By: Denise J. Wheeler, Seacoastonline
The ’50s-style Roundabout diner in Portsmouth is offering carhop service in its parking lot. Guests at Latitudes, the waterfront restaurant at the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel and Spa in New Castle, are now able to dine on the property’s poolside decks with views of the ocean.
The fun and extravagance of these reopenings belie stark realities faced by independent restaurant owners on the Seacoast. COVID-19 has already forced some to shutter their businesses. Others cannot reopen yet because state and local guidelines are not economically feasible. Still more are balancing precariously on thin profit margins as they try to stay afloat offering outdoor dining and-or takeout.
Brendan Vesey has experienced the emotional and economic toll of COVID-19 fallout firsthand. He closed his restaurant, the Joinery in Newmarket, when the coronavirus shutdown began, and is now focusing his energy on Botanica Restaurant and Gin Bar in Portsmouth’s West End.
“In our society, we tend to associate economic failure with personal failure. In the case of global crisis, this simply is not true. I have to constantly remind myself of this, which is not easy,” he said. “All the chefs I know define their self worth through their work. When work is abruptly taken away, what is left? A human being that has value whether employed or not. It took me weeks after the (Joinery) closure to get this through my own head and, from speaking with industry friends, I know I am not alone.”
Vesey is offering three-course take-out meals for $30 at Botanica and is looking at the economic feasibility and safety of offering outdoor dining on the patio.
“The restaurant specific guidance in ‘Stay at Home 2.0’ gave us all the hope of turning an empty parking lot into a patio open to customers on May 18, but Portsmouth is not the North Country,” he noted. “Our density and proximity to Boston give us unique challenges requiring increased caution.”
The fate of independent restaurants is intrinsically tied to state and local economies. In addition to their staffs, these establishments employ a robust supply chain of farmers, fishermen, beverage distributors, linen service providers and more. Beyond that, they generate meals and rooms taxes for the state and are a big draw for tourists.
“What is clearly going to be lost first are the neighborhood mom-and-pop shop establishments, not the Burger Kings and Applebee’s,” said Evan Mallett, owner of Black Trumpet. “The personal touch is the soul of Portsmouth’s dining scene. We have these connections between our employees, food service providers and our clients that are more noticeable and vital here than in any other community I know.”
Mallett predicts it will be a long time before those connections can take root again.
“In the meantime, we have to redefine what a restaurant is,” he said. “Some places are turning into grocery stores or switching to a takeout or outdoor dining model. Most of these ‘pivots’ are clumsy and sometimes comical, but they are necessary.”
“There’s a lot of energy around outdoor dining right now. But we have to remember we are at 43 degrees north and we have three-and-a-half months if we are lucky while the weather is good. To pin our hopes on that as a long-term solution is folly. Not that we shouldn’t look at it, but we also have to address landlord forgiveness and landlord funding because if landlords can’t bend, we’ll soon see a second wave of local restaurant closures.”
Mallett called for a restaurant-specific task force (https://bit.ly/2WLWy0x) to acknowledge and protect restaurants’ position as fundamental to the fabric of Portsmouth’s thriving and diverse downtown. This task force would address the realities of the industry’s unique operating challenges locally and give restaurateurs a better chance of reopening, rebuilding and remaining sustainable.
The City Council voted May 18 to form a restaurant task force by June 1. City Councilor Cliff Lazenby also made a motion that was adopted at that same meeting to waive permit fees, including building fees, sidewalk usage or sidewalk obstruction fees for restaurants.
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