By Steven Froias / Contributing Writer
NEW BEDFORD, MA -Kristin Raffa Cahill recalls the day she realized that it was all truly worthwhile. No matter what turmoil operating during a pandemic had caused. On that day, Pa Raffa’s Italian Restaurant in the North End of New Bedford received two very special visits.
The first was from a young member of the crew who had been away for military service. On leave, he stopped by and “jumped right back in,” Kristin says. “He was in the kitchen slicing pizzas!” In fact, Pa Raffa’s was his first stop in the city.
That’s the kind of place Pa Raffa’s is. Crew members are part of an extended family. And if Kristin had any doubt as to that, a second notable visit that very day reinforced the point. And underscored why Pa Raffa’s is more than a small business, but an essential part of the emotional as well economic infrastructure of New Bedford.
An older gent was sitting in his car in the parking lot. When Kristin began talking to him, she discovered that he had been part of the original crew at the restaurant and just wanted to stop, sit and remember.
“It was like two worlds colliding,” says Kristin. One of their youngest crew members and one of their oldest both arriving on the same day.
“That’s when I realized that we had to keep going,” she concluded.
There’s no doubt that finding a way forward during the Covid-19 pandemic was a harrowing experience for the restaurant. It’s been a family business since 1964. Today, Kristin Raffa Cahill’s mom, Joanne is the owner of what is legitimately described as the “iconic eatery,” and Kristin has been the manager since 2010.
During the period of draconian restrictions, Pa’a had to close for a bit, but soon re-opened for take-out only with curbside pick-up. Out of an abundance of caution, the restaurant will continue to operate that way until after the summer. It’s open seven days a week from 11:30 to 7:30 for pick-up orders.
But, the Pa Raffa’s that’s beloved, and part of the fabric of the North End where Acushnet Avenue and Ashley Boulevard meet will be fully back in business with indoor dining come September. Kristin, after all, recognizes that she’s the steward of a legacy.
“We want to be open again for the celebrations and special moments people share here,” she says. “We have to keep this here for young people to experience!”
The last year or so has certainly been tough, but looking back, she and the staff are content to celebrate their small victories getting through each day. Kristin says the staff has never been closer as they navigated the treacherous year together.
Perhaps the lowest point came when a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. Pa’s had to naturally close down that weekend.
Fortunately, the person was fine. And, it’s also at that time the New Bedford Economic Development Council (NBEDC) was able to lend a hand.
As so many businesses did throughout 2020, Pa Raffa’s applied for and received a Small Business Administration grant and loan. It was right around this weekend that the NBEDC was able to confirm to Kristin that her application had been accepted and processed.
The $10,000 grant and $10,000 low-interest loan didn’t, of course, make up for the losses of an entire year. However, it was just the right amount to get Pa Raffa’s over the hump – especially at a perilous time.
Throughout the crisis, Kristin says she was in constant contact with the NBEDC for help sorting through the shifting health and safety guidelines. Also, just before the pandemic, a construction project had been started at the restaurant, and it was critical to get the information she needed to resume the project when restrictions eased.
“Who in the city should I talk to?” she had wondered. Yet, she knew – the team at the NBEDC was there.
“While the NBEDC performs rewarding work from crafting strategic development policies to day-to-day loan processing for small businesses, there’s something especially gratifying about being here for the businesses that form the backbone of our community,” says NBEDC Executive Director Derek Santos.
In the North End, that work is helped by the Love The Ave project, which has been shepherded by the NBEDC for several years. It began as a project initiated by the MA Smart Growth Alliance in partnership with the Community Economic Development Center (CEDC) on Acushnet Avenue. Today, it continues as a collaborative effort between many organizations and groups.
Having that sort of infrastructure in place was important when the NBEDC wanted to ensure small businesses were aware of opportunities for Covid relief programs throughout 2020 – and moving forward into recovery.
It’s able to help maintain the connection to places like Pa Raffa’s and other businesses like Folco’s Jewelers. It, too, is a multi-generational small business that, through the Love The Ave promotion, made a connection with the NBEDC.
The Covid-19 pandemic represented an existential crisis for many small businesses. Yet, as Kristin Raffa Cahill and the people at Pa Raffa’s discovered with their own “small victories” each day, it’s becoming apparent that the architecture of community in place throughout New Bedford represents its own victory.
There is still much work to do to claim complete recovery from the pandemic. The New Bedford Economic Development Council stands ready to help get the job done. There’s reason still to Love The Ave and celebrate neighborhoods like the North End – indeed, neighborhoods throughout the entire City of New Bedford.
And at the end of this long day, we can rest assured that we have a place like Pa Raffa’s to meet and greet each other forever and always. Thanks to the determination and resilient spirit of the community we are building together.