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“My Responsibility is Being Able to Provide”

Northampton’s Belly of the Beast isn’t closing its doors, but the pandemic is changing how it operates

By Roman Nicholas

On June 7th, 2017, Aimee Francaes and Jesse Hassinger opened Belly of the Beast, a low-waste, from-scratch, farm-to-table restaurant on Main Street in Northampton. Belly of the Beast’s business model over the past three years has centered sustainability, relying on seasonal local ingredients, whole animal butchery and traditional produce preservation methods such as fermenting and canning. They have also been committed to making sure that their entire staff are involved in nearly every aspect of the business, creating a workplace culture of equality that can be hard to find in the restaurant industry. While always outspoken about leftist causes, the Belly owners have been especially vocal in the months since national lockdown, using their social media platforms to educate followers and customers about the Black Lives Matter movement, coronavirus safety measures, and more. Alongside other local business owners, Francaes and Hassinger also signed the local petition to marginally defund the Northampton Police Department, and since early on in the pandemic have been providing free meals on a large scale to local school children. On August 12th, Belly of the Beast announced on Instagram that it would be their last week of regular service after three years. I sat down on Zoom last week with the couple and discussed the restaurant’s future, the pandemic, and what it means to center your staff and prioritize transparency as small business owners.

Right off the bat, Francaes was quick to correct me when I asked about the decision to close. “We’re closing-ish,” she told me, explaining that they plan to keep the space open for other chefs to take up shorter term residencies and use the space for a month or two at a time. Current employees will have the option to continue work under this new model. “We’re really excited about the collaboration that will be going on, the first people to come on board will be the I-Collective, which is a group of indigenous chefs from around the country. Jesse and I are still very much going to be collaborative insofar as helping to just get things off the ground and make things move. But it’s going to be their show. It’s going to be their food and it’s going to be awesome to bring that to the valley. Even during this strange, strange time. I think they’ll be well received.”

One of the I-Collective’s Seattle-based chefs, Hillel Echo-Hawk, had been scheduled to do a pop-up dinner in April at Belly of the Beast, but the virus made this impossible. However, the restaurant has worked a number of times with Neftalí Durán, a local chef and food justice organizer (who has been featured in The Shoestring) originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, who will be another collective member instrumental in the reopening.

The collective had always been the first choice to take over the space, they said, and they hope that the transition will provide more opportunities for marginalized chefs. “Definitely that is part of what we hope this is: being able to offer a place to people who wouldn’t be able to have an opportunity like this, regardless of where they are, regardless of how many years they’ve had in kitchens. We just want to be able to have somebody take this on and really play with it,” said Hassinger. “I think it’s important to have a visible place above the tofu curtain that is open to collaboration in hopefully the way that this will become. This could conceivably be an iteration of restaurant tourism if it’s done correctly and consciously. That could be a great, great future for some places.” Both owners agreed that they hoped to see more restaurants do the same.

The intention of using their business to provide collaborative opportunities was on their minds from the beginning. Before the pandemic, the pop-up dinners were a way to accomplish this on a small scale, but working ninety-hour weeks with a small crew left little time to figure out how to create something bigger. However, when Massachusetts began to close down in March, Hassinger and Francaes had to make some difficult decisions along with every other restaurant owner. Beyond their ideal future for the restaurant, what would survival look like right now? And how could they make sure that their employees didn’t suffer a blow?

Because of their sustainable business model, Belly of the Beast was in a uniquely prepared position. Francaes remembered a joke made by Em Withenbury, owner of Iconica Social Club, about how the restaurant was “ready for the apocalypse” with their storage full of pickled, canned and frozen goods. After receiving two pigs on March 19th, they were able to go three weeks without taking in any shipments, not placing any more orders until sometime in April and limiting their menu. Once they did need to order again, safety was their first concern. Given the choice, some staff had chosen to stay home, but some were still working as the restaurant shifted to delivery-only, with meals delivered by the owners themselves. Francaes and Hassinger spent well-above their usual budget on restocking the restaurant so that future deliveries would be less frequent. Instead of getting some products from their usual suppliers, they used ingredients from the recently closed Green Bean, since they knew it had been days since anyone had been inside and the contamination risk was low. Produce was brought in by the owners three days before staff would enter the building, and when they picked up their first order of lettuce from Kitchen Garden Farm, Francaes recorded the entire process on video to have a record of every step of the sanitation process.

