By: Kevin Landrigan, New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD -- Hours after the hospitality industry requested it, Gov. Chris Sununu approved a requirement that restaurants keep a temporary database of diners to more quickly contain cases of COVID-19 linked to a business.
Starting Saturday, all restaurants must get and keep on file the name and telephone number of at least one person in each dining party.
The information must also note the table or bar seats the group used, the server or bartender’s name and the date and time they were in the restaurant.
The restaurant must keep the information for at least three weeks.
The New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association came up with the proposal after the state Division of Public Health Services alerted the public to cases of COVID-19 at five different restaurants last Friday.
State officials said the alert was issued because they could not be sure of being able to reach everyone who might have come in contact with a person who came down with COVID-19.
“I don’t think the restaurant association is asking for anything outside the norm,” Sununu said Thursday. “We are just trying to make it simple for folks. I agree with this recommendation. I think it’s a good idea.”
Earlier Thursday, NHLRA CEO and President Mike Somers presented the concept to the Economic Reopening Task Force, which moments later unanimously endorsed it.
The public alerts about cases of COVID-19 linked to a restaurant can be ineffective, he said, calling them “very shotgun blast in nature and not very surgical.”
Most New England states already have adopted this database requirement, which has proven effective, the governor said.
By: Jay Bolduc, Op-Ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader
SCAN THE LOCAL HEADLINES each morning and it’s likely you’ve considered dining in restaurants to be a risky endeavor. Almost daily there is a story about a restaurant closing due to COVID. And of the dozen locations cited in “Special Notices Regarding Potential Community Exposure” since Labor Day, 10 have been restaurants. It’s understandable to be concerned.
As an employee of a restaurant, I spend countless hours inside of one — at our bar talking with guests and interacting with employees — yet I am not concerned in the least. It’s not that I have “COVID fatigue” or have stopped taking the virus seriously. On the contrary, I know firsthand just how serious we take our guest and employee safety. I have in-depth knowledge of the hundreds of thousands of dollars my company has spent in the last six months to ensure safety.
But also understand the rationale behind those headlines I read each morning.
The main reason for the special notices issued by the state and subsequent media coverage is the public health definition of “close contact” with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19. The CDC defines a close contact as, “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.”
The New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services is more stringent, defining a close contact as, “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 10 minutes.”
The special notices are not being issued because restaurants are more dangerous than a retail shop, gas station, or box store checkout counter. Rather, people are simply more likely to spend more than 10 minutes near someone in a restaurant.
By: New Hampshire Business Review Staff
A grant program aimed at helping Concord restaurants acquire materials that can increase their indoor seating capacity has been launched as a joint effort by the city of Concord and the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce.
Under the program, grants of up to $1,500 will be given to restaurants that have been hit hard by Covid-19 and will no longer be able to continue outdoor dining beyond Nov. 14, when the city begins preparing for sidewalk and street snow removal, said Tim Sink, president of the chamber.
The Concord City Council appropriated $15,000 for the program from funds that were initially allocated to the annual fireworks display, which was canceled due to the pandemic, Sink said.
By: John Lippman, Valley News Business Writer
When Marsha Wykes’ 15-year-old son said after dinner last week that he was still hungry, he did what a lot of teenagers do these days to satisfy an appetite. He downloaded a food delivery service app, DoorDash, and ordered a cheeseburger and Brussels sprouts — because his mom insisted he have a vegetable — from Salt hill Pub in Lebanon.
After 90 minutes passed without any sign of a cheeseburger and sprouts, they drove to Salt hill themselves. They found the order sitting on the counter getting cold and restaurant staff wondering why no one had come to claim it.
“I said we ordered it on DoorDash, and they told me they did not work with DoorDash, that some lady had called in the order but never showed up,” Wykes said.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in takeout and delivery, in many ways aided by a proliferation of apps used to order from nearby eateries — Grubhub, Snackpass, Seamless, Uber Eats and DoorDash are all available in Lebanon, Hanover and Claremont — which have extended the instant-side-hustle rideshare premise of Uber and Lyft to door-to-door food deliveries over the last few years. But a novel premise doesn’t guarantee success in practice, and mounting frustrations are leading Upper Valley restaurants to not just speak out but fight back.
Like the Wykeses’ forsaken cheeseburger, Salt hill had experienced a flurry of ghost orders in recent days, according to Josh Tuohy, whose family owns the restaurant.
