With winter on the way, restaurants brace for the end of outdoor dining

  • Salt hill Pub Co-owner Josh Tuohy talks with friends and former neighbors Kathleen Pollica Gouger, of Dummerston, Vt., left, and Kay Collins, of Lebanon, right, as they near the end of their lunch in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. The (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 — James M. Patterson

  • Doren Hall, of Cornish, right, stops to talk with Salt hill Pub manager Shawn Irish, left, on his way into the restaurant in Lebanon, N.H., Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. Hall chose to have his lunch inside and said that he’s comfortable with the social distancing measures in place at the pub. “What they have in place is safe,” he said. (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 — James M. Patterson

  • Shawn Irish, manager of Salt hill Pub in Lebanon, N.H., left, coordinates breaks with his servers Chere Brown, middle, and Emily Stout, right, as lunch comes to a close Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. (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: 9/26/2020 9:46:39 PM
Modified: 9/26/2020 9:46:37 PM

Winter is coming.

After being saved from oblivion by outdoor dining this summer, many restaurants in the Upper Valley are bracing for the coming months as the weather turns cold with patrons still wary of eating indoors in the ongoing pandemic.

“We had really nice weather this summer for outdoor dining, and that has been a lifesaver for many restaurants,” said Tony Barnett, owner of Jesse’s and Molly’s restaurants in Hanover. “Everyone has kind of surrendered to the fact that it’s going to be a hard winter.”

Jesse’s and Molly’s, like several other Upper Valley restaurants, set up outdoor dining areas — in come cases with towns allowing tables to encroach on street parking — early in the summer as New Hampshire and Vermont imposed restrictions on indoor seating capacity.

Al fresco dining quickly became a drawing card for restaurants and bars, one of the sectors of the economy hit hardest by COVID-19, as customers felt more at ease out in the open than sitting an empty table away from strangers within a confined space indoors.

While outdoor tables under a canopy in the street were nearly filled during weekend brunch at restaurants like Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery in Hanover, that has not been enough to make up for the lean times in the early months of the pandemic, according to restaurant owners.

“Outdoor dining has been good. I wouldn’t say it’s great,” said Jarett Berke, owner of Lou’s. “We certainly are closer to our typical level of business, but we are still not even close to where we should be this time of year, considering the huge hit we took in the spring.”

Hanover officials and restaurant owners a couple of weeks ago began batting around ideas for advancing the town’s restaurant business during an expected winter-season slowdown.

Among the ideas being discussed is establishing a centralized drive-thru in the downtown area, as Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin describes it, “sort of a ‘one-stop, pick up your takeout’ or ‘grab your goodies and go’ ” that would be shared by all restaurants, perhaps using a group of food trucks or “food sheds.”

Another idea is forming what Griffin described as a shared local food delivery service to help with economies of scale. She said she is seeking input from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business about how such a service might work and is involving both Vital Communities and the Upper Valley Business Alliance in the talks.

A third idea is looking into “remote dining locations that restaurants could use to double their seating capacity,” although she called it a “bit early to talk about in any detail.”

(Griffin acknowledged the ideas are not “ready for prime time yet,” but said she is also interested in hearing from others about what they might be thinking.)

On Thursday, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced that restaurants will soon be allowed to ease the 6-foot distance between tables so long as protective barriers are placed in between.

Restaurant owners have been waiting for the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery to recommend guidelines on how they may operate this winter. Some in the industry hope Sununu will approve allocating some remaining CARES Act money to a “relief fund” to help tide over restaurants until the spring, said Tracy Hutchins, executive director of the Upper Valley Business Alliance.

Regardless of what the governor does, Hutchins said there is still a big “what if” for consumers’ confidence in dining indoors. “Some will be fine with it,” she predicted, but no one yet knows how many.

Restaurants expect outdoor dining to continue through to November, although some will be rolling up their tents sooner. Nigel Leeming, owner of Murphy’s on the Green in Hanover, said that with the cooling temperatures at night — eating and drinking under the tent in the evening has been key for his business — he expects to have outdoor tables for only a couple more weeks.

“We’ve been holding our own doing OK, but the big challenge for all of us is what the public’s confidence is going to be to feel safe inside,” Leeming said.

Murphy’s, like other restaurants, reconfigured its indoor floor plan to observe the 6-foot rule, stepped up its to-go business and started food delivery “to counteract any downturn anticipated” in indoor dining.

Others are trying to hang outdoors longer.

Josh Tuohy, owner of Salt hill Pub, said the company has just extended its tent lease agreement with Blood’s Catering & Party Rentals and is “walling in” the sides of the tent at the pub’s location off Colburn Park in Lebanon, as well as renting heating equipment.

The hope is to be able to serve outside through November, he said. Salt hill Pub has set up outdoor dining at its locations in Lebanon, West Lebanon and Newbury, N.H., and has introduced several outside “fire pit tables” with small propane-fueled fire bed is sunk in the middle of the dining surface.

“Guests have really enjoyed” the camping-like experience, Tuohy said.

“As the weather drops consistently into the 40s and 30s it’s anyone’s guess what will happen,” Tuohy said.

He and Salt hill staff “have been actively asking questions and polling guests” about how they feel about indoor dining and the responses “run the gamut.” He also expects people ordering meals to eat at home will become a bigger part of the business during the winter.

“Takeout has dramatically increased, and I only expect it to continue,” Tuohy said.

Across the Lebanon Mall, Robert Meyers, owner of Three Tomatoes Trattoria, set up a tent on Court Street that accommodates 80 seats. Combined with tables he’s been allowed to place on the mall, the restaurant currently can serve 130 diners outside when weather permits.

The Court Street tent is heated, but because of the 6-foot distancing requirement, Meyers said he can accommodate only about 50 diners inside — half the regular capacity.

“If we can get to November we’ll be doing well, but once the snow starts to fly, the tents are not geared to that sort of level,” he said.

November is a big month for Three Tomatoes for another reason, too: The restaurant will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Nov. 20. And while the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic and the changing seasons will hang over the milestone, Meyers is just happy that he’s still going.

“We’re trying to stay positive and put our heads down,” Meyers said. “Just keep doing it.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.

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