When the coronavirus led to a two-month shutdown in March, restaurants and brewpubs in the North Country faced an uncertain future.
They opened later that spring, slowly, cautiously and with restrictions, not knowing what to expect and if the worst-case scenarios about a wave business closures and no one wanting to venture outside for fear of contagion would come true.
Fortunately, for the proprietors and the regional economy that depends on them, traffic and demand were high, equating to a strong summer - for many, a pleasant surprise - that was boosted by outdoor seating for those with the space, enabling patrons to dine safely and operational revenue to come in.
With winter coming on, though, outdoor seating for some is nearing an end.
Five restaurant owners, from those running breakfast and lunch eateries to micro-breweries, spoke this week about their plans for the winter, the state’s recent guideline that allows them to install plexiglass dividers between tables, and how their optimism gauge reads as the North Country enters its long cold season.
“It will be constant innovation,” said Jeff Cozzens, co-founder and CEO of Schilling Beer Co., located in the heart of Littleton since 2013.
Since reopening, Schilling has had the benefit of using outside tents.
“There are a couple of things we have in play right now,” said Cozzens. “We’re trying to extend the outdoor season as long as we can. We can’t have tent seating if there is a sizable snow load, so we’ll bring some heaters and put up some plexiglass to create warm spaces.”
Those spaces will be on the outside deck of the black building that houses the Schilling store and tasting room.
“We will try to get creative with deck seating,” he said, noting that the design will allow for good air flow.
“We will continue with the beer garden mobile heaters for as long as we possibly can, and within the brewpub itself, we will continue social distancing,” he said.
The tables inside on the pub’s second floor can be configured to accommodate groups of appropriate sizes to ensure people aren’t close, he said.
“We’ll open windows and we have viral trapping filters for overhead heating units,” said Cozzens. “Maximizing air flow is important for the safety of both customers and staff.
For the upstairs, the goal is sufficient space between tables rather than dividers.
For the first floor, more dividers will likely be installed.
Along with that will be constant monitoring of the state’s coronavirus numbers.
“We will watch the numbers and the state’s recommendations and will do everything we can to keep people as safe and healthy as possible,” said Cozzens. “We are constantly reassessing and constantly moving things around and have a lot of sanitary regimes.”
The focus on safety will mean fewer available seats.
Normal maximum capacity on Schilling’s second floor is 70 and is 65 on the first-floor pub, for a total of 135 seats.
“We’re reducing the downstairs level by 25 percent and the upstairs by 40 to 50 percent,” he said.
Demand, though, as well as take-out, made some of that up.
“We were very fortunate to have had a very busy summer,” said Cozzens. “It’s hard to identify why that is specifically, but we are fortunate to have as many guests as we did.”
He is cautiously optimistic going into winter.
“Especially in the brewery industry, this winter will be a huge question mark,” said Cozzens. “No one knows what to expect … The number one question is what do you do if this thing blows up this winter. We all have to stay innovative to keep our businesses open and our customers and staff healthy.”
Because of its location right along Littleton’s Main Street, The Coffee Pot Restaurant is unable to have outdoor seating, though it too, benefited from unexpected demand after reopening in June.
“I was very nervous going into this, but we have been doing much better than I anticipated,” said Jean McKenna, who has owned The Coffee Pot for 40 years with her husband, Jim. “People were slow coming back, but they are happy and everyone came back.”
To comply with the state’s COVID guidelines, McKenna pulled three seats, reducing a normal capacity of 29 to 26.
She currently has four shower curtains to help separate seating areas, though she said the state in its guidelines doesn’t believe curtains block the germs as well as plexiglass and issued The Coffee Pot notification two weeks ago.
“We will need to get five panels,” said McKenna. “We can replace the curtains with panels and can keep capacity at 26.”
Like Schilling and other businesses, she and her staff are constantly sanitizing counters and other spaces and providing patrons with masks.
“We will keep on providing them because I want everyone safe, not only through COVID, but through flu season,” said McKenna.
