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Bottom Line: Restaurants cook up ways to keep going as pandemic continues

  • John Lippman. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 4/4/2020 10:11:21 PM
Modified: 4/4/2020 10:11:19 PM

The coronavirus pandemic is indiscriminate when it comes to destroying businesses and jobs. Survival, especially when it comes to small neighborhood businesses, requires thinking outside the box.

Or, in the case of one Upper Valley neighborhood business, using an actual box to hold cash coming in so it will have enough money on hand to reopen when the time comes.

Nellie Smith, owner of Red Wagon Bakery in Canaan, has found a way to rework her business model for the interim. So far it’s encouraging.

Smith, who opened the bakery exactly a year ago, has turned Red Wagon into what she is calling a “CSB” — for “community-supported bakery.” The idea takes a page from the community-supported agriculture movement.

Smith said the idea actually came from one of her customers who suggested trying a CSA-like model where people can purchase subscriptions to a weekly supply of Red Wagon’s baked goods.

Red Wagon shut down on March 15, and Smith said reopening with curbside, carry-out only options was too risky because she wouldn’t be able to gauge consumer demand.

The subscription model allows her to better align how much to bake with sales.

“I spent the last 12 months learning what quantities to make,” explained Smith, a 2015 graduate of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. “That is mostly the problem (the CSB) fixed for us: knowing how much I need to buy” to match the demand from customers.

Smith is selling three “wagons,” or box sizes, of a weekly assortment of baked goodies: full, half and a low-cost “community” box for the elderly and people in need.

A full wagon costs $65 a week, a half wagon $35 a week and the community wagon runs $25 a week. She is requiring a minimum five-week purchase. The boxes contain varying numbers of muffins, bars, breads and a surprise “dealer’s choice” item.

“I debuted the idea about a week ago,” Smith said. “We’ve had 40 people sign up. I was expecting, like, maybe 10.”

Customers pick up their boxes on Saturday morning in the parking lot.

Smith said she will see how her CSB model goes and reassess it in five weeks. She’s not sure she has the capacity to run both an in-store bakery and the CSB at the same time.

But in the meantime, she’s trying to figure out how to remain in business for as long as the stay-at-home directives remain in place. And the “wagons” are rolling out the door.

“We’ve been so overwhelmed with how people are willing to go out of their way to support us,” said Smith, who is assisted by her mother, Laura Smith, who focuses on the “savory” side of the menu with quiches and soups.

“This small community really stepped up. It’s been heartwarming to me and my mother to feel people want you here when this is over,” Smith said.

Cards help carryrestaurants

All segments of the economy have been devastated by the pandemic, but restaurants and their employees have been especially hard-hit because of social distancing directives.

Salt hill Pub, after pivoting to carry-out only service, said it has suspended operations “indefinitely,” citing health concerns for its employees. The Tuohy family’s five Salt hill locations in Lebanon, West Lebanon, Hanover, Newport and Newbury, N.H., comprise the Upper Valley’s largest restaurant group and are each deeply embedded in their communities.

But the pub said people could still support the business by purchasing gift cards that can be redeemed when the restaurant reopens. For the month of April, Salt hill will add an additional $10 in value on top of a $50 gift card purchase.

Purchasing some Salt hill “wearables” — which they will ship to customers — would also be welcomed help, they noted.

“Together we’ll get through this,” Salt hill said.

Mon Vert Cafe in Woodstock, which has been closed since March 17, said it has already sold more than 100 gift cards that can be used when the restaurant reopens (the cafe is offering a $5 discount on purchases of $50 or more).

“We cannot express enough how immensely grateful we are,” the cafe said. “These sales will be instrumental in our reopening.”

Mon Vert Cafe is one of many Upper Valley restaurants that have signed up with the Rally for Restaurants campaign, through which people can purchase gift cards online that will provide the restaurants with sorely needed money to pay its bills and provide and some income to furloughed employees.

Other local restaurants enrolled in the program include Lou’s Restaurant & Bakery, Murphy’s on the Green, Noodle Station and The Skinny Pancake in Hanover; Lucky’s Coffee Garage in Lebanon and Lui Lui and Panera in West Lebanon; Trail Break Taps + Tacos and Tuckerbox in White River Junction; and Blue Sparrow Kitchen in Norwich.

No bankruptcypandemic — yet

If the pandemic is leading to a rise in the number of bankruptcies in the Twin States, so far it is not being reflected in the data.

There were 154 bankruptcy filings in federal bankruptcy court in New Hampshire last month compared with 177 in March 2019, according to a check on the PACER legal system.

During the second half of the month — when business closings and social distancing began to take effect — the number of bankruptcy filings in New Hampshire was 92 versus 91 during the same period a year ago.

In Vermont, there were 41 bankruptcy filings last month compared with 36 in March 2019. But only 17 during the last two weeks of the month versus 25 a year earlier.

The vast majority of those bankruptcies in both states are personal bankruptcies, not business.

In any case, I’m guessing the number will rise in April and the months ahead.

Plumbing the depths

Is there no sales pitch tied to the pandemic that is too opportunistic?

An Upper Valley septic cleaner sent out an email solicitation for business — I’m withholding the name to give them a break on their questionable judgment — explaining that “spending more time at home means your septic system is getting more use” and how the company stands by “to provide essential routine and emergency services as we navigate through this troubling time together.”

Really, guys, you couldn’t hold it?

I’m still here and I want to hear your business story! Reach me at jlippman@vnews.com.




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