“This week we started seeing DoorDash drivers picking up takeout orders from our pubs. Just days after I informed them that we were not entering into a relationship,” Tuohy explained via email.
“The issue for us was folks who’d ordered our takeout via DoorDash weren’t getting the orders and were being told by the DoorDash app that they couldn’t find any (drivers). End result being guests who did not receive their orders from us or received them after too long of a wait,” he said.
By: Jason Schreiber, Union Leader Correspondent
EPPING -- “What happened to Live Free or Die,” is the question posed on the sign outside Roselynn Homemade Ice Cream.
The restaurant closed Sunday until further notice after owner Joseph Bodge refused to require that his handful of employees wear face masks.
A defiant Bodge hasn’t mandated masks or asked the public to wear them despite the state’s COVID-19 guidance requiring restaurant employees in direct contact with customers to wear face coverings.
Bodge said he got a call from the state Attorney General’s Office on Oct. 15 informing him that someone had complained the restaurant at 153 Exeter Road wasn’t requiring masks.
He was given until early this week to come up with a plan, but instead of adopting a mask mandate, Bodge decided to close.
“This is just, unfortunately, something where they’re using a scare tactic to control. We made the hard decision. Either we followed the sheep or we stood our ground, which we’ve done from Day One, that everybody should have a free right on their decision. Rather than have the state send somebody in here to pull my license, we decided that we’ll do it on our terms and until we can get this straightened out, we will stay closed,” Bodge said.
The restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, but also makes homemade ice cream and baked goods.
While the restaurant side is closed, Bodge said ice cream will continue to be sold by a masked employee until it’s gone, which will likely be the end of the week. At that point, the entire business will remain closed until the state lifts its mask rules for restaurants, he said.
By: Jonathan Phelps, New Hampshire Union Leader
The weather isn’t cold enough yet for real igloos here in New Hampshire, but the temperature at 1750 Taphouse is just right.
The restaurant on Route 101 in Bedford set up four plastic domes — called “igloos” — two weeks ago for diners to enjoy a socially-distant unique experience. Lights that change colors inside the 7-foot-tall space add to the atmosphere — and draw attention from the roadway.
Other such bubbles are set to pop up across the state as businesses try to find safe and creative ways to extend patio seating beyond November. The industry recaptured some of the declining revenue by expanding dining onto newly built patios, sidewalks and blocked off parking spaces in recent months.
Restaurants across the country have reported more than 40% of sales have come from outdoor dining spaces during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.
The igloos have become popular in larger metropolitan cities in winters past, including the roof deck at the Envoy Hotel in Boston.
Restauranting in the time of COVID-19 presents a series of challenges never seen before. Here’s how some Granite State establishments are dealing with the situation.
By: Anders Morley, New Hampshire Magazine
Jean McKenna remembers that fateful day in March. A town officer came into the Coffee Pot Restaurant, which she and her husband run on Main Street in Littleton, and ordered her to stop serving food inside at once. From that minute on, everything had to be carried out. Customers would wait outside in the cold. If she didn’t comply immediately, he would call the state police. “I knew the man personally,” McKenna says, “and was kind of upset that he took such a mean tone.” McKenna wears a pin on her shirt that reads, “Make America Kind Again.”
The restaurant shifted to takeout, but after a few days it proved unprofitable. “I said, ‘You know what, gang? We’re closing,’” McKenna recalls. The restaurant closed for three months. The McKennas made the most of it by tidying up inside — attending to things they’d been wanting to do for years, such as installing new lights and repainting.
Their staff went on unemployment, but by then the McKennas had already applied for a PPP loan of $25,000. Because of a rule mandating that 75% of the loan be used within eight weeks to fund payroll, McKenna knew it was useless, now that they were closed. She returned the money. They then qualified for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan and a grant from the New Hampshire Main Street Relief Fund. “It was like going through a Harry Potter maze,” she says. “Poor Harry, trying to make his way through when all the trees kept growing in around him.”
Rent, gas, electric bills, insurance and taxes all still had to be paid. Landlord Jack Eames owns the spaces out of which several downtown businesses are run. “He is remarkable,” says McKenna. He sent notifications to all his tenants explaining that he was monitoring the situation and intended to pass along to his tenants every benefit that was offered to him as a landlord.
