How Chez-Vous went from Roller Rink to Soul Food Restaurant during the pandemic
In March 2020, the Chez-Vous Roller skating rink staff were preparing to host “Swerve: A Boston Skate Situation,” its annual April celebration of skating and community. Chez-Vous has been open in Dorchester since 1933 and has long been a pillar of Boston’s black community, a popular venue for birthday parties, school trips and parties of all kinds. On a typical Friday night before the pandemic hit, the rink was full of people streaming and dancing on the lacquered wooden surface below their feet, their faces lit up by flashes of colored lights emanating from glow sticks, strobes and games of arcade. .
But for 12 months, there hasn’t been a typical Friday night at Chez-Vous, and the only lights emanating from the roller rink came from its kitchen.
When the novel coronavirus broke out in Massachusetts last winter and Governor Charlie Baker shut down all non-essential businesses in the state, including indoor entertainment venues like the roller skating rink, Chez-Vous plans changed drastically, but he had a built-in backup plan: he would go from the roller rink to the restaurant.
While skating has always been Chez-Vous’ main draw, it’s also known as a destination for soulful good food. When the Toney family bought the business in the 1990s, they introduced a more sophisticated (and much higher quality) menu than the average concession stand. Diners won’t find frozen mozzarella sticks or stale pizza slices at Chez-Vous, but they will find crispy, golden fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, smoked collard greens, candied yams and a range of dishes from day, including fried dough, fried Oreos and jerk chicken.
Derrick Foster-Toney, who basically grew up inside Chez-Vous and now runs the business, acknowledged his family faced tough decisions when the pandemic hit, but said they also had lucky because they had a backup plan, and didn’t need to start a restaurant business – or build a clientele – from scratch.
“It wasn’t a second thought,” Foster-Toney says of the transition from roller skating to food service. “It was the best thing to do. People know us for having great food. We manufacture everything from scratch.
Since the Toneys took over the business all those years ago, Chez-Vous has been more than just a roller rink – it’s a gathering place, a place to form generational memories and a haven for youth. boston black. That remains the case now, even during a pandemic that has forced the company to reassess and drastically change its core operating model.
Musician and activist based in Dorchester DJ Why Sham, who has been frequenting Chez-Vous for as long as she can remember and who has remained a regular throughout the pandemic, knows this as well as anyone. “Chez-Vous has been a family place since I was born,” says WhySham. “During the pandemic, many small businesses have found a way to keep the doors open. Chez-Vous has done that and more by giving the community another place to get a well-rounded soul food meal – and the slushy is a plus.
Kimberly Hobart, a recent takeout customer, was delighted with her meal. “The fried wings and haddock stayed moist on the inside and crispy on the outside during pick up and drive home. All the accompaniments – collard greens, candied yams, baked mac and cheese, cornbread – were delicious and perfectly seasoned. I’m grateful I was able to go inside to pick up and have a few minutes of the Chez-Vous vibe: friendly faces and music you were dancing to. I can’t wait for the rink to reopen.
Foster-Toney believes the rink’s reputation for quality food has helped her tremendously over the past year. “[Customers] know that the food is really good and that it’s something they can support – it’s not just about [sustaining during] the pandemic,” says Foster-Toney. “We really stand behind our quality.”
Community has always been key to the success of Chez-Vous, even before the pandemic. To nurture those relationships throughout the pandemic, Chez-Vous has hosted pop-up Sunday dinners and skating lessons at various outdoor parks around the city. Weekly Sunday dinners offered everything from fish and chips to fried dough – and, of course, Chez-Vous’s beloved fried chicken. (Diners could even get chicken and red velvet waffles at one point.) The cold winter weather eventually limited what Chez-Vous could offer in terms of alfresco dining, but during cooler months hottest of 2020, the Toneys were inviting take-out customers to eat their food “in the courtyard”.
This black-owned family business is an icon of Boston’s black community. The space is family-friendly and nurturing, one that has supported the upliftment of Boston’s black youth for decades. Many black Bostonians have fond memories of skating at Chez-Vous as children and then bringing their own children to Chez-Vous to learn the craft years later. In this sense, Chez-Vous is both a nostalgic space for many black Bostonians, but also part of the community’s contemporary tapestry. The importance of these types of spaces cannot be overstated and cannot be taken for granted.
Now that indoor recreational activities like roller skating are allowed in Massachusetts at 50% capacity starting March 1, Chez-Vous can reopen whenever it sees fit. But for now, the Toneys are keeping the rink closed and focusing on renovations. The owners anticipate that they will reopen in May or early summer. Until then, the kitchen will remain open for takeout (and delivery via Grubhub), and the Toneys will continue to invite diners to sit in the courtyard.
“I hope this experience will allow people to appreciate what we have as a community – sometimes we lose sight of that,” Foster-Toney says.
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