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Coping with COVID-19: Despite shutdowns, staff shortages and supply lags, area businesses press ahead
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More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses in the Monadnock Region and beyond are still reeling from its effects. And while scores of local companies and establishments have come out intact, they weren’t unscathed.

Many business owners had to temporarily shut their doors and reshape their operations to serve customers in a COVID world. Some even began selling products to help people ward off the virus.

But after the widespread distribution of vaccines and the end of mask mandates, area business owners are hopeful for what the future holds in a post-pandemic economy.

Sentinel file photo by Michael Moore  

Eli Coughlin-Galbraith, co-owner of Shapeshifters in Brattleboro, works on manufacturing face masks at the shop in April 2020.

Shapeshifters in Brattleboro makes and sells chest binders for the trans and gender-nonconforming community. After the state of Vermont ordered all but “essential” businesses to halt in-person work in March 2020, Shapeshifters owners Eli and Krista Coughlin-Galbraith pivoted their business model and began producing and selling face masks.

“It was so abrupt,” Eli said of the outbreak. “After we shut down, we very deliberately took two weeks to figure out what we were going to do, and cloth masks were an urgent need.”

After they made the switch, Shapeshifters employees worked from home and made face coverings on sewing machines, while Eli drove to their houses to drop off materials and collect masks. That June, the team returned to the shop, but shifts were split between morning and evening to limit contact.

The masks were made from two layers of quilter’s cotton, with ear loops from spandex scraps. Customers could also get masks with a tin tie, to conform the covering around the wearer’s nose.

Eli also personally donated masks to hospitals, local schools and youth services.

Although mask production provided Shapeshifters an income source, Eli said sales were low and still haven’t recovered.

“We sell a product for people to use when they go out,” they said of the company’s chest-binders. “What happens when people aren’t going out?”

The business is also facing severe supply-chain delays, with hikes in the costs of synthetic fabric and other materials, and a significant lag in the time it takes for those materials to arrive, Eli said.

The White House reported in 2021 that the supply-chain crisis stems from the mass reopening of businesses and the economic recovery. But as demand for goods and materials increased, companies have not yet been able to bring their inventories to pre-pandemic levels.

Shapeshifters buys its fabrics from a mill in Rhode Island, and the fibers that make the fabrics are imported from overseas. Because of supply-chain delays, Eli said the company was waiting on a shipment of fabric for four months at the end of 2021, forcing it to close from December until February of this year.

“We had no material,” they said. “I was concerned we wouldn’t be able to open. There’s only so long a business can close and stay dormant with a ‘maybe next week’ or ‘maybe next month’ mindset.”

Due to those lags and inflation, Shapeshifters has had to increase the prices of many of its products — a basic chest-binder that previously sold at $55 is now $85.

Other area business owners say they’ve also had trouble getting products, whether due to delays or higher price tags.

Lindsay LaRouche, owner of Sweet! Macaron in Peterborough, a macaron and cupcake shop that opened in January 2021, said the price of butter has doubled in just over a year. Whereas she once paid $2 per pound, she now pays $4 for the key ingredient, which she goes through at a pace of about 36 pounds a month. Cases of plastic lids, of which she orders between one and two per month, went from $60 to $170.

Though LaRouche said she didn’t know what to expect from opening in the middle of a pandemic, she was pleasantly surprised.

She said her first year of business went great, and she’s more concerned with supply shortages than she is with the virus.

“I think the pandemic’s no longer the worry,” she said. “Now it’s inflation.”

Yet another area business feeling the sting of price hikes is Lab n’ Lager, a Keene bar and restaurant whose food costs have gone up 30 to 40 percent since the onset of COVID-19, according to owner Doni Ash.

Burgers he previously sold for $2.50 are now sold for $4.50. A case of fryolator oil went from $40 to $50. Ash said he orders between four and five cases per week.

“It’s hard because we want to still be known for our affordable pub food,” he said.

Per the governor’s order, Ash said the business shut down indoor service for a few months starting in March 2020 and began offering take-out food, which wasn’t an ideal model.

“We sell craft beer with our food,” he explained. “When you’re only doing one of those things, it didn’t work for us. We switched from bartenders to leaving food on a curb.”

After reopening its doors that summer though, he said things picked up right where they left off.

“People were excited to be there,” he said. “We have a bit of a younger crowd. Those folks took COVID a little less seriously, plus young adults tend to fare a little better.”

