Area restaurants still struggling, but surviving
ADDISON COUNTY — In this season of COVID-19, many businesses have been hamstrung by social distancing, fear of people they don’t know and, for many, less disposable income.
Restaurants depend on drawing together diverse groups of people, sometimes in big groups, for shared food prepared by strangers, often at indoor venues. And they charge money that some people just don’t have right now. As a result restaurants have been among the types of businesses hardest hit.
Most Addison County restaurants are open fewer hours each week than they were a year ago, some have gone into hibernation and likely some will not open again. Those that are keeping the lights on feel lucky to do so. They credit support from government programs, community support and regular patrons.
“We are so appreciative for the support we’ve received,” said Holmes Jacobs, co-owner of Two Brothers Tavern in Middlebury. “We would not be open now, but for our loyal customers.”
Nationwide, 110,000 restaurants are closed with a little more than half of former owners saying they likely will not reopen, according to a December report from the National Restaurant Association. In Vermont, restaurants are restricted to allowing only one household per table; all guests must be seated — no standing at the bar, no mingling — and all in-person service must stop table service at 10 p.m.
A survey of some Addison County restaurant owners showed a mix of fatigue, appreciation for what limited successes they’ve had in the past 11 months, and guarded optimism — very guarded — about the future.
The Bobcat Cafe and Brewery in downtown Bristol decided not to offer dine-in services, said co-owner Erin Sanderson.
“The occupancy allowance was just never enough,” she said. “We can only be successful at dine-in if we’re really full. Besides, the bar is the focal point of the dining area, and without it it would just feel really sad.”
Sanderson remembered the day last summer when Gov. Phil Scott eased state COVID-19 restrictions to allow for outdoor restaurant seating.
“It was right when they started tearing up the sidewalks (for Bristol’s downtown paving and sidewalk project),” she said with a laugh. “And it was like, ‘Well, I guess that decides that.’”
The Bobcat’s alcohol sales have completely evaporated, and with the loss of in-house dining, the restaurant has had to let go of two-thirds of its employees over the past year.
But they’re managing to survive.
“Food sales are actually about the same as last year,” Sanderson said, “which is amazing.”
When the pandemic hit last winter, the Bobcat switched almost immediately to curbside pickup.
“We transitioned to cheaper, simpler food — nothing on the menu is above $12 — and we haven’t really changed it at all,” she said.
And it’s working.
“Prices are low but we make up for it in volume. It’s just a matter of how fast we can answer the phone to take orders.”
The Bobcat has received two government grants, one state and one federal, Sanderson said.
“We didn’t do the first round of PPP (the federal Paycheck Protection Program) because it wasn’t clear how the program would work,” she explained. “But we participated in the second round after hearing about how well it had worked for other people.” The Bobcat’s PPP funding has just come through in the last few days, she added.
The Bobcat is grateful for the assistance, she said.
“We wouldn’t have survived without that help,” Sanderson said.
Across the street from the Bobcat, the dining room of Cubbers restaurant also sits empty.
“We decided a while back not to open it until things get back to normal,” said co-owner Drew Smith. “Takeout was always two-thirds of our business anyway, and when we get busy there are a lot of people coming in and out for pickup in a tight space.”
Before the pandemic Cubbers served lunch and dinner seven days a week. Now they’re down to five dinners and four lunches a week.
“Business is different,” Smith said. “Friday nights have increased by 25 to 30%, and all the other nights have decreased by the same amount.”
He doesn’t blame people for not wanting to come out to restaurants, he said.
“It makes sense. I mean, I don’t venture out to restaurants much, either, except to go across the street to get takeout from the Bobcat sometimes.”
Cubbers also has received state and federal assistance.
“We took advantage of the first round of PPP and we also got a Vermont Economic Recovery Grant,” Smith said. “I didn’t think we’d need such funding at first. In fact I felt kind of bad about applying for it.”
But he’s been using the funding to keep his staff employed, he explained.
“These grants have been super important for hospitality workers, who are always living life on the edge as it is,” Smith said.
Last March Cubbers had 25 employees, and now it’s down to 17 — mostly through the loss of dishwashers, for whom there’s currently no work, and seasonal high school and college kids. The restaurant did pretty well during the summer and fall, but it hasn’t made any money since October.
And 17 employees are probably too many for the amount of business Cubbers is doing.
“If you came in during the week you’d see that we’re kind of overstaffed,” Smith said.
But Cubbers has kept them on anyway.
“I feel totally blessed to be able to keep them going. Restaurant workers live paycheck to paycheck. Even just missing a few hours a week could put people in dire economic circumstances.”
During the pandemic Smith has come to appreciate their anxieties even more, he said.
