Austin Reida and Kayla Borden were ready to secure their place in the local gastronomic scene last year.
The Alstead couple — who are engaged — know the food industry well, having met around 2007 at Brewbakers Cafe in Keene, where Borden worked and which Reida’s family owned at the time.
In 2018, they decided on a whim to open the food truck Street & Savory, serving locally and ethically sourced comfort food. (They have since renamed the truck Street Savory.) A year later, Borden and Reida took over the kitchen at Branch and Blade Brewing on Bradco Street in Keene and opened a restaurant there.
Things were looking good for 2020.
“The restaurant was doing well, it was growing,” Reida said earlier this month. “The truck’s event calendar was full. We expected that to be a really great year.”
None of their experience prepared them for a global health crisis, though.
The novel coronavirus presented an immediate problem for Street Savory: Social distancing is impossible in a food truck. With employees working shoulder-to-shoulder, Reida said the business made sure they were wearing masks at all times.
Even at Branch and Blade, where customers could sit on the patio outside, the early lack of information about COVID-19 meant taking rigorous — even neurotic — precautions.
“We were literally walking around the restaurant … sanitizing every surface like every five minutes,” Reida said. “The wooden doors had stains from the amount of sanitizer we were spraying on them.”
He and Borden weren’t sure how the pandemic would affect sales, which they had anticipated would be strong last year.
Initially, it was a boon.
The business easily transitioned to a takeout-only model when New Hampshire banned on-site dining, since it was used to serving customers from the truck, Borden and Reida said. Sales jumped threefold.
“We were doing flat-out slammed business, open to close, with no breaks really,” Reida said. “The volume of food we were putting out was absurd.”
That changed quickly, however, and the couple stopped taking pay as revenue waned.
Since Street Savory had opened only two years earlier — and the restaurant just the year before — the business didn’t have deep coffers. Nor did it have a financial record long enough to qualify for many of the pandemic-era relief programs available to small businesses. All it received was a small loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, Reida said.
“We would have loved to close and take some time and decompress or whatever, but we couldn’t afford to,” he said. “We’ve had to just hustle.”
That meant mounting stress for Borden and Reida.
Event organizers who had hired Street Savory to cater large gatherings — which the truck relies on heavily — postponed or canceled outright. Reida estimates the business lost $400,000 in projected sales last year.
Only one of the six weddings Street Savory was scheduled to work happened, Borden said, and even that event was challenging because as the food provider, Street Savory was responsible for enforcing COVID-related safety protocols.
“I’m not going up to the bride to tell her she has to put on a mask,” she said, laughing.
With no income, the couple began struggling to pay their bills. Their credit suffered. Reida worried they could lose their home.
He and Borden said the anxiety in their professional life strained their relationship.
Reida, a former EMT for DiLuzio Ambulance Service in Keene and firefighter and EMT in Alstead, compared the emotional toll of navigating the pandemic as a small business owner to the adrenaline involved in emergency response — except it didn’t subside.
“When everything’s an emergency all day … you run out of emergency hormones that regulate those things,” he said. “You run out of the reserves that you live with — you tap into that over and over until you’re just exhausted.”
Street Savory announced in early September that it would close its kitchen at Branch and Blade and pause food-truck operations due to the financial challenges facing the business.
In a Facebook post announcing their decision, Borden and Reida said there was “no way” they could survive the winter due to capacity limits on indoor dining.
Those restrictions, along with hesitancy about returning to public spaces, have squeezed many Granite State eateries: More than 200 have shuttered during the pandemic, according to the N.H. Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“It’s a really tough industry,” Reida said. “It’s exhausting in the best of times, and then when you get decimated by a pandemic, it’s kind of intolerable.”
When he and Borden paused operations at Street Savory and went into his previous line of work — contracting — they considered shutting down the truck for good. But their employees resisted.
“We kind of announced, ‘Everything’s going,’ ” Borden said. “… Our staff were like, ‘No, you can’t.’ ”
So she and Reida jumped at an opportunity to reopen their truck at Modestman Brewing late last year, when the downtown Keene brewery was planning to close its own food truck, Guru, for the winter. With no assurance that Street Savory would earn enough to let them take salary, the couple stayed in contracting and have let their small staff — led by chef Ian Rota — handle day-to-day operations of the truck since November with a mandate only to break even, Reida said.
“That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “… Everybody on board just totally gave their hearts to it and kept it going and just wanted to be there. There was a lot of love in our group.”
Street Savory has enjoyed a renaissance at Modestman, according to Borden and Reida.
The brewery is at the heart of the downtown scene, so there’s always heavy foot traffic, unlike at Branch and Blade’s location in south Keene. And the taproom is large enough to accommodate plenty of customers even under social-distancing guidelines, Reida said, meaning they can eat inside or on its outdoor patios.
“We didn’t make much over the winter, but we didn’t lose money either,” he said. “We kept it alive.”
Yet danger still lurks. Borden and Reida know that a COVID-19 case — or outbreak — on their staff could force Street Savory to close temporarily and create more financial trouble.
“A huge amount of it’s just luck,” Reida said. “I know other businesses that are super, super conscious [of safety protocols] and still had cases. We’ve been asking ourselves every day since it started, ‘When’s it our turn? When do we get hit?’ ”
With warmer weather arriving and more people getting vaccinated, he and Borden are nearly ready to start running the truck full-time again.
Two trucks, actually.
The couple recently took over Modestman’s own food truck, which they plan to rebrand and reopen on the brewery’s back patio soon. That will create more kitchen space and also allow the Street Savory truck, which will remain based at Modestman, to resume catering large events.
On the docket this year: weddings and dozens of concerts at the Cheshire Fairgrounds venue Northlands (formerly Drive-In Live).
The couple is confident that after several years struggling just to remain viable, their business is finally turning a corner.
“I think we’re at the place now that we were before COVID,” Reida said. “Like, alright, we’ve paid our dues.”
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