As one restaurant is closing its doors, another starts crowdfunding to stay afloat


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-18-2022 10:38 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Elixir, after two years of struggling through the coronavirus pandemic and the wringer of inflation, is swallowing a bitter pill.

The White River Junction restaurant, which has operated for 13 years in a historic freight house near the railroad tracks in the heart of the village, will serve its last dinner on April 2, when its lease expires, owners Skip Symanski and Jane Carrier announced this month.

“It was a question of whether we wanted to sign up for two or three more years of the beating we’ve been taken,” Symanski told the Valley News. “The economy looks like it’s heading for the basement, and there’s no guarantee what’s going to happen.”

The news about Elixir came as the owners of another venerable eatery, Norwich’s Carpenter & Main, launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to pay off the restaurant’s debts, another example of the toll the pandemic has taken on the restaurant business, even as mask mandates are lifted and the number of new COVID-19 cases has fallen sharply in recent weeks.

Symanski, former manager of the now defunct Canoe Club in Hanover, and Carrier, former front house manager at Carpenter & Main, opened Elixir in 2009, managing to overcome a slow start in the teeth of the Great Recession. Eventually, they cultivated a fervent customer base with a “contemporary American cuisine” menu and eclectic cocktails.

But the falloff in customers during two years of a pandemic coupled with rising food costs that lead to unattractively high menu prices were overwhelming, according to Symanski.

“We had 11 great years and two really ugly, expensive years,” he said.

Hanover, which has the highest concentration of restaurants in the Upper Valley, saw five mainstays close in the early months of the pandemic. But even though 2021 saw four new restaurants open in Hanover in the same spaces as the ones that closed, nearly all are hampered by staffing shortages and food costs.

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Staffing, both servers and kitchen, has not been an issue at Elixir, Symanski said, noting that “the newest guy started five years ago” — unusual in the high-turnover food service industry.

Symanski has reduced both the days and the hours the restaurant is open, but he said too many tables remain empty. Business has been averaging about 40% the level they were doing before the pandemic and a “real good night” might mean 60% to 70%.

“When people come in, they come in early. Our late business after 8 p.m., even 7:30 p.m., has disappeared. We can have a completely empty restaurant at 9:30 p.m.,” he said.

Inflation has meant that the cost of some food is so expensive Symanski has had to drop it from the menu, such as scallops, one of the most popular items. The price of chicken has doubled.

“Our salmon was $9.50 a pound, and it went up to $15 a pound in a two-week span. Lots of wines — American, French, Italian, wines I’ve never had a problem getting — are not available,” said Symanski, who once oversaw the award-winning wine cellar at the Jackson House Inn & Restaurant in Woodstock.

Inflation “just eliminates what you can have on the menu,” Symanski said, adding that he has “an aversion to anything costing more than $30.”

Despite the difficulties, Symanski and Carrier made a commitment to their employees unusual for the restaurant industry. Servers have been paid $18 per hour plus tips, and they have been paid for full-time hours even when their shifts have been cut back.

“Take care of the people who work for you. If they are happy, your guests are going to be happy,” he explained.

Symanski said there is an outside chance Elixir could continue under a different owner.

“To sign a new lease with the uncertainty that is out there is crazy after the last two years,” he said. “There are a couple people looking at taking this over, but we’ll see what happens.”

Meanwhile, at Carpenter & Main in Norwich, owner Bruce MacLeod launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money “in an attempt to remain open,” he said.

“I have some restaurant debts that are outstanding, and people said, ‘We need to get paid.’ I understand that,” MacLeod explained. “Things are opening back up, and it’s going to pick up but hasn’t quite yet.”

He said donations are a way to “get the restaurant over the hump as we emerge from the pandemic.”

As of Friday afternoon, 46 donors had given $6,225, according to the restaurant’s GoFundMe page, with a listed goal of $10,000

Like Elixir, MacLeod opened the Norwich restaurant during the Great Recession, which he was able to steer through. But the pandemic has been “a lesson in flexibility, doing whatever it takes to get through,” he said.

MacLeod has pared his staff back to himself, a sous chef, a bartender, a dishwasher “on the weekend,” a couple part-time servers and hours from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

He started a $10 “family style” to-go Sunday dinner, which he recently had to increase to $12 to cover higher food costs. Before the pandemic, MacLeod said, he would serve 45 to 50 dinners a night — 100 on the weekend — but now typically serves 20 to 30 a day.

“I can’t really do more because I don’t have the staff for it,” he said.

MacLeod said he has also greatly reduced the menu and adjusted accordingly.

“I couldn’t serve fried food to go; that doesn’t work,” he noted, lamenting that he has had to eliminate one of his most popular appetizers — avocado fries — because “they are labor-intensive.”

MacLeod, however, said he was stunned and grateful for how much people responded to his crowdfunding campaign. He is not tech-savvy — he doesn’t even use a cellphone — and said he is all a bit bewildered by the power of the technology.

And then there was another, more rooted, hesitancy MacLeod said he needed to overcome in reaching out to the public for assistance.

“I’m a Mainer,” he said. “We don’t like to ask for anything.”

Contact John Lippman at