Two Middlebury restaurants are getting by with a little help from their friends, and have been diligently looking for local, state and federal grants and loans to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
Matthew Robinson and Serna Kim purchased Jessica’s Restaurant at the Swift House Inn, at 25 Stewart Lane, from Dan and Michelle Brown last September. The timing unfortunately disqualified them from PPP aid, Robinson said.
“I’ve fallen through the cracks on this one,” he lamented.
But Jessica’s is eligible to receive help through a local grant program called Table 21. As recently reported by the Independent, Table 21 is a charity created earlier this month through the Congregational Church of Middlebury, thanks to a $300,000 anonymous contribution. The money goes to food providers/producers such as farms and restaurants that have seen their revenues decimated by the coronavirus. The Table 21 board will soon review grant requests of up to $25,000, with awards to be given by the end of this month.
Jessica’s is represented by the Vermont Lodging Association. Robinson hopes the VLA can successfully lobby for additional state and federal COVID-19 relief funds — particularly for businesses that haven’t qualified for assistance through the more conventional programs.
In the meantime, Jessica’s is soldiering on, its owners grateful for the support from local diners. Like many other restaurants, Jessica’s has increased promotion of takeout during the pandemic in order to supplement its dine-in opportunities. It’s open Thursday through Sunday (winter hours).
“(Takeout) has picked up a bit, it’s pretty solid,” Robinson said. “Our outreach is working, which is very gratifying.”
Robinson was pleased to report Jessica’s was fully booked for a Valentine’s Day dinner that many people enjoyed on Saturday, Feb. 13.
“It’s certainly the biggest weekend I’ve seen in a while,” he said. “Things are going about as well as can be expected during the pandemic.”
He expects steadier business for Jessica’s and the inn will come with the reopening of Middlebury College next week.
Robinson and Kim have used the temporary lull in business to make some upgrades to the property — such as painting touch-ups and re-covering chairs.
“It’s to get ourselves ready for the mid-summer and fall when things begin to get a bit busier,” Robinson said.
Jessica’s has been a major cog in the local Everyone Eats program, which uses federal funds to purchase food for meals to distribute to homeless and hungry people in the Middlebury area. In 2020, Everyone Eats funded over 530,000 meals across Vermont, injecting $5.3 million into local restaurants and nearly $500,000 to Vermont farms and food producers.
Jessica’s has provided staff and its kitchen for Everyone Eats meal prep — even during a three-week period when program funding ran out. Everyone Eats is again receiving funding, thus restoring a financial support for Jessica’s.
“It is such an important program,” Robinson said. “It’s a very gratifying experience for everyone involved. I know the local community is happy to get the food and very happy the food they’re getting is coming from Jessica’s.”
TWO BROTHERS TAVERN
At Two Brothers Tavern at 86 Main St., Holmes Jacobs said his restaurant is “weathering the storm. We’ve been able to make ends meet.”
Sales have been down around 80% during the pandemic, he explained. Two Brothers has received a decent boost from state and federal assistance programs, including PPP funds. That help, according to Jacobs, has helped backfill around 40-50% of lost revenues.
Two Brothers has had to temporarily reduce staffing during these tough times. But Jacobs is optimistic the business will emerge in a strong position post-COVID.
“We are so appreciative for the support we’ve received,” Jacobs said. “We would not be open now, but for our loyal customers.”
Two Brothers is open seven days a week, for takeout and dine-in. It’s currently allowed to seat up to 50% of its usual, maximum capacity of 100.
All of the Two Brothers menu is on the takeout list. Jacobs is also encouraging people to purchase Two Brothers gift cards as a way of supporting the business through these leaner times.
Like Jessica’s, Two Brothers has received a boost through a charitable food program. In this case, it’s the Giving Fridge, which raises money through the sale of flowers, honey and other products, and then uses that revenue to purchase food from area producers. The program also compensates restaurants for transforming that food into delicious meals for those without enough to eat.
Two Brothers is hoping to get the OK to make a second round of Giving Fridge meals, Holmes said.
HIRED HAND & BAR ANTIDOTE
Ian Huizenga, co-owner of Hired Hand Brewery and Bar Antidote in Vergennes, said that in 2020 he and partner Eliza Benton consolidated the two operations into one restaurant and are also focusing on marketing Hired Hand beer to restaurants in cans, rather than kegs.
“We’re working on ... essentially kind of rebranding to be able to get the beer out to market and convey our story a little more,” Huizenga said.
Huizenga said their ongoing commitment to the Everyone Eats program for the Vergennes area has been helpful in keeping a few employees on board and the business open. They now have six working at the restaurants, including Huizenga and Benton.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to get involved with Everyone Eats really early. Back in March when we started with the Boys and Girls Club helping them out and laying the groundwork to get 150 or 250 meals out a day, max in October, that really allowed us to maintain a good footing to go into this winter. Without that program, I would be willing to say with 99% certainty we would be at a definite hibernation mode until May.”
