State lodging association questions findings, but sees ‘great deal of risk’ that some won’t remain open.
By: Bob Sanders, NH Business Review
A recently released national report’s prediction that two-thirds of New Hampshire’s hotels will shut down if they don’t get more federal aid seems “really high,” but that doesn’t mean that the state’s lodging industry isn’t in big trouble, said Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association.
“Let‘s be real clear: There is a great deal of risk that some hotels won’t be able to stay open. A lot of properties are heavily leveraged, and the aid could make be the difference of some of the making it and some of them not,” Somers said.
The report from the American Hotel and Lodging Association (not affiliated with the NHLRA) estimates that 233 of the state’s 348 hotels will shut down if Congress doesn’t pass another stimulus package that would include such support as the Paycheck Protection Program, which ended in early August.
By: Jeff McMenemy, Seacoastonline.com
DOVER — Seacoast restaurant owners offered Gov. Chris Sununu reports on how their businesses did during the COVID-19 summer.
And they also expressed concerns about what the coming winter would mean for their restaurants.
Steve Newick is the owner of Newick’s Lobster House, where Sununu held a discussion with restaurant owners Friday.
“The only good thing that came out of the drought is we were able to stay open outside the entire summer without really missing any days,” Newick said. “Our concern is really going into the winter.”
He acknowledged “just keeping (his staff) employed is going to be a challenge, depending on how it goes.”
“We just don’t know,” he added.
The discussion Friday followed Sununu’s announcement a day earlier that restaurants can put their indoor tables closer than 6 feet apart as long as protective barriers are placed between them.
Friday’s event was held next to Great Bay on a sun-drenched morning with the restaurant owners seated at picnic tables wearing masks.
Newick told Sununu they have 300 seats inside, along with outdoor seating.
“Most people don’t have that luxury, we can have the seats but are people going to come out,” he said. “That’s the real big thing, do people want to eat indoors? Every little bit helps, barriers help, spacing helps. It’s getting people to feel comfortable coming out.”
Sununu said he understands “restaurants have had it hard, really hard, especially early on” because of COVID.
“It helps some but not others allowing to do these barriers between the booths,” Sununu said. “Hopefully, that’s providing a little more flexibility as we move forward.”
By: Kevin Landrigan, New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD -- After weeks of intense lobbying by the restaurant industry, Gov. Chris Sununu agreed Thursday to permit eateries to move their tables closer than six feet apart if they are separated by protective barriers.
Restaurant owners have been pushing for the change to permit more customers inside during the busy fall foliage season and in anticipation of the end of outdoor dining with the advent of cooler weather.
The change takes effect Oct. 1.
“We are very confident we can move forward with this model in a very safe manner,” Sununu said.
Other states have taken this step without seeing COVID-19 outbreaks.
The New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, which worked on the barrier provision, warned that many restaurants would not survive with their existing table configurations once outdoor dining ends.
On Friday, Sununu will appear with several restaurant owners at Newick’s Lobster House in Dover, where examples of barriers will be on display.
Sununu said he has been mindful of the need to expand restaurant dining gradually after large crowds in restaurants and bars triggered widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 in Southern and Southwestern states.
“We have taken smart steps as we were opening up restaurants,” Sununu said.
But Sununu said he rejected another persistent industry demand to permits games such as darts and pool in bars and restaurants.
Last week, his economic reopening task force unanimously endorsed letting bars and restaurants offer these games.
“It’s not fair that a pool hall or bowling alley can have a pool table but a restaurant can’t,” said state Rep. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton.
But Sununu said this form of “mingling” is just what could lead to a COVID-19 spike. Allowing the games also could make many patrons uncomfortable about dining out.
“People are up, they are standing together, usually within six feet of one another. I think it’s a small sacrifice to ask,” Sununu said.
The only accommodation Sununu has approved is to let games occur in businesses that might serve food and alcohol but whose primary source of income comes from the games themselves.
“We have made those exceptions in some very rare cases,” Sununu said.
Phased reopeningSince the pandemic began, the state has made several moves to gradually open up dining, beginning with outdoor-only dining in the late spring.
Following that, Sununu agreed to allow 50% capacity indoors.
In mid-June, he raised that to 100% capacity in the six counties where COVID-19 cases were low.
In advance of the Labor Day weekend, the governor agreed to expand capacity to 100% statewide but kept the six-foot table restriction.
Also. Sununu agreed earlier to increase from 6 to 10 the number of people at a restaurant table to accommodate large family dining.
