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Bottom Line: The economy is at its worst, but these businesses are just getting started

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

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 5/30/2020 8:55:00 PM
Modified: 5/30/2020 8:55:14 PM

They are the few, the brave ... and some might think the just plain crazy.

Crazy because they are opening businesses in the jaws of the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.

Launching a new business is a challenge in the best of times but might seem impossible when some 20% of people are out of work and some of the most storied names in retail are going belly up.

“I think we were already in too deep by the time (COVID-19) began and that there wasn’t really any other options for us but to open the farm this season,” said Valerie Woodhouse, who with her husband, Eli Hersh, bought the former Kildeer Farm in Norwich — now named Honey Field Farmlast October. “We are passionate about growing food for the community,” she said.

Unexpected setbacks, from inhospitable weather to crop disease and volatile oil prices, are par for the course in farming, but Woodhouse and Hersh were weeks from their scheduled opening when the global health crisis upended their plans. They had to adapt if they hoped to open their farmstand and greenhouses by Mother’s Day, their target date.

“All our planning over the winter got thrown out the door,” Woodhouse said.

Pivoting to what the moment called for — fewer non-essential items, more basic essentials — Woodhouse and Hersh quickly rebalanced what they planned to grow.

“We cut back flowers because they are non-essential in order to double our vegetable starts for people to grow in their own garden because that is what the community is wanting,” Hersh explained.

They also, thanks to some tech-savvy members of their crew, launched an e-commerce platform, which they initially had not planned on doing immediately, so customers could order online and opt for curbside pickup (customer capacity inside the farm’s greenhouses is currently limited under Vermont’s COVID-19 guidelines).

Honey Field Farm is now open to the public on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday by appointment.

Woodhouse and Hersh said they are fully aware of the hard hoeing that lies ahead for them but “we’re really fortunate to be starting a business that is considered ‘essential,’ ” Hersh said, referring to the designation agriculture businesses received by Vermont for exemption to remain open.

And, Hersh noted, “some people are telling us that if we can get through this year then it will be easier.”

Raring to-go in Enfield

The restaurant industry has been devastated by COVID-19 with many eateries under significant restrictions as they serve patrons and some unlikely to ever reopen.

One, however, is defying the odds and welcoming customers for the first time.

Chef Doug Langevin, former owner of Bistro Nouveau in Eastman, opened Kitchen 56 in the former space of Enfield Bar & Grill on the namesake town’s Main Street on May 15, only about a month behind schedule.

“The target date was the beginning of April but there is only so long we could hold out,” said Langevin.

But Langevin said he has had to make adjustments to take into account the new dining reality.

For starters, Langevin had to redesign the menu, cooking line and servers around takeout, which had not been part of the original plan and for the foreseeable future will be a major thrust of the business as indoor seating capacity will be limited under New Hampshire’s protocols for restaurants.

“We were not set up to do this,” Langevin said. “It’s been a bit tricky for us.”

The first priority was to redesign a menu for takeout that “is easy to produce and travels well.” That means a bare-bones menu with starters like artichoke and spinach dip and “Southwest chicken rolls” and entrees of burgers, steak tips, pasta, salmon and a “vegan meatloaf.” Langevin is also offering his signature “chocolate decadence” brownie and strawberry rhubarb tart for dessert.

“We’re not doing anything too upscale now,” he said.

However, there are also unplanned menu surprises: Last week Langevin got in two orders of fresh lobsters “off boats in the Hampton (N.H.) area.”

Apart from some issues with the phone system that initially couldn’t handle the volume of incoming calls and learning how to stagger pickup times to comply with social distancing (orders can be phoned in beginning at 2 p.m. for pickup between 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.), Langevin said the opening has gone about as well as could be expected given the unusual circumstances.

“I didn’t have too many panic moments,” said Langevin, who developed a loyal Upper Valley following during his 17 years at Bistro Nouveau, beginning in Claremont in 2003 before moving the restaurant to Eastman a few years later. “We stalled it for a little bit, but at some point you got to dive in. People are ready to get out.”

Fish try

An adage of small business is to serve a need that’s currently unmet or — better yet — a offer a service that no one looks forward to doing.

Like cleaning fish tanks.

Seth Guyette, of Cornish, worked for 20 years in the aquarium department of Claremont Pet & Aquarium Center, sister store of Lebanon Pet & Aquarium Center in West Lebanon. After being furloughed, Guyette decided the time was right to begin his own fish tank-cleaning business, which he is calling Upper Valley Aquatic Solutions.

“This is something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while,” Guyette said about turning his side hustle of cleaning fish tanks and fish ponds for clients into his sole occupation. But being furloughed “pushed my schedule ahead,” he said.

Guyette said so far he has a handful of customers, whom he declines to divulge, but they include “several tanks in health and support/assistance institutions in the area.”

He sees a growing need for his services as the pandemic focuses people’s attention on nesting at home, hobbies and yard care. But his strongest selling point might be the yuck factor.

“There are several towns in the area that have well-heeled clientele who don’t want to be up to their elbows in algae and muck, and I have no problem dealing with that,” he said.

Guyette describes fish tanks as an “art,” “a calming hobby” and “good entertainment for residents of nursing homes.” He said the typical 55-gallon tank requires about an hour to clean — a former licensed assistant nurse, Guyette said he has a “strong background in infection control” and dons face masks and gloves when visiting clients with his “bucket of chemicals.”

Rates vary from typically $60 to $150 per visit, depending on the size of the tank, and usually require a monthly visit. For clients who are home-bound because of medical issues or on limited incomes, Guyette said he can negotiate a lower rate.

“I service a couple tanks for a client who is at least partially house-bound due to age and medical issues, and she is on a fixed income. She gets a discount because of her situation,” he said. “The fish are one of the few things which bring her joy, and it’s the least I can do to help her out.”

Contact John Lippman at

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