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.
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