One of Lab n’ Lager’s main struggles at that point wasn’t necessarily attendance, but rather policing customers to abide by COVID-19 guidelines. At the time, patrons were required by the city and the state to wear a mask when they entered the building or whenever they left their seat.

“Lots of people don’t like masks or believe in COVID,” Ash said. “And that’s about 25 percent of the crowd. It’s hard to have that confrontation between customer and employee because it always ends with the customer unhappy.”

But despite the challenges, he said there’s been no point in the pandemic when he thought Lab n’ Lager would go out of business. Before March 2020, he said the bar, which opened in 2007, had not been closed a single day in nearly 14 years.

“We’ve been open through all snowstorms and power outages,” Ash said. “There were tears in my eye when I had to put that sign on the door to shut down. But I knew we’d reopen.”

One of his concerns throughout has been hiring part-time workers, Ash said, noting that while he’s been able to retain full-time employees since the pandemic started, many part-time workers come and go.

Shalem Bencivenga, owner of The Barbery at 16 Cypress St. in Keene, has also faced staffing issues, and went from having six full-time barbers to cutting hair on his own. But he sees this as a positive change.

“I work by myself now, and I love it,” Bencivenga said. “I can implement the practices in my business that I feel are appropriate without stepping on other peoples’ toes.”

The Barbery, which opened in 2015, closed for four months starting in March 2020. When he reopened that summer, Bencivenga said, there was some hesitancy from patrons about coming out to get haircuts. One thing he said helped fill his barbershop again was the city’s mask mandate and his getting vaccinated.

“A certain portion of the clientele took longer to come back, but they appreciated that,” Bencivenga said.

He no longer requires masks in The Barbery, but if a customer is wearing one, he said he’ll put one on to make them feel more comfortable.

He also opened another business out of 16 Cypress St., Ollie Keene Skate Shop, in April 2021, which has been bringing in additional income. There’s some overlap between the shops’ customers, with some patrons shopping in the skate store also ending up getting their hair cut.

Although no one can erase the past couple years, Bencivenga said things feel like the “new normal.”

“As far as business goes I’m full,” he said. “I’m not overwhelmed; I can only cut one person at a time. And whenever I want to cut hair I can.”

Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff  

Brittany Migneault of Westmoreland, owner and founder of The Bread Shed in Keene, forms a pretzel, which uses spent grains from local breweries, on Wednesday afternoon. Branch and Blade Brewing Co. turned The Bread Shed on to the idea, and the bakery currently partners with Elm City Brewing Co. and Whetstone as well.

Staffing has also been a minor concern for The Bread Shed in Keene.

Brittany Migneault, founder and owner of the bakery, which supplies bread to restaurants and grocers in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, said she’s had a lot fewer job applicants. But since the company likes to maintain a close-knit group of workers, she said she’s OK with a smaller staff.

After restaurants closed their doors in 2020, Migneault said The Bread Shed lost sales from eateries it supplies. This led the company to switch to primarily selling to grocery stores and co-ops.

“It was hard to see other small business owners struggling,” Migneault said of restaurant owners.

Business was especially slow in early 2021, following the holiday season, she added.

“We were waiting for 2021 to be awesome, but we found out quickly it wouldn’t be ... We had restaurants which had shut down that we hoped would come back but did not,” she said.

Things picked up in May of that year, and Migneault said 2022 is shaping up to be even stronger for the bakery, which opened in 2011.

“Business is back to normal and maybe even better than before,” she said. “Sales are definitely beyond what they were before the pandemic, but we’ve always been a growing business.”

But along with the sales increase, Migneault said several ingredients The Bread Shed uses have gone up in price dramatically. Ingredients like oil, flour and eggs have increased by as much as 30 to 50 percent.

File photo by Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff 

Ted McGreer of Keene talks with Amber and Morgan Stevens (not pictured) of Grafton, Vt., about their shoes, at Ted’s Shoe and Sport in downtown Keene this past winter.

Ted’s Shoe and Sport in Keene has also bounced back from the financial woes caused by COVID-19. After having to close for three months in 2020, owner Ted McGreer said, the footwear and apparel shop began offering curbside service and started delivering shoes right to people’s doors within eight miles from the store.

To accommodate customers who were hesitant about leaving home, McGreer even began offering virtual fit appointments, meeting with clients over Zoom, super-imposing images of their feet with shoes and fitting them accordingly.