“And my kids were with me,” McKenna says, referring to her staff. When they reopened in mid-June, the whole staff came back. “Getting going again was a learning process for everyone,” she recalls. “Simple things you’d never have thought about have to be done carefully now. We used to just pass a ketchup bottle from one table to another if someone needed it. Now someone has to grab it, walk it over to the work area, clean it, and walk it to the other table. Everything hangs on sanitation and disinfecting.” Shower curtains separate the booths, which cannot be moved 6 feet apart. “Customers are learning that they have to wait for tables to be entirely sanitized and bussed before they can approach.”
The Coffee Pot’s employees love being back, McKenna says. The kitchen staff is a little overwhelmed, since takeout service has continued — but she’s not complaining. It helps make up for losses elsewhere. The café now closes at 2 p.m. instead of 4. Wearing masks for so long was hard on the workers. When they made the change, McKenna called up customers who eat later in the afternoon to apologize and tell them they’d have to start coming in earlier.
“We work with whatever happens,” she says. “A group came in this morning and I told them, ‘You know, you get what you get. And that’s me.’”
Diners and cafés like the Coffee Pot play the role once played by the taverns that dotted the lonely highways of early New Hampshire. “The tavern barroom often served as a community bulletin board,” write James and Donna-Belle Garvin in “On the Road North of Boston,” their history of New Hampshire turnpikes and taverns. A community bulletin board flanks the entrance to the Coffee Pot today.
It’s not just whim that makes McKenna talk about her staff and customers as her “family.” In small-town or neighborhood coffee shops, customers are often regulars; there is an almost sibling dynamic between staff and clientele; and meals become part of customers’ daily routines. On a recent Friday morning, six or eight unconnected guests sat around the Coffee Pot’s horseshoe-shaped counter and gabbed like cousins at a Thanksgiving table. This family dynamic, too, links coffee shops to the taverns of yore. “With few exceptions,” write the Garvins, “tavern guests ate their meals with the innkeeper’s family, just as if they were friends rather than strangers.”
Another family business sits up the street from the Coffee Pot. Steve Bromley and his daughter Jillian Sartorelli own the Littleton Freehouse Taproom & Eatery. Different businesses face different challenges in the time of COVID-19, and the Littleton Freehouse’s challenge is that it opened its doors in December 2018, a little over a year before the pandemic hit, forcing it to close. Bromley and Sartorelli applied for various federal loans, secured a payroll loan, and were able to keep their full staff employed to run the takeout business. Everyone had to learn the new health protocols.
The Freehouse opened its frontside patio in May with the help of outdoor heaters. Last summer, they added additional patio seating at the back. Now they are glad they did, even though managing this spread-out dining area involves lots of hustling and close attention to sanitary guidelines.
When they were greenlighted to open inside, they removed half the seats to comply with physical-distancing norms. They converted their function room to normal seating. Despite the decreased capacity, they did pretty well, because the patio business kept going.
The public had to be trained too. There was some vocal pushback to masks, but Bromley says a majority were understanding of the situation.
“We’re lucky to be in the North Country,” he says. “People come up here and feel very safe. It’s an opportunity to go for a trip and feel normal. I’ve talked to restaurant owners in southern areas who didn’t have the luxury of opening up. But here there were lots of hikers and day-trippers who would just come up, take a walk along Main Street, eat and drive home.” The flipside is that the outdoor dining season in the North Country is shorter than in southern New Hampshire.
“We have a great local following too,” Bromley says. Even in a relatively small community, he insists, this amounts to something. With many students learning remotely, he suspects that more families will be living under the same roof this winter and that they will be among his regular customers. Bromley calls himself optimistic, and predicts that the restaurant will do about 75% of the business it did last year. It’s an outcome he says he can only be happy with. “It’s hard to hope for a return to normal before the discovery of a vaccine.”
Meanwhile, south of the notches, the economic stakes are high for the kinds of multiple-outlet restaurant groups on whose success hundreds of people depend for their livelihoods. Conventional wisdom says they are the ones mostly likely to come through COVID-19 alive.
By: Patrick O'Grady, Granite State News Collaborative
For the past six months, restaurants have had to adapt, improve and overcome in order to stay in business during the pandemic. As colder weather started, Mike Somers, CEO of the New Hampshire Restaurant and Lodging Association, was concerned that the end of outdoor dining, which he called a “saving grace,” could spell disaster.
