Area restaurants adopt new formats, menus under Covid-19 Owners hope state reopens slowly to prevent second wave

Neal Baron in the kitchen of Neal’s Restaurant in Proctorsville pre-pandemic. Facebook file photo.

By Bruce Frauman
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Restaurant owners say they are finding ways to keep their businesses alive as the Covid-19 pandemic continues into its fifth month. With curbside delivery in place, outdoor seating and limited indoor dining allowed, business has picked up somewhat.

Some owners have secured federal Payroll Protection Plan loans and used the money for physical improvements, especially for outside dining, to keep staff working and to save for “rainy days.”

Tammy Clough and other restaurant owners are utilizing their ice cream windows during the Covid-19 crisis. Photos by Bruce Frauman.

Despite the distance between tables in the diner, said Tammy Clough, owner of Mike and Tammy’s Maple Leaf Diner in Londonderry, many customers remain wary of dining inside. So take-out and outside seating — with food served through an ice cream window — has helped them survive the Covid crisis, adds Clough.

The Country Girl Diner, a classic diner in Chester, also uses a take-out window.  Co-owner Paul Frasca said he started serving to guests at picnic tables outside about a month ago, adding that customers “like to have a place to sit, a place to go.” Business is down about 50 percent but has picked up in the warmer weather. The menu has moved away from soups and meals to “cheeseburgers and other simple things.” Frasca said even after they start serving again inside, they will continue to serve outside.

Clough said she expects the Maple Leaf will also continue using the window and curbside service even after businesses are more fully open. She does look forward to the day when she and the staff of the Maple Leaf and the Main Street Market and Deli can take off their masks and smile for their customers.

Bret Rugg, co-owner of the Fullerton Inn on the Green in Chester, said they have always had outside seating — on the large front porch and on a back deck — so “nothing is different.” After March 22, the Inn started serving outdoor diners; then at 25 percent of its indoor capacity of 150 on June 1.  Then on June 26, the indoor capacity went to 50 percent. Local residents “have been great,” says Rugg, with some coming to eat five or six times.

Although the inn re-opened  for room rentals a couple of weeks ago, the inn’s market – people from Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut – just “are not traveling,” said Rugg and so the dining business is down 70 to 80 percent.

Like Rugg, Vince Presciti, innkeeper at the Upper Pass Lodge at the base of the Magic Mountain Ski area in Londonderry, appreciates his local customers who had been regulars at the lodge’s restaurant and bar.

The fact that the 14-person bar is closed hurts, since it was a draw for the many local residents who would frequent it and the restaurant several nights a week.

Dining on the porch of the Fullerton Inn has been a long tradition.

Presciti said Covid-19 was the impetus for doing something he has always wanted to do — set up outside seating. He’s now considering adding umbrellas and an awning for guests who enjoy the Wednesday through Sunday dinners and weekend breakfasts.  Presciti said offering outside seating has greatly expanding the lodge’s dining capacity, but the challenge is finding people to fill those seats.

The lodge began taking overnight guests June 16.

Loss of his bar business has also hurt Londonderry’s Jake’s Restaurant and Tavern, says owner Tad Kinsley. If the state keeps bars shut through the fall and winter, that loss “will be huge,” he adds. Kinsley also lost income from Jake’s Grill at the Tater Hill Golf Course, which new owner Vail Resorts shut down for reasons unrelated to Covid-19.

Kinsley said Jake’s has always been designed to do take-out, especially pizza. So in mid-May, Kinsley introduced a new menu, mostly for take-out but also for inside seating where the number of tables dropped from 13 to four. Kinsley said during Covid-19, his business flipped from 60 percent in-house and 40 percent take-out to 70 percent take-out and 30 percent in-house. Managing the day-to-day operations and “adjusting the cash flow” both have been difficult. As of June 26, the number of in-house tables climbed back up to seven.

Kinsley used his Paycheck Protection Program money to purchase sanitizer units for the bathrooms that “100 percent sanitize” constantly as well as renovating the deck and buying a tent that covers three tables. A “nest egg of savings” from his 31 years in business helped him keep Jake’s open. Kinsley said operations are “way more labor-intensive with the constant cleaning, as well as the cost of supplies for the whole restaurant.” Another added expense is “the product for take-out including the packaging and boxes”

While “failure is not an option,” Kinsley is unsure what the summer will bring, especially since the Weston Playhouse season was canceled and uncertainty whether ski lodges will be open this winter.