“We sold 500 pairs of shoes virtually, and I never had any of them returned for not fitting properly,” McGreer said.

Still, the business saw a 70 percent reduction in sales between March and late May of 2020.

“I was just trying to keep it alive,” McGreer said.

But sales eventually broke even in fall of 2021, and now McGreer said business is better than ever.

“The demand for footwear has been through the roof,” he said. “The traffic count through our doors has been higher than it has been in 21 years.”

File photo by Hannah Schroeder / Sentinel Staff 

Ted McGreer of Keene assists Morgan Stevens of Grafton, Vt., with a pair of shoes she picked out at Ted’s Shoe and Sport in downtown Keene this past winter.

McGreer’s current foe, like many other business owners, isn’t the pandemic itself, but supply shortages. Many of the shop’s vendors have factories in South Vietnam, which weathered a COVID outbreak last fall, resulting in production halts. As a result, McGreer said he’s had trouble procuring certain shoes that customers can buy directly from his suppliers.

“I’m not even competing with brick-and-mortar shoe stores anymore. I’m competing with my vendors,” he said, noting that he’s begun looking to other vendors to buy his shoes from.

As for his takeaways from the public health crisis, he said one of the main ones is the importance of mental health. The store used to be open seven days a week, but during the pandemic, McGreer decided to scale back to six.

“I’m never opening again on Sundays,” he said. “I wanted to give everyone a break. Sure we’ll be losing some business, but my staff needs to come first.”

The Bread Shed is much more strict now when it comes to employees not feeling well, according to Migneault.

“In the past, if someone was sick, we tried to work through it because we have such a small team in the production industry,” she said. “But now if someone is sick they have to stay home or they wear a mask.”

In reflection, Migneault said she thinks The Bread Shed fared alright during the pandemic.

“I think we were established enough to ride the waves,” she said.

She added that she was inspired by the community’s rallying support for business owners, and said she’s enthused about what lies ahead.

“Things are feeling back to normal 1,000 percent, and I’m very excited,” Migneault said. “Knock on wood.”

For others, like Shapeshifters, the battle isn’t over.

“The word I’m getting is it could be like this for another year or two,” Eli Coughlin-Galbraith said of the supply-chain lags.

And although worried the company might not be able to endure further supply shortage, they are trying to stay optimistic.

“We’re hopeful,” they said. “We kind of have to be at this point.”

Wall Street staggers with ‘vicious’ $1.3 trillion stock selloff

A day after celebrating the Federal Reserve’s signal that it wouldn’t be making any jumbo-sized moves, traders woke up on Thursday deciding that the central bank will struggle to fight high inflation amid the lingering threat of a recession.

In a sharp about-face, investors sold stocks, bonds and cryptocurrencies on Thursday. At one point, the S&P 500 Index lost 4.2 percent, the most since June 2020, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 dropped 5.7 percent, the most since March of that year.

“The great puking that’s happening? I didn’t expect that,” Kim Forrest, founder and chief investment officer at Bokeh Capital Partners said by phone. “We live for the days where we’ve made people money — that’s our job — and it’s cold comfort that I’m losing people less money.”

Speculative corners of the market were among the hardest hit, with an index of expensive software stocks sliding more than 10 percent, the most since mid-March 2020. An ETF tracking newly public companies lost 9 percent at one point, while non-profitable tech firms lost roughly 11 percent, as Bitcoin — the largest cryptocurrency — dropped by the same amount to below $36,000.

“There’s still a lot of fear out there,” said Dennis Dick, head of markets structure and a proprietary trader at Bright Trading. “People thought yesterday was the green light, but now they’re getting caught again. Retail traders keep coming in and getting chopped up. The contrarians have been winning 2022.”

“The only thing that will lead to a sustained turnaround is if we see inflation start to not look so hot,” he added. “Any rally that isn’t on improving inflation is a sucker’s rally.”

Here’s what other market-watchers had to say:

Frank Davis, senior managing director at LEK Securities:

“It looks like some people might have viewed yesterday’s rally as a good exit, and then it just started feeding on itself this morning. The market did need to pull back and re-calibrate for value, but the viciousness of the move is really the story of the day.”

Fiona Cincotta, senior market analyst at City Index:

“The S&P 500 seeing its strongest gains since 2020 on the day the Fed decides to hike interest rates is kind of extraordinary, so we are seeing a reprice today, which is expected. But at the end of the day, the risks remain. Inflation remains high. The Fed is keen to act.”