In a related move, D.J. Bettencourt, Sununu’s policy director, told the reopening task force Thursday that the administration has endorsed a change in outdoor restaurant dining that could permit owners to install temporary walls on outdoor tents as long as at least one side of the tent isn’t walled in and there is cross-ventilation throughout the space.
Bettencourt said this tweak only applies if city or town officials agree to these changes.
”We want to make sure the tent is safe and secure and that you aren’t in any way creating any sort of a fire hazard,” Bettencourt said.
By: Max Sullivan, seacoastonline.com.
HAMPTON -- Heaters have been placed under the tent at the Old Salt where owner Joe Higgins hopes patrons will keep dining as the fall weather creeps in.
The summer brought busy lunches and dinners to the 20 tables under the Old Salt tent, helping it get by while suffering huge losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Higgins said cold weather will be a new challenge for restaurants with strict social-distancing rules in place for indoor dining.
“I’m nervous about after October with what’s going to go on,” Higgins said.
Restaurants are preparing to struggle when outdoor dining is no longer an option. Indoor dining at full capacity has been allowed since August, but restaurant owners say state social distancing guidelines make it impossible.
“We’re still 6-foot distances,” Higgins said. “You can’t be 100%; 100% means nothing.”
Alex Aviles, co-owner at WHYM Craft Brewery and Café, said his restaurant is projecting to be down 20% from its previous year – if it’s filling every seat.
“That would be like if we’re turning and burning tables,” Aviles said. “We’d be 20% down just from the reduction in seating.”
WHYM can keep the tent up in its parking lot until Oct. 31 when the rental company says it must come down due to the risk of snow. Until then, Aviles said WHYM plans to ask the town about putting heaters and additional walling on the tent to extend the season as far as it can go.
Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said industry members are asking the state to approve barriers to be placed between tables so more seats can be filled.
“If you have three booths, you can only seat the ones on each end,” Somers said, adding barriers were discussed at Thursday’s meeting of the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force. Task force chair D.J. Bettencourt said draft guidelines for barriers could be produced that day or Friday.
“We’re looking for health officials and the state to clarify with us if a barrier will be recognized as a mitigating factor to allow for less than social distancing,” Somers said.
Lynn Marquis, general manager at Sea Dog Brewing Company in Exeter, hopes barriers will be allowed so restaurants can have more flexibility. Sea Dog is using outdoor seating on its decks overlooking the Exeter River, but it will be difficult to rely strictly on indoor dining given the space limitations.
“You can only separate them so much for your staff without doing major construction,” Marquis said.
By: Andy Hershberger, WMUR
MANCHESTER, N.H. — With Labor Day and the end of the summer tourism season, business owners said they're doing the best they can and trying to hold everything together until next year.
Mike Somers, president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said he has never seen anything take an economic toll like the coronavirus pandemic has. The vital summer tourism season was cut in half while the number of visitors was limited.
"I really think the casual and fine dining sectors have been the hardest hit," Somers said. "I think because just the two to two-and-a-half months they were closed down, there's so much ground to make up in any given year. It's just too much."
Somers said restaurants with drive-thru service and places who do primarily deliveries should be doing OK. He also said larger hotels can absorb losses better than smaller ones.
"I think we will probably have lost at least 5-10% of our businesses in the hospitality industry, and it could be as high as 20-30%, depending on a whole bunch of factors and how it plays out over the next two to three months," Somers said.
Somers said some places will continue to make money through the fall foliage and ski seasons, but most everyone is already looking to the spring.
"How do we survive until next spring, because that's legitimately when we'll likely see things begin to turn around," Somers said. "We'll have a vaccine or some mitigating factor, and at that point, people will be more open to traveling again, dining out again."
Somers said if there's a federal aid package, that will also have a big impact on whether some businesses survive the winter.
By: Adam Drapcho, The Laconia Daily Sun
When the governor’s office declared that food service businesses could open for take-out only, casual and fine dining restaurants had to reinvent themselves to stay in business. Then they had to figure out how to provide outdoor seating when the state said that dining al fresco was OK. The most recent puzzle was to figure out how many patrons could be served inside while keeping them all socially distanced.
Of course, that was on top of trying to attract customers and keep the business afloat.
“This has been the most challenging time in my career, and my life, to be honest,” said Tom Boucher, CEO of Great NH Restaurants, which operates nine restaurants under the brands T-Bones, Cactus Jack’s and The Copper Door. He noted that the weather was favorable this summer, and his businesses have grown their outdoor dining to 35% of overall revenue.
Those outdoor tables and tents will be packed up this fall, though, and restaurants will have to adapt again in order to survive.
