Bull Run changes gears to survive pandemic

'There's a lot of activity again'

From left (outdoors): Bull Run manager Arthur Guercio, Little Leaf Lettuce founder and CEO Paul Sellew, Bull Run restaurant owner Alison Tocci, general manager Bryan Sawyer, employees Barry Rich and Luke Junek, and executive chef Stephen Barck. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
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SHIRLEY — Mother’s Day is typically the Bull Run Restaurant’s busiest day of the year.

But for the first time in 74 years, no families crowded the restaurant’s seven dining rooms to celebrate. Alison Tocci, owner and innkeeper, described the emptiness as “unnerving.”

“For me, I grew up in that building and I’m just so used to, you know, people laughing, and coming and going, and enjoying,” Tocci said.

Instead of welcoming 1,400-plus Mother’s Day guests on Sunday, kitchen staff prepared family-style and a la carte meals for delivery and takeout.

“There’s a lot of activity again,” Tocci said. “It’s not the same kind of activity, but it’s definitely activity and it’s sustaining us, and so I have to be really grateful for that.”

Tocci’s father opened the Bull Run in 1946, and it has been in the family ever since. Her brother operated the restaurant for decades. When Tocci took ownership in 2010, she transformed the space into a farm-to-table restaurant with live music.

From left (indoors): Bull Run manager Arthur Guercio, Little Leaf Lettuce founder and CEO Paul Sellew, Bull Run restaurant owner Alison Tocci, general manager Bryan Sawyer, executive chef Stephen Barck, and Bull Run employees Luke Junek and Barry Rich. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

The restaurant has always served classic New England comfort food, but Tocci aims to purchase most food from within a 500-mile radius. The Bull Run collaborates with many local vendors, including Little Leaf Farms in Devens.

“It was extraordinarily successful. And then this pandemic thing happened,” Tocci said.

Takeout meals were never a focus at the Bull Run, and the restaurant had no delivery service in place. When Gov. Charlie Baker ordered restaurants to close on March 17, the team scrambled to devise a system for takeout and delivery.

“I have an amazing team,” Tocci said. Within a week, the system operated like a “very well-oiled machine,” she said.

In April, the Bull Run launched the virtual Provisions Shop, where customers can browse for produce, meat, cleaning agents and more. Bull Run staff deliver purchases to customers in surrounding towns, and if a customer lives farther away, a pick-up time is scheduled.

Tocci compared the Provisions Shop to an online grocery store, but with goods from “quality providers” that sell meats, produce and dairy to restaurants.

“We just realized, ‘Well this is another service that we can offer,’” Tocci said. “People have some degree of nervousness about going to grocery stores.”

In addition, the Provisions Shop provides work for employees affected by the shutdown, like servers and bartenders. The Bull Run employed 80 staff members before the pandemic. In May, just 30 remained.

Services like home delivery and the Provisions Shop “keep us afloat,” Tocci said. The restaurant now brings in about 50% of its usual revenue, with about 80% to 85% of normal expenses.

The Bull Run restaurant in Shirley has adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic by offering takeout, including ingredients. Flour for baking is popular. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen next,” Tocci said. “We’re just going to wait and see and follow the directive at this point,” she added later.

Tocci is proud to serve many longtime and regular customers. Some customers’ grandparents were married there, she said. Others have grandparents who worked at the Bull Run.

The restaurant is “a touchstone for a lot of generations of people in this area who have known us for a long time,” Tocci said. “Those are people we want to take care of.”

“As a local business, watching the restaurants go through what they had to go through, we’re doing everything we can to help our customers survive through this pandemic,” Little Leaf Farms CEO Paul Sellew said.

Little Leaf recently partnered with Tocci to host a contest in which customers nominated their mothers for a free family meal prepared by the Bull Run (featuring Little Leaf salads) on Mother’s Day.

The Bull Run owner Alison Tocci, at the restaurant in Shirley. They’ve adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic by offering takeout, including ingredients. Flour for baking is popular. (SUN/Julia Malakie) (SUN/Julia Malakie)

“I think it’s going make our community more resilient by having more locally grown food,” Sellew said.

The Bull Run is a “green-certified restaurant,” meaning it doesn’t use Styrofoam and recycling is a major focus, Tocci said. All to-go meals are packaged in recyclable paper boxes.

“That costs a little bit more, but we’re trying to stick to our green initiative, because that’s really, really important to us,” Tocci said. “We’re trying to do things the way we would do it if you were coming into the restaurant.”

Thanksgiving is another busy day for the Bull Run. “Who knows what Thanksgiving will be like this year?” Tocci asked. “But you know, we’re doing what we can do in the meantime,” she added.

Tocci said she hasn’t encountered a customer who hasn’t been “extraordinarily kind.” That kindness “is something I hope lasts beyond the pandemic,” she said.