Chris Gaffney, president of world markets at TIAA Bank:

“When Powell said he wasn’t going to tighten 75, that’s what led to that relief rally. But they’re still tightening, and they’re still tightening at a more aggressive pace than most would have imagined just a short while ago. So it is difficult to buy into the rallies,” he said. “Overall financial conditions are going to be tighter moving forward and certainly the risk of a recession, the risk of tighter financial conditions leading to a recession is still there. So it’s very difficult to jump on any sort of rally under these conditions.”

Stephen Carl, head trader at Siebert Williams Shank & Co.:

“The scale of today’s move is a little surprising. We had been viewing 4,200 as a support for the S&P 500, and we’re below that now. Really, this seems like a knee-jerk reaction from yesterday, with some profit-taking. There could also be some portfolio managers out there recommending the buying of bonds and selling stocks, which could be contributing to the overall weakness.”

Randy Frederick, vice president of trading and derivatives for Charles Schwab & Co.:

“People have been looking for a capitulation, where everyone just throws in the down. Perhaps today is that day. This is the first day that I would describe as a capitulatory day,” he said. “Even though some of these high-valuation, low-profitability names are down 60-70 percent, it doesn’t seem like there is any appetite to buy the dip.”

“We all knew something like this was going to happen eventually,” he added. “We’ve seen it before. We tried to warn the young traders, but they didn’t want to hear it. But I think this will result in a better market, because you actually have to look for quality.

Cliff Hodge, chief investment officer at Cornerstone Wealth:

“Investors are getting spooked by the combination of soaring unit labor costs and a significant drop in productivity. Those are some stagflationary-like readings. The reports this morning are all from 1Q. They haven’t told us anything new, but investors are clearly extremely focused on inflation.”

Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA:

“Usually you end up having a reversal move to digest whatever occurred the day before,” he said of stock moves around Fed days. “There’s a pop after a drop, and, in this case, there’s usually a drop after a pop. On the one hand, it’s because traders are looking to take profits because they questioned the sustainability of this advance.”

Quincy Krosby, chief equity strategist at LPL Financial:

“Chairman Powell was clear-ish — I say clear-ish because he said soft-ish landing. But when he took the 75 basis points off the table, inherent in that was a suggestion that perhaps they wouldn’t need it,” she said. “Why would you say that if you thought, for example, inflationary pressures were going to climb even higher?”

Sylvia Jablonski, CEO, CIO and co-founder of Defiance ETFs:

“Day after day, the direction seems to change. This opens up good opportunism for companies which have fundamentals, strong earnings, strong outlook for the next three-to-five years. What is really interesting about these markets is that there are these every-other-day changes in either direction where investors are outrageously bullish or outrageously bearish the next day.”

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No bluff
Zoning board approves variance to convert Keene Casino building into apartments
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Plans are in the works for five new apartment units near downtown Keene after the city’s zoning board this week paved the way for the building that currently houses Keene Casino to become a residential property.

Amy Sanders, an attorney representing the Manchester-based Brady Sullivan Properties LLC, which owns the property, said during Monday’s zoning board meeting that four two-bedroom apartments and a one-bedroom apartment are planned for the building. The zoning board voted 4-1 to approve a variance to allow this in a commercial district.

The roughly 6,000-square-foot building is in the parking lot of Colony Mill. (In 2016, the zoning board approved a variance to allow that historic mill, which used to house a variety of shops and offices, to be converted into up to 90 apartments.)

“There is a shortage of housing in Keene, and this proposed use would provide additional housing units surrounded by existing various amenities that make it a desirable location to live,” Sanders said Monday.

The proposed housing units would be rented at market rate, according to Benjamin Kelley, a representative of Brady Sullivan listed as the applicant/owner of the property on the variance request in the board’s agenda materials.

No timeline for the conversion was provided at the zoning board meeting, and the Community Development Department at Keene City Hall did not have information about this on Thursday afternoon. Brady Sullivan did not return multiple requests for comment by phone and email. A representative of Keene Casino could not be reached for comment.

The project would not make major changes to the building, and the residential, rather than commercial, use could reduce the number of vehicles parking in the lot, Sanders said. The city’s zoning administrator, John Rogers, noted that the site already has adequate parking.