Mike Somers, CEO and president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association said this is been a challenging year for many of his organization’s members.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Restaurants that had originally been designed around drive-through, take-out service, those restaurants have done pretty well,” Somers said. “The casual, fine-dining group has been a completely different story.”
For restaurants who couldn’t pivot to high-volume take-out service, outdoor dining gave them a path to profits, while offering nervous diners a safer option than indoor seating.
“As we get to the fall and the weather starts to turn,” Somers said, “outdoor dining is not going to be a viable or tenable option.”
In August, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that restaurants could return to their usual capacity for indoor service – so long as they continue seating parties of diners at least six feet apart. That proviso means that Boucher's restaurants can’t come close to capacity for either their dining rooms or bars.
If he loses his business from outdoor dining and can’t make up for it with more indoor service, Boucher said he wouldn’t be able to make a profit this winter. “Not even a chance. So we need a solution by the middle of October.”
Restaurants are a relatively safe environment, as far as indoor spaces go, Boucher said. They already have a high rate of air exchange, which is necessary for ventilating the kitchen.
“Something I don’t think people realize, restaurants have to bring in fresh air,” Boucher said. “We exhaust so much from the hood system in the kitchen. We have to get it out of the building. In exchange for that, we bring in fresh air from the outside.”
He said restaurants should take a page from other industries and employ clear, non-porous barriers between parties.
“You see them at supermarkets, banks, even buses have them,” Boucher said. “Why not have them in restaurants?”
Somers said that the NHLRA is “actively engaged in the conversation with the governor’s office” about whether something such as barriers could be used in place of social distance.
“It will be very interesting to see what happens,” Somers said. “What the governor’s office will allow, will determine whether some of these businesses survive.”
Those that wish to survive, Somers said, will have to “reinvent ourselves once again to continue to move forward.”
By: Jonathan Phelps, New Hampshire Union Leader
MANCHESTER - When the pandemic forced Cheddar & Rye whiskey bar to temporarily close in March, owners Chaz Mitchell and Liu Vaine brainstormed ways to reinvent a small space on the corner of Elm and Hanover streets.
The two came up with the Peacock Tails Lounge, which includes hip furniture for about 25 people to sip craft cocktails. The space is decked out with peacock feathers and other brightly colored decor throughout.
“We tried to find opportunity in the ashes. We took advantage of the downtime to reinvent this front space,” Mitchell said. The main Cheddar & Rye space remains the same.
Other changes along Elm Street include Republic, the first certified farm-to-restaurant in New Hampshire, moving into shared space with its sister restaurant Campo Enoteca. The Gyro Spot launched a food truck, and The Bookery’s cafe now serves prepared foods in partnership with Angela’s Pasta & Cheese Shop.
These moves come as business owners work to persevere during the pandemic as the restaurant industry as a whole continues to suffer. Much of the foot traffic downtown has declined with many employees still working from home and limited entertainment options in the evening.
“Our downtown restaurants are incredibly resilient for dealing with COVID-19 and other challenges of being downtown,” said Sara Beaudry, executive director of nonprofit Intown Manchester.
“It is a scary time, and even though restaurants are allowed to open to 100% capacity, they still have to adhere to the six-feet distance rule,” she said.
The creativity seems endless on how restaurants adapted to changing restrictions, she said.
Dancing Lion Chocolate has boosted online sales, Cafe la Reine added a take-out window and one of the newest restaurants downtown, Diz’s, hosts theme nights on Fridays with the next one, “ManchVegas Night,” is scheduled for Sept. 11.
Making it workRepublic opened 10 years ago at 1069 Elm St. in a small rectangular space designed to replicate a European bistro.
“The whole concept that made Republic successful and attractive made it completely incompatible with the rules,” said owner Ed Aloise. “We could never distance our guests according to the regulations and stay in business at all profitably. The math just did not work.”
The direct-from-farmer products required a high volume of business to sustain it, he said. Most of his staff worked at both eateries, so combining the two restaurants seemed to be the best plan — for now.
Aloise committed to serve the full menus of both restaurants.
“With the amount of seats we are allowed to use, both inside and outside, we are pretty much filled,” he said. “We are seeing a really good response. There were a lot of people that wanted Republic to open.”
The pandemic has shown how “industrious” business owners have been with the challenges they face, Mitchell said.
“They are entrepreneurs for a reason, right?” he said. “They’re going to find a way to be successful and even if it means their business just survives.”
New conceptsThe grand opening for Peacock Tails Lounge last Thursday was delayed, but the venue will likely be open this week. The unique triangle-shaped space at 889 Elm St. had gone through a lot of different uses, including a sandwich shop and, most recently, as Greenhouse, a vegan and vegetarian restaurant.
