Restaurants eye their options for reopening
With dining inside still not allowed under Vermont’s COVID-19 regulations, restaurants such as the Marsala House on Putney Road in Brattleboro are offering outdoor dining.

Restaurants eye their options for reopening

For some, the new rules for limited dining outside means a better shot at survival

BRATTLEBORO — In years past, Memorial Day weekend has been a bustling place and marks the start to summer for downtown restaurants, according to Tim Brady, a co-owner of Whetstone Brewery.

The restaurant, on the Connecticut River, is following Vermont Gov. Phil Scott's guidance with its reopening strategy. Scott announced on May 22 that restaurants and bars could open in a limited fashion for outdoor dining.

Yet multiple area restaurants are not doing so.

The Whetstone is limiting dine-in customers to 50, as per the governor's order. usually can fit 200 guests.

The Works Bakery Café, on Main Street, and the Chelsea Royal Diner, on Route 9, have both put seating outside.

Both restaurants are keeping track of who is sitting at each table for contact tracing. The Whetstone asks customers to call ahead to register a table before heading to the establishment.

Brady said he is requiring all staff to wear masks and feels comfortable with server interaction due to cross breezes.

“We have gone to all self-seating so you can make that choice for yourself,” he said, noting that this option gives guests the agency to find a space in which they feel safe.

He also has promised all of his employees, who are earning less in tips because of the reduced capacity, at least $17 per hour.

“We have increased wages across the board in this model. Every employee is making a living wage,” Brady said.

The Whetstone has also revamped the menu so that 60 percent of entrees are less than $10.

“We aren't requiring any of our staff to show up,” Brady said. “We don't want to lose those [servers, cooks] who are important to us, and we want to be loyal back to them.”

A welcome surprise

Brady was expecting to reopen for outdoor dining on June 1, but when Scott announced the decision sooner, the restaurateur welcomed the news.

Brady told The Commons that sales have increased 20 percent from when it could offer only take-out.

“We understand that it will not be possible for all restaurants to start [opening May 22],” Scott said at one of his recent news briefings. “But for those who already have outdoor seating or who can work with their communities or neighbors to get creative, this lets them open up after a very long two months of sacrifice with bills still coming in with no income.”

“We were told on Thursday that we could open on Friday,” Brady said of the announcement. “The schedule had already been made, assuming we'd be takeout only.”

But with a forecast of beautiful weekend weather - 80-plus-degree temperatures - he said they wanted to make it work.

“The biggest issue was scheduling,” Brady said, noting that the Whetstone determines staffing “weeks in advance so that staff can plan their lives.”

Tourists missing in action

Tourism remains a serious concern for multiple establishments. Brady said the Whetstone used to have weekends where 50 percent of customers were from out-of-state.

Two Putney Road eateries - Panda North and Fast Eddie's - also say they are feeling the pinch from the lack of out-of-staters.

Eddie Cogliano, owner of Fast Eddies, said that he has been taking the “stop the spread” campaign seriously with full coverings on take-out windows and ensuring 6-foot distancing.

As a mostly take-out business, the restaurant is known for burgers and ice cream, but Cogliano said he is selling more dinners during the day than he used to because other restaurants aren't open.

“On the weekend, we have a lot of people from out-of-state, because in New Hampshire, they don't wear masks for some reason, so that's kind of scary. We can't make someone wear it - this is America - so we encourage people to wear face coverings,” Cogliano said.

“I work here all day long and wear a scarf because it's easier for me to breathe through a scarf [than a cloth mask],” he added. “There's ways to do it to be safe even in 100-degree kitchens. We have the 6-foot distancing inside the restaurant, too, [with employees].”

Tito's Taqueria, a trailer with outdoor dining in Black Mountain Square, has seen an uptick in business from past summers once reopening, according to its high school-aged employees.

A employee of Yalla, who asked to not be named, said, that he believes that the Fourth of July holiday will show if tourists are going to visit and patronize Vermont this summer. He said he has enjoyed the locals and relationships he has built with them since Yalla reopened for takeout, and the restaurant on Main Street recently added a few tables outside.

“Being open has been very positive because it adds a feeling of normality. People get sick of their own cooking after two months. Everyone who comes in is very grateful,” the employee said.

“We didn't have seating outside before; there's too much of a slant [on the lower part of Main Street],” he added, noting that the traffic and ambience typically makes it “an unpleasant place to be.”

“It's not conducive to a relaxed outdoor dining experience,” he said, but the restaurant is making do.

Masala House on Putney Road had plans to improve its patio before opening for outdoor dining. It was too rushed, according to manager/server Sarah Lott, so the Indian restaurant kept its small tables arranged as they had been.

Lott said that the all-takeout business has been steady enough to pay bills and grow its capacity.

“A lot of new people showing up wanting to support and try local restaurants for the first time,” Lott said. “We are hiring and looking for people.”

Creativity, innovation required

Restaurants must be creative and innovative in the now-changed world, according to Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Executive Director Adam Grinold.

He said that many local businesses are participating in a now-biweekly business resiliency call to understand legislation and receive valuable information on regulations from staff members from the offices of Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Grinold said that understanding the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is key for small locally-owned businesses.

The PPP, part of a federal stimulus program passed rapidly to address the sudden record-breaking unemployment that resulted from the governor's emergency declarations in March,“has been highly valuable, and participants really appreciate just how in touch with Vermonters our delegation is and [how they] help understand PPP,” he said.

“There's not a strong restaurant association across the state so we are trying to point people to the existing networks, which are the state chambers of commerce that are helping,” Grinold added.

He said that restaurants “are going to have to find new ways to connect with customers, to lead with trust and accountability, and deliver specific products, culture, and vibe in a new way.”

The Whetstone, primarily a brewery, is trying to do just that.

“Just two weeks ago [we] purchased a canning line, and we are going to get into some packaged goods,” Brady said.

That, he noted, will “give us another outlet to kind of soften the blow in what the next year might look like.”

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