Once safety measures were firmly in place, the focus turned to helping the community. At a time when toilet paper was “like gold”, Francaes said they began buying it wherever they could, even ordering the jumbo rolls you’d find at a gas station. They weren’t aiming to make a profit, but instead provide another way to purchase locally, selling the rolls for a dollar each, a mere twenty cent markup from what they’d paid. They also began providing free meals for local children who could no longer access lunch programs when schools closed, something they will be continuing as the restaurant shifts into its next phase. When asked how they were able to fund hundreds of meals while operating at a loss due to a drop in orders, they explained that many ingredients were donated, both by businesses and the community. Homestead donated fresh pasta, while Tran’s World Market donated bags of rice and Walden Hill Farm donated seventy pounds of pork. Once May hit and people started easing up on panic-buying groceries, their customers started donating too. “People realized that they were buying for the apocalypse, and then they were like, ‘wait a second, this isn’t happening. I don’t need two pounds of brown rice in addition to the five pound bag that I already have open,’” said Francaes. Some guests would leave boxes of food on their porch when expecting delivery in order to make a contactless trade. Eventually, the restaurant added an option on their checkout page for customers to donate directly to the school lunch project.

Belly of the Beast’s pandemic business model changed a few times over the following months, something the owners documented on their website. But what remained the priority from the very beginning was an emphasis on caring for their staff during unprecedented times. While cutting back on spending on ingredients, the couple refused to lay anyone off, while giving their employees the choice to stay home if they felt safer doing so, understanding that they could return at any time. By June, almost their entire staff had returned. The business’ PPP loan and a Northampton small business grant meant that rent was covered for the first few months, and they were able to ensure that workers had reliable part-time hours, even if the owners couldn’t offer full-time work. “That combined with the six hundred dollar unemployment benefits and the expansion of unemployment to include people who had reduced hours rather than were completely unemployed, all of those things helped all our employees be able to piece together a livable wage based on the new reality of where things were at,” said Hassinger. Unlike many, especially in the restaurant industry, workers were able to have a secure and safe workplace and government benefits to supplement their lost hours.

Along with a promise of job security, Belly of the Beast also completely changed their staff meal structure, Francaes told me. “Basically our staff meal used to be the equivalent of a 12 dollar meal and a beer per shift. And like, from the beginning that went out the window. I said, ‘do not buy groceries anymore. This is your grocery store now. Anything you want. You need to tell me so that I can keep good track of inventory and what we’re doing. But take what you need.’”

“We wanted to be able to provide that to them before we even provided that food to our customers,” said Hassinger. “The walk-in was their grocery store and then whatever was left after our staff was able to choose what they wanted would be the food that we made for our guests.”

Francaes remembered telling her staff in April, “at any moment any one of you can come to me and say, ‘I’m done,’ or a lot of you can say “we’re done”, and then we’re all just eating out of this freezer together and we’ll be okay for a little while. Like, we’ll be okay for months.”

The couple was also transparent with their staff about their financials, something which has been true since the restaurant opened, with monthly meetings centered on business and budget and including every team member. When the business closed to dine-in customers, the employees were informed about every grant the owners applied for. They were told the rules of the PPP loan, how percentages of the money were required to be allocated, and how that would reflect in their paychecks. And when government money began running out in June and the business had to face high costs again while operating at a forty to sixty percent loss, the only concern was how to make sure their workers were the very last to be affected.

“We stopped our trash service and I just started taking everything to the dump once a week,” said Francaes. “We stopped our linen service and I just started doing all of our towels. I just looked at our bills and just drastically changed what we were doing. Funny enough, looking back on everything, even though at some moments it felt like we were hemorrhaging money, we never were really hemorrhaging money. But it was a slow drain.” Soon, it became questionable how much longer they could make things work.

Sinking profits weren’t the primary concern compared with the stress that came from constant adjustments and creativity in order to keep things running while supporting their employees as best they could. Eventually, they decided the right choice would be to bring things to a close on their own terms while there was still money in the bank instead of trying to keep up operations until they ran dry, leaving them potentially unable to give their employees fair warning.

“We didn’t want to get to that point and not have the decision already be made because then the decision is made for you, and that’s a much worse place to be,” Francaes said. “We went over our numbers and we said, ‘you know what? We have enough money to be able to do three more payrolls: the payroll that’s about to come up and then two more payrolls. That isn’t relying on any sales coming in, that we’re just able to pay out our staff at the rate that would be somewhat normal to what they’ve been getting right now.’ And we felt like that was the best way for us to spend the business money before they have to go on unemployment and also to keep our commitment to them of getting through the end of the month, even though we’re not going to do sales through the end of the month. Because at the end of the day, you’re not looking at a million dollars where you can just be like, great, I can pay my staff, I can pay my landlords, and I can just sit for a year and not do anything. That’s not what we’re looking at. We’re looking at like, do we just hold on to all this money and pay it out? And pay it out slowly to just hold on to the space the best we can over whatever amount of time? Do we pay out more to our landlords as best we can because of the wonderful space that they have provided for us and what that looks like? Or do we do what we have done and what we’re planning to do, which is to take care of our staff. The staff, they come to you and work for you. You’re the one giving them a way of life. And that’s my responsibility as a business owner. My responsibility is the fact that I’m in an agreement where I trust them to come in and work for me. And my responsibility is to be able to provide.”