New American Grill owner Max Turner is also “crunching numbers” to decide how to proceed with summer staffing. Take-out for the restaurant, located near Jake’s in Londonderry’s Mountain Marketplace Plaza, is now 100 percent of his business, up from 15 percent before the March shutdown. Turner said he did not have to reinvent the wheel, but has had to push people toward take-out.

Diners enjoy outdoor dining among the trees at the Country Girl Diner.

For about a month starting at the end of March, the Grill sold groceries after customers complained that they could not get hoarded items such as yeast, flour and powdered sugar. Turner repackaged his bulk supplies into baggies for sale. He’s now selling fewer and fewer grocery items as well as take-out orders with people less afraid to go to the grocery store and other restaurants — especially those with outside seating — opening up.

Like others, Turner is uncertain about how the summer tourist season will shape up given that Bromley Mountain is closed as is live theater at Weston and Dorset, the horse show in Manchester and concerts at Stratton.

Neal’s, on Route 103 in Proctorsville, has also focused on “no-contact curb side” service starting in March and continuing through early April  after owner Neal Baron consulted with his advisors and backers. They chose to change their concept, reduce prices and stay open for the community. Beginning after Memorial Day weekend, outside sit down meals were served so “it feels more like running a restaurant than a take-out joint.”

Baron also said they made stylistic changes, especially to the menu, which has now stabilized after being in flux. No longer do customers need to check Facebook for the daily offerings nor does the staff have to read the menu over the phone. Baron said designing the menu has been the biggest challenge.

He even began his unique Feed a Friend for Five program, serving Meals on Wheels clients. A Neal’s customer  can buy a meal for themselves then tack on $5 for someone in need. Neal provides the food and a friend who is also the director of Meals on Wheels provides delivery.

At first donations more than paid for these extra meals, but more recently donations have tapered a bit, especially since Baron is not comfortable asking for donations. Rather than choosing who is more worthy of a meal than someone else, Baron pays out of pocket to keep the program going.

Diners at the outdoor area of the Maple Leaf.

Baron is excited about his planned 4th of July event with a band and social distancing . The party will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. on Saturday with a “hard shut down at 7” so he, his staff and customers can go enjoy local fireworks.

Like Jake’s and the Upper Pass Lodge, Neal’s has a bar that remains closed.

Unlike other restaurants, the Stone Hearth Inn has not opened for inside dining, says Francine Anderson, who owns the Chester inn and restaurant with her husband Sheldon Ghetler.  For them, 25 percent capacity meant only four tables in the 1820 Federal Style home, which she said was not worth the extra staff. And even increasing to 50 percent, Anderson says, they decided to stick with outside dining only.

The Stone Hearth closed for two weeks after the initial March shut down order then offered take-out Thursday through Monday. The menu was shortened to “make it a bit easier,” Anderson said. Anderson said some loyal customers ordered a meal a week, often on the same day each week, noting it is “enlightening who takes care of who.”

The inn “reinvented outside seating,” says Anderson, buying a tent that covers seven tables. Three more tables sit under umbrellas.

Mehul Dholakia, owner of the Weston Marketplace, said his business is currently down 30 percent, which he said is still better than the 60 percent drop he saw in April. Attractions like the Vermont Country Store, which are usually packed with tourists in summer months, stand almost empty, so Dholakia depends on local residents. His introduction of Indian food to Weston has been popular. Customer Amanda Birch told The Telegraph that she and her husband are British, grew up on Indian food, so they come to the Marketplace once a week for take-out.

Some want slower, safer full re-opening

Most of the business owners The Telegraph spoke with were concerned with a too-quick reopening by the state and a second wave and lockdown. Besides their local clientele, most cater to a large array of tourists and second-home owners.

Turner of the New American Grill says his main concern is the safety of his staff, which includes two daughters, his customers and himself. Saying he does not want to be “Ground Zero” for a local Covid-19 outbreak, he adds he would rather be “behind the curve” when it comes to reopening. So, he’ll continue to focus on curbside take-out, leaving the dining room closed for now. Rather than stay in lock-step with state and federal directives, Turner says his actions will be dictated by his own “common sense.”

Rugg of the Fullerton Inn and Presciti of the Upper Pass Lodge agree. Rugg says he worries that if the state opens up fully, it will be locked down once again by Christmas due to another wave of the virus. And Presciti would like to see a slow pace to opening back up to “keep the virus at bay.”

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  1. K. Preissler says:

    Thanks for article. As of July 12th, will not eat at Jake’s in Londonderry again. Their new menu was improved, the out of doors seating a great idea, the unmasked unseated people moving around without social distancing a bit worrisome and un-masked servers a mistake I hope I and my friends don’t get sick from.