 3,200 meals that will be donated over the next week or so. We will not close until we've properly distributed those donations. So that's one commitment we have for sure.

Mathieu: Congratulations on that. You referred to this, your "Feed the Frontline" menu. Can you tell me more about that effort? You're trying to serve people who are who are doing God's work out there right now.

Pepper: Yeah, and of course, most of them would say we're just doing our jobs, right? What they do day in and day out. The "Feed the Frontline" initiative has a number of different purposes. One is we had to simplify our own menu and our own number of ingredients just to, frankly, keep it a little bit lighter in the restaurants to allow people to be a little bit more safe distancing while working together. We have literally hundreds of ingredients and it causes all kinds of little activity that often pushes people together. We're down to like 12 ingredients. So we put out a very limited menu. We did create something called the Warrior One, which my wife is a yoga instructor and I just love yoga. And the warrior one is a pose that just makes me think of what we need in this time. It's a very simple burrito, but it allows us also to sell it for five dollars and not lose a ton of money. We don't make money, but we stay in business and we keep people employed. We also feed people on the front line for a reasonable, affordable price, and I feel like that's what this time calls for.

Mathieu: Well, in our remaining moment here, John Pepper, what's the next week like? Or should I be asking you, what's the next day look like? How are you dealing with the the hours going by and managing money and your employees?

Pepper: It's one day at a time. It really is. And sometimes it feels like a few hours at a time. I've never had better communication with my team. We have a nightly call for the last week and a half after the close of day to decide what to do the next day. The Boloco team is extraordinarily loyal. Our average manager's been with us 13 years. We've been around 23 years. So it really is a family, and this is a time where you get to know is your family for real, and it's been great to know that people are there. But I will say we really are focused on today and really, honestly, learning about what the government has in store. We haven't laid anybody off, but those four restaurants that are closed, we sort of have to figure out what to do because they need to collect unemployment. If we can't pay them, if they're not working, we cannot afford. So we're digging in today to figure out what do the government measures mean? We applied as soon as that link went on for the SBA emergency relief fund. We haven't heard anything back. They say $10,000 is guaranteed within three days. We applied nine days ago. So I'm sure we'll hear something.