As autumn descends, eateries cautious, optimistic

Area restaurant owners are upbeat about fall business. Photo by Anastasia Dulgier for Unsplash

By Cherise Madigan
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Vermont’s fall foliage season typically rakes in revenue totaling $280 million throughout the month of October, according to the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing, and leaf peepers have already begun to descend on the Green Mountains as they burst into a blaze of color. While the foliage itself remains timeless, the logistics of Vermont’s penultimate tourism season are anything but business-as-usual in 2020.

As temperatures begin to drop and a new rush of visitors trickles in, local restaurants continue to recover from interruptions to service caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions. Owners and managers are now deliberating how to best embrace foliage season — while also looking ahead to ski season, another large contributor to the regional economy.

With the addition of plexiglass dividers, the Country Girl Diner is almost ready to re-open for indoor dining. Photo by Jessica Holmes.

“The beautiful foliage has attracted the tourists this season and we are staying pretty steady, but we’re definitely nervous about this late fall and winter season,” said Jessica Holmes, co-owner Country Girl Diner in Chester.

“We’re hoping for the best,” added Patti Goyette, general manager at the Fullerton Inn, also in Chester. The inn, restaurant and bar came under new ownership this August following the retirement of longtime owners Bret and Nancy Rugg. “We’ve got quite a bit of reservations this coming weekend, and we were busy last weekend too,” Goyette said.

The region has already been impacted by the cancellation of a number of key events, including the Peru Fair, the Chester Fall Festival and Weston’s annual Craft Show. Limitations on regional visitors, as well as the seemingly complete cessation of international tourism, has also had an economic impact according to Seesaw’s Lodge owner Kim Prins.

“We certainly expect that there will be less leaf peepers because many people can’t travel to New England this year,” she said. “We haven’t even tried to forecast what the fall foliage season will portend.”

“I think there will be a slight uptick in business, but with events cancelled throughout the area, and the Playhouse being closed in Weston, we anticipate volume and traffic will be down,” said Vermont Country Store Manager Jim Szabo, which also operates Mildred’s Grill. “It does have an impact on our sales, but we anticipated that our sales would be down this year” due to the pandemic.

Embracing changing seasons, and services

Although stay-at-home orders and the resulting interruptions to restaurant services presented a challenge this spring, many owners found a silver lining in the opportunity to reconfigure their restaurant’s layout and operations — some funded by state and federal aid available to businesses.

For the Country Girl Diner, a month-long shutdown beginning in March allowed for the creation of a takeout window in the diner’s baking room as well as the implementation of a new point-of-sale system that allowed Country Girl to accept credit cards and offer no-contact pickup. A picnic area was also constructed on the property, and a new soft-serve machine has allowed the diner to operate as a sort of snack bar throughout the summer.

In addition to the logistical changes at Country Girl, Holmes says that its Cruise-In events featuring live, outdoor music have also been a success alongside “drive-in” bike nights. Both adjustments, though unanticipated, may become a regular aspect of the restaurant’s summer operations.

Outdoor events are one aspect of pandemic-era dining that may continue beyond Covid, at least at the Country Girl Diner. Photo by Jessica Holmes.

“Everyone was very understanding of the distancing and mask guidelines, and we are so pleased it all went so smoothly,” she said, adding that Country Girl is planning on “building a stage to provide more outdoor entertainment” next summer.

As colder temperatures creep in, Country Girl has begun installing plexiglass between booths and hopes to open up to 50 percent capacity in the coming weeks. Having the restaurant’s indoor space closed has also allowed for improvements not related to the pandemic, including new countertops and tile.

“It’s a positive that has come out of this Covid pandemic,” Holmes said.

With a wealth of pre-existing outdoor dining space, Seesaw’s Lodge in Peru had more options than most in the early months of re-opening — but that hasn’t stopped Prins from getting ahead.

The restaurant’s patio has recently been equipped with heaters to extend the outdoor dining season as long as possible, and a warming hut on the property creates a convenient pick-up location for takeout. Many patrons have chosen to stay on-site to eat, even with takeout orders, utilizing multiple fire pits on the Seesaw’s lawn.

Indoor dining has also begun to open up at Seesaw’s, with tables spaced farther apart and plexiglass surrounding the bar. The restaurant’s iconic circular fireplace has also proved invaluable, Prins says.

“That’s why we feel as cautiously optimistic about opening up our doors as safely as possible, due to that air circulation,” she explained.

Frank, the bartender at Seesaw’s, celebrates the bar counter’s reopening last week, surrounded by a plexiglass barrier. Photo by Kim Prins.

The Fullerton Inn has also historically utilized outdoor seating spaces on its front porch and back deck, and the inn’s new owners have taken advantage of those opportunities thus far. The new addition of Sunday brunches have been successful so far, Goyette says, and both the inside of the restaurant and the tavern are open for seating.

“Most people have been sitting outside, but I don’t know if that will continue when it gets too cold,” she added, noting that many establishments are limited by state imposed social distancing regulations. “We’re very optimistic and ready to welcome people with open arms … from a distance.”

Mildred’s Grill has a long history with outdoor service, having served meals outside of Weston’s Vermont Country Store for years. In 2019, Mildred’s was re-envisioned to encompass the Country Store’s indoor dining space previously known as the Bryant House. Though indoor seating is not in the establishment’s near future, Szabo says, outdoor improvements may help to extend the season.

“We actually re-configured our parking lot here in Weston to be able to accommodate a huge event tent so … people can get out of the sun or inclement weather and dine, and we also have a eating garage next door as well,” he said.

What happens once the snow falls?

Foliage season provides a glimpse into another busy tourist season for Vermont: the winter ski season. With outdoor dining logistically challenging if not impossible for many establishments once the snow falls, the change in seasons will likely signify a shift in operations as well.

The degree of that shift, however, will depend on the progress of the pandemic. Though more than six months have passed since Covid-19 struck in the U.S. — and Vermont has weathered the pandemic with the lowest positivity rate in the country — it remains difficult for businesses or individuals to anticipate what even the near future holds.

“We were really happy to get through Labor Day without any incidents, and we’re hoping to continue safely operating,” Prins, of Seesaw’s, said. “Our biggest priority is to keep our guests and employees safe throughout the foliage season.”

Nonetheless, the outlook remains optimistic for many local restaurant owners. One reason for that is the continued support of local patrons despite last spring’s stay-at-home order and the resulting shutdown of most in-person service until recently.

“I think we’re all very comfortable with the motto that there’s nowhere to go but up,” the Fullerton Inn’s Goyette added. “Coming under new ownership during Covid, we’ve had a very smooth transition. The local community has been very welcoming, very encouraging, and very supportive.”

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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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