“We decided that after COVID we would take advantage of trying to turn this into a space that takes advantage of the glass,” Mitchell said. The 60-foot wall of windows from the inside has views of City Hall, City Hall Plaza and the Citizens Bank building.
“We want people to come in here and see the beauty of the city,” Mitchell said.
The Gyro Spot at 1073 Elm St. had planned to add a food truck for years, said owner Alex Lambroulis. It ended up being a blessing during the pandemic to add a calendar of outdoor and private events.
“We’ve actually booked out three weddings in the month of September, to bring the truck to their venue,” he said. “They have had to adjust their wedding plans. That has been super helpful for them and us.”
The truck will spend time at local breweries and events between the Queen City and Seacoast. The menu is similar to the shop.
“I don’t want to just park somewhere and just hope people come. I want planned events,” he said.
The Bookery at 844 Elm St. now serves gourmet “quick bites and sweet treats” from Angela’s Pasta & Cheese Shop on Chestnut Street. The store is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday — Saturday.
The shop worked with the city to block off parking spaces to create an outdoor seating area.
“We noticed some foot traffic picking up,” said Marlana Trombley, who does marketing for the store and its parent company Orbit Group. Angela’s drops off fresh prepackaged sandwiches and other food items like cheese, antipasto and desserts.
“We were looking to drive additional traffic and have something where we could provide a different experience that other people weren’t necessarily doing downtown,” Trombley said.
By: Tom Eastman, Conway Daily Sun
CONWAY -- With a busy summer underway despite the coronavirus pandemic — or perhaps because of it, with visitors eager to spend their recreational time and dollars in the great, socially distanced, outdoors — Mount Washington Valley businesses have seen their operations impacted by a lack of workers.
This worker drought has also affected pay scales, with establishments like the Stonehurst Manor recently advertising a salary of $52,000-$60,000 for a sous chef — and getting no offers, according to owner Peter Rattay.
“A year ago, that would have been a great price and gotten responses, but not this summer — employers are holding onto their people and paying good money,” Rattay said.
Elvio’s Pizzeria and Restaurant of North Conway is usually open six or seven days in summer. But this year, says Elvio DeCilla, the lack of workers has forced him to cut back to Thursday-Sunday hours.
But as it’s been such a frenetically busy summer, his numbers are equal to last year’s full schedule.
“It’s been an incredibly busy summer,” he said. “Usually, we get orders for lunch and then it slows down and then picks up for the night. But it never slacks off — it’s as busy midweek as it is weekends.
In a normal summer, he said he employs 25-30, including several J-1 foreign workers. But this year he has only about 20, “and six to seven of those are my children and grandchildren,” DeCilla said.
“The unemployment benefit – the $600 — is not helping; it is hurting. I don’t know what will happen come Labor Day, as that usually means the end of summer — but who knows if students will be going back to college and who knows if people are still going to keep coming to visit?” he asked.
The labor shortage is also being felt at such venerable local establishments as the Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub in Glen.
“How bad is the shortage of employees? I’ve got my 71-year-old retired policeman husband busing tables,” said Terry O’Brien, co-owner of the Red Parka, a former president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association.
“We are open five days a week (Tuesday through Saturday) because we cannot get enough help,” said O’Brien. “I really don’t know what will happen after Labor Day as I have high school kids who might plan on continuing to work, but we’ll see what happens,” she said.
“I have four high school students who are server assistants — hopefully, their parents will let them continue to work,” O’Brien continued.
“We also have shorter hours due to the staff shortage — I have one employee in the kitchen who is going off to college at the end of the week, and I am not sure what will happen.”
She said: “I have done it in the past, but I know I am way too old to go back into the kitchen and doing line duty.”
O’Brien said she has had to be creative in how to staff her positions, and that the pay scale for dishwashers and cooks, for instance, has gone up considerably.
“Dishwashers are getting $15 an hour compared to starting in the $10 range, as we’ve always paid our dishwashers well. And cooks are being paid $15 an hour and up, which is way more than what we paid them before,” said O’Brien.
“I have two guys I could have put on the line, cooking, but because I didn’t have anyone else, I had to have them do the dishwashing.”
Several restaurateurs interviewed, including Rattay; DeCilla; O’Brien; Dave Stone of Horsefeathers and Deacon Street of North Conway; Mike Mallett of the Red Fox Pub & Grille of Jackson; and Stu Dunlop of the Wildcat Inn and Tavern, also of Jackson, said the shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the effects of the federal government’s now-expired CARES Act that served as an unintended enticement for local employees not to go back to work.