The decision not to serve in-house came after studying the numbers.
“When we decided to reopen we took a very pragmatic approach to, like, OK, let’s not be naive about this. We have outside dining until the end of September at the latest. So that’s when our regular revenue stream stops,” he said. “So we trimmed back to the bare essentials and worked with Everyone Eats, and that allowed us to get into a good position for a worst case scenario, which was we can close and reopen in May.”
Huizenga said the program has been vital for both restaurants and recipients, and his drivers cover territory from Starksboro to Addison, delivering almost 200 meals.
“Our numbers are going up regularly with Everyone Eats. There’s a lot of need,” he said. “There’s a lot people that you wouldn’t think of that are being affected very negatively by this right now.”
To keep costs in check, the twin businesses also pared back both the Hired Hand and Antidote menus “basically by two-thirds, if not a little more,” adding what he called weekly “rotational specials.”
Overall, Huizenga described Vergennes-area eateries as “hanging in” during what is historically the slowest time of year for restaurants in Vermont. November and January are the worst, and boosts in December from holiday bar business and February from Valentine’s Day will be lost because of the pandemic.
Fellow restaurateur Matt Birong described his Three Squares Café as being in “hibernation mode.” According to websites, other Vergennes-area eateries and food specialty shops such as Park Squeeze, Black Sheep Bistro, Rockers Pizzeria, Vergennes Laundry, and The Starry Night Café are combining takeout and socially distanced dining between four and six days a week.
No one is going gangbusters.
“It wasn’t like we were making money in the summertime. We were breaking using PPP funds,” Huizenga said. “I think we lost a little more than half of our annual revenue.”
Nor will reopening be easy. Availability of employees and skilled replacements will be an issue, as will how quickly diners will return to dining out and vaccines will roll out — all these questions weigh on Huizenga:
“I honestly believe we’re probably a year away from being like a normal restaurant at the earliest.”
THREE SQUARES CAFÉ
Before hibernating for three months Birong, who is also a Democratic state representative, considered continuing to operate the business with “limited dining capacity” as he had in the summer.
But hibernating became the most logical choice, Birong said, when diners could no longer eat outside, and when the governor prohibited “commingled households at our tables.”
That was essentially the final straw.
Birong said Three Squares “burned through about $45,000 in operating capital in about 10 weeks” between October and the end of December.
He compared that to the $8,000 a month cost in overhead of simply shutting the eatery’s doors, waiting for spring, and allowing his employees to collect unemployment insurance.
Meanwhile, those operating losses can be covered by federal grant money, Birong said, while his employees got a boost from the January federal stimulus package, which contained an extra $300 per week for recipients in unemployment insurance.
Hibernating was also the best choice to make sure Three Squares will “be economically viable when we open back up,” he said, possibly in mid-March.
“I’m hoping we can at least operate this summer the way we did last summer,” he said.
No one in the sector is thriving, Birong said, but at least in the Vergennes area he believes the businesses should survive.
“I don’t think anybody’s in jeopardy of going out of business,” he said. “It’s really just how do we manage our economic relief grant money, both federal and state, in the most logical way. I guess it’s just like cautiously optimistic, if you have to throw catch phrases or tag lines in.”
Uncertainties remain, he added. Event catering that many restaurants have as profitable sidelines remains uncertain this year, and establishments that rely on entertainment to draw in customers are unsure if they can rely on that income source.
“So much of Vermont’s economy is based on social gathering in recreational environments,” Birong said. “That’s what makes this so damaging for everybody.”
Help should be on the way from the stimulus package that the new administration in Washington looks likely to push through Congress, and it is needed while Vermont’s hospitality sector struggles, he said.
“Our tax receipts aren’t looking as good as a while back,” he said. “They’re seeing big dips in January.”
Birong said Vermont has already done more than most states with the federal money to help businesses, including the hospitality sector, and he believes Vermont will continue to do so, with a caveat.
“There’s a lot of hope pending on there being state money … in that next package that’s being negotiated in Washington,” he said. “It would be very difficult for the state of Vermont to pump another $120 million into economic recovery grants.”
Birong looked favorably on different kinds of support given to restaurants. A recent Vergennes Partnership “Dine Around the Little City” promotion featured 11 city-area restaurants and shops offering gift certificates and other rewards to repeat customers, as evidenced by getting cards stamped.
“I do believe it’s a positive collective marketing strategy,” Birong said. “I’ve seen other downtown village centers promoting eateries and retail in similar ways online. I think it’s important to keep public awareness up. The industry doesn’t want to see COVID fatigue begin to let the struggles of our businesses fade in people’s minds.”