She is hopeful going forward.
“In the beginning, people were worried and said I’m staying home and quarantining, but now they’re not doing that,” said McKenna. “I’m very optimistic.”
The Other Challenge And The Near Future
Grandma’s Kitchen in Whitefield was able to benefit from closing its screened-in patio and putting up temporary walls, adding another 18 seats after its maximum capacity of 45 without the patio was reduced to 25 to 27 seats because of spacing needs.
“The patio is making up the difference and helping to create the seating that we normally have indoors,” said Linda Streeter, who bought Grandma’s from her mother decades ago. “When it’s 30 below, I don’t know if it will be warm enough to sit out there, but it might be good to 20 or 30 [degrees].”
Inside Grandma’s main dining hall, some booths had to be removed for spacing, but with dividers installed, some booths might be able to be put back in.
“We will do what we can to create the seating,” said Streeter. “With the patio, we put in a lot of money to insulate the roof so there is no ice buildup. We have a heater like a wood stove, but it runs on propane. It will be a test.”
This summer, she was also able to get another 45 seats outside, and a summer mostly without rain helped because demand was high.
While the coming winter carries unknowns as far as customer volume and virus risk - Streeter noted the uptick in virus cases, include nine in nearby Berlin - she has another thing to think about.
“Our hours have changed because we don’t have enough help,” she said. “It isn’t all just COVID, it’s the help. You can’t find people who want to work. If you look at the ads everywhere, everyone is looking for a a cook.”
Grandma’s Kitchen is down a cook and has had to reduce its hours because of it.
Cozzens also noted the workforce shortage.
“This is something we’ve struggled with before the pandemic and now we see it again,” he said. “It’s a challenging labor market, still.”
At the Copper Pig Brewery in Lancaster, established in early 2018, the maximum capacity has been reduced from 55 to a current seat count of 38.
Manager Cara Colby said she and the staff are pulling out more square tables to make it easier for social distancing and for re-configuring depending on need.
“We did have the patio along the river and were able to stretch that out and had nine tables,” she said. “It was a very business summer. We’ll stretch it out as long as we can. That’s one of the benefits we have in this area. We’re not in a city and have an area to extend.”
For the Copper Big, spacing and not barriers is the plan for winter.
Although there will be less indoor seating for the winter, Colby is confident for the next few months, and said the food and beer take-out requests have been strong.
A number of pubs and eateries that had fewer dining seats than normal because of spacing requirements had that decreased business made up through take-out orders.
“We are going to follow the safety guidelines down to a T,” she said. “If everyone is complying we have a better chance of not getting shut down. We are thankful for the community. Everyone is supportive.”
Keeping things status quo in Sugar Hill will be Polly’s Pancake Parlor, owned by Kathie and Dennis Cote.
“We haven’t done any outdoor dining and we’re still six feet apart with the tables inside and no more than six people at a table,” said Kathie Cote. “Our tables won’t be moved.”
Polly’s has a normal maximum capacity of 106 that has been reduced to 72 or 73 seats, to about 72 percent of full capacity.
“We’re not really changing and I’m not crazy about the plexiglass dividers,” said Cote. “It’s another thing to move around and sanitize. If we want to get a bunch of dividers, we could certainly increase or our capacity, but we’re happy with the 72 percent. It will get us by. When you seat 106, it’s a lot of crowd control.”
In terms of air flow, she said she doesn’t see much of a difference between having the heater on or the air conditioner that ran during the summer, as Polly’s is fortunate to have an open kitchen and vents safely and regularly moving air.
Another blessing is the new building constructed several years ago that replaced the original Polly’s, said Cote.
“We are a little above our capacity of the old building, only with a lot more space,” she said.
Summer business was surprisingly strong with some visitors coming as far away as California and Oklahoma, said Cote.
As 2020 nears an end, traffic into North Country dining establishments remains strong, something that might have been inconceivable to many just a few months ago.
“Weekends are just out of control,” said McKenna. “We love it.”