Board member Jane Taylor was the lone “no” vote. Taylor said the proposal did not meet two of the five criteria for the variance. She said the variance does not maintain the spirit of the zoning ordinance and that Brady Sullivan had not demonstrated that the variance’s denial would result in “unnecessary hardship.”

“It is basically a commercial property; it had a commercial use,” Taylor said. “Now we’re changing this specific building to a residential use, and I’m not quite sure what the hardship is.”

The other board members said the property is not within view from the road, making it a difficult site for commercial use.

Rogers said it is possible the project will have to go before the minor project review committee for additional approvals but is unlikely to have to go before the planning board if substantial changes to the building are not necessary.

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NH House tables bill aimed at spurring housing development
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State representatives on Thursday tabled, or removed from consideration, a bill designed to spur housing development by improving training and procedures at local land-use boards.

The N.H. House’s 170-159 decision on Senate Bill 400 came a week after Republicans on the House Committee on Municipal and County Government amended the bill to add wording that would allow school-district budget caps.

Some Democrats said it was improper to add this provision because it has nothing to do with the goal of boosting residential development at a time when rising costs and low inventory make it difficult for workers to find homes.

Rep. Ivy Vann, D-Peterborough, who is on the Municipal and County Government Committee, said Democrats on the panel supported the bill before Republicans weakened some of its provisions, added the budget-cap wording and made other changes.

“The bill as amended first directly damages the bill and decreases the likelihood of new workforce housing by adding a clause which states that no jurisdiction can be required to allow workforce housing where municipal water and sewer is not already present,” she said in written material for Thursday’s House session.

She said the clause allowing voters to cap school-district budgets was joined by another new provision that would strike wording now in statute allowing town health officers to make regulations for people’s health and safety. Some fear such regulations could include mask mandates.

“We are deeply regretful that a bill which had a great deal of public support and which was intended to address our housing crisis, something that we know is an enormous problem for the citizens and businesses of New Hampshire, has been so amended as to render it insupportable,” Vann said.

Rep. Kurt Wuelper, R-Strafford, urged his fellow representatives to table SB 400.

The bill would require local land-use boards to streamline their processes for considering housing proposals and issue factual findings to back up their decisions.

“This bill would effectively destroy local zoning and force, encourage, many districts in our state to enact, to allow, development in contravention of their master plans,” Wuelper said.

He said it could put local residents in the position of having to subsidize new housing.

Rep. Karen Umberger, R-Kearsarge, argued for the bill.

“Housing, housing, housing is the Realtors’ word for problems in this state,” she said in Thursday’s House session.

She said prospective teachers have had to turn down jobs in her local school district because they couldn’t find a place to live.

“Policemen, firemen, municipal workers cannot afford the housing in many of our communities,” Umberger said.

As amended last week, SB 400 would allow a 60-percent majority of voters to cap a school district’s budget. The cap would be based on a dollar amount per student, so it would increase with higher enrollment and decrease with lower enrollment. The cap could also include adjustments for inflation.

Supporters say this would be a good way to protect taxpayers who have seen increasing school budgets and spending despite declining student enrollment.

Opponents say school districts need more funding stability, not less, and that there is not a direct correlation between the number of students and many school expenses.

Meanwhile, the House on Thursday approved by voice vote SB 329, which would establish a commission to study barriers to housing development.

Republicans on the Municipal and County Government Committee last week added a provision to the bill to require a 60-percent majority vote to overturn a municipal tax cap, as opposed to the current requirement of a simple majority.

That measure now goes to the Senate.

Diane Pauer, R-Brookline, argued for the bill, saying the new commission would be able to look into the possibility that manufactured and 3D-printed homes could provide affordable housing options in New Hampshire.

She also argued for making it harder to overturn local tax caps.

“A supermajority tax-cap override as enabling legislation is a common-sense measure for taxpayers to effectively manage local spending, to keep their taxes under control and to, in fact, make housing more affordable,” she said.

Bills to allow school-district budget caps and to make it harder for voters to overthrow a municipal cap passed the House previously this legislative session but failed in the Senate.

Under legislative rules, this previous House passage qualified them to be added to bills on unrelated subjects.

State law already gives voters in every municipality the authority to adopt a tax cap.

In cities, this is a limit on annual spending increases that boost the amount raised by taxes. In towns, this is a limit on year-over-year increases in local taxes. About half the cities and town-council towns in New Hampshire have adopted caps of varying amounts, according to the N.H. Municipal Association.