I reached out to HR Clark, a Belly of the Beast employee who confirmed every statement made by their employers in our interview and emphasized the level of care and respect they felt working at the restaurant. “I have never felt so supported and appreciated in any job,” they said. “It’s been an honor to work at Belly of the Beast, and having a job or any environment like this during this time has been a godsend. There’s nobody else I would rather go through COVID-19 with than the Belly team.” They continued that Francaes and Hassinger went “above and beyond” in making sure workers were taken care of. At the beginning of the pandemic before they returned to work, they said they even received care packages from the couple containing food and supplies. Clark described Francaes and Hassinger as a source of both emotional and physical comfort during an unprecedented time, but said this standard of care was in place long before the pandemic.

Because a large percentage of the restaurant industry in America relies on wage theft and exploitation to turn a profit, the idea of putting employees first can be unimaginable for so many of us who have worked in kitchens. Even in the Pioneer Valley there are numerous examples, from the ongoing investigation into the Iron Horse Music Hall seated right behind Belly of the Beast itself to last year’s lawsuit against Amherst’s Wings Over delivery business. When first reaching out to Francaes and Hassinger, the biggest question on my mind was is this really possible? Can a sustainable model apply not only to food systems but also to labor? Especially when a business still operates from the top down as opposed to a cooperatively owned or unionized entity? I asked the couple whether their lack of focus on personal profit had led to the end of the restaurant in its current form. Would an exploitative model have survived better under capitalism, and would throwing workers under the bus as a small business have saved their finances?

“Not in any way, shape or form,” Francaes said firmly. “If Covid never had happened- I mean, I keep saying there’s a 5% chance that this August we might have had to make this shift or close or do something, right? There’s always a chance in the restaurant industry – you’re always walking such a fine line. But, if anything, I feel like these three years have proven that our concept fucking works! It fucking works.”

“With our concept and our approach to how we make food, how we’ve set up the labor is as important of an issue,” Hassinger said. “I’ll just come out and say it: we’re both anti-capitalist and it’s a late capitalist society. I’m realizing now with so many strains on economics and social divisions and racial inequalities coming to the surface and white supremacy being excavated at the heart of everything so much right now, the socialist structure that we sort of implemented was not necessarily consciously – at least for me – a socialist structure. But it just made sense based on, one, our values system and also our experiences seeing the division of labor in other restaurants, where people work in specific sections: a sauté station, front of house, et cetera. Nearly every single person working for us does every part of the labor. It universalised everyone’s understanding of how important and difficult every position was.”

Returning to the idea of financial transparency, he added, “from day one, whenever we had monthly staff meetings, we would dedicate at least one of those staff meetings to financials,” Everybody has an understanding and everybody has a buy-in. It was very conscious on our end to make sure that everyone really felt ownership, felt part of the whole team, and felt that it really was a large team and not just a job.”

“They have always been very transparent with business plans and finances prior to COVID-19 and that has fostered an environment where everyone cares deeply for the success of Belly of the Beast and an attachment to the work they do and provide to the community,” agreed Clark. When the restaurant’s staff was informed of the new plan for a chef residency restaurant model, they were invited to utilize the space as resident chefs themselves if they were interested. Though none are currently ready to take that offer quite yet, they now have a decision to make about whether they will continue working at 159 Main Street, recently meeting as a team with the chef gearing up to be the head of operations over the next few months. Clark says they’ve made the choice to stay on board and are excited for the I-Collective’s takeover.

At the end of our conversation, Francaes emphasized the importance of their partnerships with local farms as well as their patrons in allowing this collective model to survive. “I always turn to Jesse and say, ‘look, when we can’t pay our staff or we can’t pay the farms, we’re not in business anymore.’ That’s just always been the way it is, because our farms and our partnerships with those farms are absolutely the lifeblood. And our guests should get credit too. When you go into something thinking about all the angles, you never stop thinking about all those angles and all those angles equal people. There is another human being at the end of each of those spots and to not have the perspective and to not be thinking about what it’s like to be in those shoes – that’s not doing a service to your community, right?”

Roman Nicholas is a co-editor of the Shoestring.

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