COVID-19 spike hits Claremont restaurants with quarantines, scares off customers

  • Sam Davis has worked on and off at Dusty’s Cafe in Claremont, N.H., since she was 12 -years-old. She bought the restaurant from her father three years ago, and has seen a slowdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, especially with recent outbreaks in the the city. "They're starting to get nervous," said Davis, who had to close Dusty’s early on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, because her cook had a family emergency. "They don't have to say anything. I can see it." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shannon Spaulding, right, delivers orders of tacos to customers, from left, Ian Oxton, Gabe Ferland, and Brandon Moskalenko, at Rocky's Taqueria, a newly opened, take-out-only restaurant in the former Farro Deli space in the Moody Building in Claremont, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. The restaurant opened on Dec. 29. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rocky Beliveau prepares an order of tacos for a customer at his recently opened Rocky's Taqueria in Claremont, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Beliveau studied in the culinary program at Stevens High, where he graduated in 2013 before joining the Navy. He cooked at Camp David for a year, then attended the Culinary Institute of America, later working for Twin Farms. He recently returned to Claremont from Colorado where he was running a food cart. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Red spots on the floor of Rocky's Taqueria in Claremont, N.H., set expectations for social distancing and stools at the lunch counter are only to be used while waiting for take-out, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 1/23/2021 10:23:40 PM
Modified: 1/23/2021 10:23:39 PM

CLAREMONT — Running his own eatery has been Rocky Beliveau’s ambition since he was a teenager, when he got his first job as a busboy at Dusty’s Cafe, a well-known Claremont breakfast and lunch nook.

After a stint in the Navy — during which he served on the kitchen staff at Camp David — he graduated from The Culinary Institute of America before working as chef at Twin Farms in Barnard and operated his own food cart in Colorado. The winding career path took him to Opera House Square, where late last month the 25-year-old finally achieved his goal when he opened Rocky’s Taqueria.

The pandemic promptly closed it. Less than a week after opening, he had to shut down his new business and quarantine after exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Although Beliveau eventually tested negative himself and reopened on Jan. 14, the setback out of the gate shows how a spike of COVID-19 in Claremont is like a tsunami washing over the city’s restaurant business, forcing many of them to suspend operations, cut back hours, reduce menu items and furlough employees.

“I literally opened up in the Claremont wave,” Beliveau said last week while standing in the nearly vacant space of what had been Farro Deli in the Moody Building, where he is serving up $3 tacos for the lunchtime takeout crowd. Although the 10-day hiatus interrupted the rollout of his eatery, he said, being a one-person operation helped him to power through it with minimal losses.

After being largely spared from major community spread in the early months of the pandemic, Sullivan County this month saw the number of active cases spike to at least 190, many of them in Claremont itself. Many restaurants in Claremont were not as fortunate as Beliveau’s, as the spike in COVID-19 cases has hit them where it hurts most, keeping away customers and forcing doors to close when employees have to quarantine following exposure.

That includes Beliveau’s former stomping grounds. During a recent lunch hour, Sam Davis, owner of Dusty’s Cafe on Pleasant Street, looked out from behind the lunch counter across the room where a handful of customers sat at scattered tables spaced apart. The room had 22 tables, but capacity has been reduced to eight tables under the 6-foot separation rule.

“Usually at lunch, we’d be completely full; same with breakfast. When we first came back (after the shutdown of nonessential businesses), we started filling up completely again. But since the spike in COVID in Claremont the past month and a half, it has died down to half the capacity it used to be,” said Davis, who bought the business from her father three years ago, who himself had run the cafe for 27 years.

She cut back the restaurant’s hours on Jan. 1 to close an hour earlier, at 1 p.m., because there weren’t enough customers to stay open until 2.

“We’re doing all we can for precautions, washing everything down, but people are just scared to come out,” Davis said. She described the majority of her customers as “middle-age to late-age gentlemen, retired” who “love the fact that we are the only place in town that serves breakfast all day long.”

Davis said she’s already drained her savings and retirement fund to keep Dusty’s open and her employees paid during the pandemic. Earlier this month, she closed on a Sunday in order to “clean and spray everything,” but to do so comes at a steep cost.

“That’s a $2,000 day,” Davis said of the lost sales.

Across the street, at the Pleasant Street Restaurant, manager Martha Dole said the restaurant eliminated lunch service when it reopened last summer and now is open only for dinner beginning at 4 p.m.

The restaurant has had to close a couple times while staff were quarantined, most recently earlier this month for four days until COVID-19 tests came back negative.

“All the restaurants in town have had to close at some point,” Dole said, adding that “our customer base is awesome, but many of them are not coming in for dinner.” She estimates business is off 25% to 30%, saved from falling further thanks to a pickup in curbside orders.

A big factor impacting the lunch business of Claremont’s downtown restaurants is the absence of employees commuting to jobs at Red River technology and National Field Representatives, two of Claremont’s largest employers of office staff, who have shifted to working from home during the pandemic.

Revolution Cantina, on Opera House Square, is now open only for dinner from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

“Our lunchtime business was pretty decent, but it revolved around big businesses like Red River and NFR,” Revolution Cantina general manager Sheree Kochis said.

The restaurant only reopened the last week of October after a malfunctioning beverage machine caused flood damage. Revolution Cantina also had to close for a few days until an employee received her COVID-19 test results back.

“Rocky’s closed for a week. Taverne (on the Square) closed for a time. So did Pleasant Street Restaurant. Dunkin’ Donuts too. Even the American Legion closed for a week,” Kochis said.

“It’s really rough on these small businesses,” she said. “They have bills to pay.”

Beliveau, for one, believes the pandemic will fade as vaccinations increase and, as much as restaurants are struggling now, he is optimistic about the chances for his business’s future.

“People think I’m crazy, of course, saying, ‘I can’t believe someone is opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic,’ ” Beliveau related.

He doesn’t let such comments faze him, however.

“Claremont is on the brink of change with all the revitalization going on. We have a lot of diversity now that I didn’t see growing up here. I love it,” Beliveau said, looking out the window facing Opera House Square. “I’m thinking of the future; five years, 10 years down the road, this is going to be a good spot.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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