But guidance from Gov. Chris Sununu, announced on Sept. 24, now allows restaurants in the state to operate at 100% capacity indoors, provided they use barriers between dinners who are closer than six feet to other parties.
“I think it will help pretty significantly for a lot of places,” Somers said a day after Sununu’s announcement on Sept. 24. “It will give them greater flexibility and hopefully help them survive to the spring.”
Prior to the announcement, restaurants were allowed to operate at 100%, but the required social distancing between parties really meant they were at less than 70 percent of capacity, most say.
At Luca’s Mediterranean Café in Keene, the new regulations will give owner Gianluca Paris the option to add two to three additional tables. Paris said he needs to research what options are available for barriers and their costs.
“I will go forward if it is viable and not financially distressing or changes the look of the restaurant,” he said. “It will need to work in our style.”
The financial impact of safety regulations
Justin Rivilin, general manager of the River House Restaurant in Portsmouth, said that the state’s decision might seem like a good idea at first but the rules don’t recognize that the cost of the barriers may be prohibitive to many places. He said online prices for a required rigid barrier are $700 “a pop.”
“That may not be feasible for restaurants that are on the fence of closing (down),” Rivilin said. “I don’t think the state is giving us enough flexibility.”
Rivilin believes the state’s restaurant industry has demonstrated over the last several months it can operate responsibly as there have been no major outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with eating establishments and the state should give owners more latitude.
Rivilin said he greets, with a mask on, a few thousand patrons each week, and has not contracted the virus.
“If anyone should get sick it should be me,” he said.
His idea for barriers includes heavy-duty curtain material, which is not allowed under the state’s guidelines.
“I know we can do it safely with the barriers I have in mind,” said Rivilin, who relied on increased outdoor seating over the summer and takeout with 60 percent of their indoor tables and chairs in storage. “It would be safe to sit down.”
Even before the new rules, restaurants were spending a lot to keep patrons safe. Muffy Copenhaver, a partner at Gordi’s Fish and Steak House in Lincoln. Gordi’s switched to disposable paper menus rather than constantly disinfecting laminated ones.
“I just got a bill for $750 from the printer,” Copenhaver said earlier this month.
‘Keeping our heads above water’
Copenhaver initially thought that the effects of the pandemic would be short-term.
“I thought we would reopen for Memorial Day,” she said.
Instead, she’s left with reduced business months later. Revenue at Gordi’s has been at about 80% during the summer, but the all-important foliage season has her worried.
“We are pretty nervous about the fall and winter. Right now there are no Canadian license plates in our parking lot,” Copenhaver said, referring to the usual influx from across the border for fall foliage season. “We are losing tourists from England, Germany and others.”
Gordi’s is a short drive from the Loon Mountain Ski Resort and the impact COVID-19 will have on skier visits and overnight lodging is anyone’s guess right now.
“Right now we are keeping our heads above water,” Copenhaver said. “If we can do that, we should be OK.”
Anthony Barnett, who owns Jesse’s Tavern and Molly’s in Hanover said the pandemic has been difficult to weather, especially when nearby Dartmouth sent students home. Jesse’s cut staff to about 60% of the usual number of employees and relied on expanded outdoor seating to help soften the economic impact.
“It definitely has not been easy; a real challenge,” Barnett said. “I’ve been in the business for 25 years and have never seen anything like this. It is just crazy. The decline in sales has been unimaginable.”
Supporting the industry
Paris, of Luca’s Mediterranean Café, had to get creative to attract customers. During the toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the pandemic, he started offering a free roll with each takeout order.
“That gave everyone a good chuckle,” he said.
But what made a bigger difference was when Keene officials created the Keene Rebound Committee to help the business community. The committee engaged local businesses, which eventually led to the altering of a local ordinance on outdoor dining. That let Luca’s add tables while still meeting state social-distancing requirements.
“They asked ‘what can we do to help you get through this,’” Paris said.
Policy decisions like that – and the new guidance from the Governor’s office – can make a big difference for a struggling industry. Somers said he had heard from some NHLRA members and they were pleased with the governor’s recent decision.
“For the most part, they are very excited,” he said.
Many members are also waiting to see whether there will be additional federal support for the restaurants.
“All these bits and pieces will show whether we can salvage most or a portion of the industry,” Somers said.