LITTLETON — During a weekend trip to the North Country, Ellie Loconte and Zack Shallah stopped by Schilling Beer Co. on Thursday afternoon.
No big deal, right?
But after two months spent indoors and apart from others, they said it was liberating to sit on the deck, look out on the Ammonoosuc River, and enjoy a combination of sunshine, fresh air and craft beer.
“It feels normal,” Loconte said. “It’s really refreshing to go outside, especially at a location like this where you’re right next to the water and away from other people, it feels pretty safe.”
New Hampshire’s restaurants resumed outdoor seating this week. That means local eateries, which had been restricted to take-out and delivery, can now serve diners outside with tables six feet apart.
Schilling created an outdoor seating area with 23 picnic tables that can seat over 100. More than half of those tables were occupied mid-afternoon on Thursday. That’s an encouraging sign said CEO Jeff Cozzens.
“It means that life is starting again. That we’re pouring beers as the leaves are coming out on the trees,” Cozzens said.
Despite coronavirus fears, customer turnout has been strong this week.
Across the river from Schilling, customers dined outside of the Littleton Freehouse Taproom and Eatery.
Others waited in line on the sidewalk — standing six feet apart and wearing masks — including friends Karen Strobridge and Ashley Kennedy, who were grabbing a post-hike meal.
“I haven’t been able to go out and do anything since [the pandemic began]. I’ve been inside cooped up, and everyone has been pretty paranoid about everything, so it’s nice that restaurants are open,” Kennedy said.
Restaurant staff also wore masks and hand sanitizer stations were placed at the entrance, the host stand, and outside bathrooms. Tables were placed six feet apart and limited to six guests apiece.
“Seeing everybody with face masks on and having to stand and wait six feet apart, it’s not the same, but its nice to get out and support local business,” Strobridge said.
The Freehouse re-opened Monday with a street-side patio that can seat around 30. They will soon unveil a riverside dining area with eight picnic tables that can accommodate up to 50 people.
It’s a start, said owner Steve Bromley.
He noted outdoor dining will be weather dependent. This week was warm and sunny, but the extended forecast calls for rain and thunderstorms next week. Bromley hopes indoor seating will be allowed later this summer. His spacious dining room seats about 130.
“I’m hoping the state releases some kind of guidelines. Even if I had a date when inside dining could happen. It’s just the unknown that kind of bothers you,” he said.
From the vantage point of the state, re-opening restaurants is an economic issue.
Closed since March 15, New Hampshire restaurants generate $3 billion in sales, employ nearly 70,000, and generate over $5 billion in economic activity.
For others, it means re-connecting the community.
Dan Noyes sat outside Schilling on Thursday and waited for his wife and two friends to arrive. It was his first time at a restaurant since the pandemic began, and his first time seeing his friends in person since February.
“I’m a plumber, I’ve been seeing a lot of people, but none of my friends. It’s all customers,” he said, adding “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
Fittingly, Schilling developed a line of American ales called “Resilience” in 2015.
Last year they partnered with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company to brew Resilience IPA with proceeds going towards California wildfire relief efforts.
Now, with the restaurant industry enduring the hardships of COVID-19, Schilling could launch another fundraiser under the Resilience name, this time to support the local community.
“We actually have some thought to later in the year potentially using that for a specific North Country relief project,” said Cozzens.
Resilience beers were named “because they embody the struggles and triumphs of our journey,” according to the company web site.
That’s especially true now.
“Unfortunately [the Resilience name] was prescient at the time. Nobody knew how important that trait would be, but that’s the North Country anyway. We’re resilient people up here, we find a way, we improvise, we make it happen no matter how much the odds are stacked against us,” said Cozzens. “And I think we’ll show that again in the coming months.”
IN VERMONT, TIGHTER RESTRICTIONS
Following New Hampshire’s lead, Vermont restaurants resumed outdoor seating on Friday.
The rules were stricter in the Green Mountain State.
Customers were required to make reservations or call ahead and table seating was limited to 10 people or members of two households. Restaurants had to place tables 10 feet apart, offer disposable menus and single use condiment packets, and keep a log of all customers for 30 days for contract tracing purposed.
“It was different,” said Dena Lamont, manager at The Wine Gate Restaurant in St. Johnsbury.
The Wine Gate opened with four tables on its outdoor patio. On Friday they sat two couples for lunch, and had three dinner reservation, Lamont said.
Meanwhile, The Pizza Man in Lyndonville chose not to open, and will continue to offer delivery and takeout service.
“We made the decision not to open outside dining for two reasons. One, we’re doing an extensive remodeling project and making upgrades to our patio area. And two, with the guidelines that were set forth, we need to make sure that we’re ready and capable of keeping everybody safe,” said owner Shane Switser.
Vermont restaurants were ordered closed on March 16 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Restaurants are a $1.1 billion business in the Green Mountain State and they employ over 30,000 — nearly 10 percent of the state’s workforce.