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.
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.