When the governor’s office declared that food service businesses could open for take-out only, casual and fine dining restaurants had to reinvent themselves to stay in business. Then they had to figure out how to provide outdoor seating when the state said that dining al fresco was OK. The most recent puzzle was to figure out how many patrons could be served inside while keeping them all socially distanced.
Of course, that was on top of trying to attract customers and keep the business afloat.
“This has been the most challenging time in my career, and my life, to be honest,” said Tom Boucher, CEO of Great NH Restaurants, which operates nine restaurants under the brands T-Bones, Cactus Jack’s and The Copper Door. He noted that the weather was favorable this summer, and his businesses have grown their outdoor dining to 35% of overall revenue.
Those outdoor tables and tents will be packed up this fall, though, and restaurants will have to adapt again in order to survive.
Mike Somers, CEO and president of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association said this is been a challenging year for many of his organization’s members.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Restaurants that had originally been designed around drive-through, take-out service, those restaurants have done pretty well,” Somers said. “The casual, fine-dining group has been a completely different story.”
For restaurants who couldn’t pivot to high-volume take-out service, outdoor dining gave them a path to profits, while offering nervous diners a safer option than indoor seating.
“As we get to the fall and the weather starts to turn,” Somers said, “outdoor dining is not going to be a viable or tenable option.”
In August, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that restaurants could return to their usual capacity for indoor service – so long as they continue seating parties of diners at least six feet apart. That proviso means that Boucher's restaurants can’t come close to capacity for either their dining rooms or bars.
If he loses his business from outdoor dining and can’t make up for it with more indoor service, Boucher said he wouldn’t be able to make a profit this winter. “Not even a chance. So we need a solution by the middle of October.”
Restaurants are a relatively safe environment, as far as indoor spaces go, Boucher said. They already have a high rate of air exchange, which is necessary for ventilating the kitchen.
“Something I don’t think people realize, restaurants have to bring in fresh air,” Boucher said. “We exhaust so much from the hood system in the kitchen. We have to get it out of the building. In exchange for that, we bring in fresh air from the outside.”
He said restaurants should take a page from other industries and employ clear, non-porous barriers between parties.
“You see them at supermarkets, banks, even buses have them,” Boucher said. “Why not have them in restaurants?”
Somers said that the NHLRA is “actively engaged in the conversation with the governor’s office” about whether something such as barriers could be used in place of social distance.
“It will be very interesting to see what happens,” Somers said. “What the governor’s office will allow, will determine whether some of these businesses survive.”
Those that wish to survive, Somers said, will have to “reinvent ourselves once again to continue to move forward.”