As mild temperatures have continued into mid-November, local bars and restaurants say they plan to continue outdoor dining as long as possible, while also bracing for cold weather to descend on the region during the continued COVID-19 pandemic.
“We did great this summer, and even really up to this weekend, we’ve done well,” with outdoor service, said Ash Sheehan, who owns Taqueria Odelay and Modestman Brewing on Main Street. “And we are now in the process of figuring out what this winter’s going to look like.”
At Modestman, plans for the winter include putting four patio heaters behind the brewery, where two food trucks — Guru and Street Savory — will continue serving sit-down and takeout customers. Branch and Blade Brewing Co., at 17 Bradco St. in Keene, also has heaters on its deck and large back lawn area, co-owner Trevor Bonnette said.
“And we’re just going to push it as long as people are willing to sit outside,” Bonnette said.
Branch and Blade also has cleared out space previously used as offices to allow for more socially distanced indoor dining, Bonnette added, where guests can order from a new menu designed by executive chef Nikolas Milano, who joined the brewery about two weeks ago.
These sorts of winter preparations at restaurants and bars throughout the region come in addition to rigorous cleaning and distancing measures, as well as requirements that customers wear masks whenever they are not seated at their tables, that have been in place at businesses since the coronavirus outbreak began in New Hampshire in mid-March.
And while breweries like Modestman and Branch and Blade lend themselves to takeout food and beer and outdoor service in large patios, more traditional sit-down restaurants, like Harris Welden’s Pearl Restaurant & Oyster Bar and Bantam Grill in Peterborough, are focused on making indoor dining as safe as possible through the winter.
“The weather the past week or so has been nice, so we’ve been kind of lucky to be able to eke out a couple more days of people sitting outside,” Welden said. “... It’s worked pretty well, but there’s only so much you can do with a New Hampshire winter, as far as people outside.”
Along with strict sanitization measures, and the addition of air purifiers, Welden’s restaurants also have installed barriers between tables in the form of antique windows and doors.
“We’ve been talking about how we can make it more of a permanent feature, because it gives the tables privacy in a way that they never really had before, but also it doesn’t make the restaurant feel claustrophobic,” Welden said.
Other restaurants, like Lindy’s Diner in downtown Keene, are preparing to increase takeout offerings as outdoor dining becomes less of an option, co-owner Carroll Stubbs said. At nearby Machina Kitchen & ArtBar, takeout offerings will include a pre-cooked Thanksgiving meal that can be ordered online and picked up a day or two before the holiday, according to Danya Landis, a partner in the restaurant.
And though Gov. Chris Sununu has not given any indication that the state plans to reimpose lockdown measures that would force restaurants and bars to return to takeout-only service, local businesses owners say they still have to plan for any scenario.
“I worry about anything that could hurt our industry further,” Landis said. “A pandemic is not very kind to an in-person service-based industry. And it’s been a challenge, obviously for the restaurant and events industries. But what I’ve seen is everybody has come together, to work together as a team, to help each other out, to be creative.”
At Modestman and Odelay, Sheehan said his businesses are focusing on to-go sales as they prepare for “the worst-case scenario, which is going back to March and April of this past year, when everything was shut down,” he said.
“We have no idea if the state’s going to shut us down again, so we can’t be caught with our pants down, if you will,” Sheehan said. “We have to be ready. And that’s what business is. If you can’t be nimble, you probably won’t stay in business long.”
Despite this sort of uncertainty, area restaurant proprietors say the industry has already shown the resiliency and creativity to survive the pandemic.
“We’re like everybody else, just trying to stay afloat,” Sheehan said. “There’s no end in sight, I think, is the reality. But if we’ve made it these six months, there’s a way to make it through the next six months and just keep moving. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
But with news this week of progress on a potential COVID-19 vaccine, Welden said he remains optimistic for the future of his restaurants.
“We’re just chugging along,” he said. “It seems like if we can make it through the winter, we’ll be good to go, with the vaccine coming and the outdoor seating coming back in the spring. So, it’s just a matter of getting through these dark few months, basically. And I’ve got to stay positive. There’s no other option.”