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Local restaurants have weathered a year of virus-related hardships, here’s how they’re doing

  • Dos Amigos manager Kina Gilson gets slammed with lunchtime takeout orders on Friday afternoon. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dos Amigos manager Kina Gilson gets slammed with lunchtime takeout orders on Friday afternoon, March 5, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/7/2021 4:37:29 PM

When the pandemic suddenly upended lives last March and abruptly closed all restaurants in the state on St. Patrick’s Day, the uncertainty was one of the hardest parts for Kosmas Smirnioudis, owner of the Windmill Restaurant in Concord.

“It was very nerve-racking not knowing what was going to happen, not knowing how things were going to turn out,” he said.

Now, a year later, local restaurants are taking stock of where they are compared to last year, and what the future may hold for them.

Some have shut down, for sure. Many, though, have found new ways to operate with leaner staffs and revamped approaches. They’re all looking forward to the warmer months ahead, which combined with the rollout of vaccines, should usher in a return to a vibrant dining scene in Concord. When patrons do return at pre-pandemic levels, they’ll find an industry more aligned to outdoor eating and take-out services. Some of those changes are sure to stay in place, they say. The Monitor was able to catch up with some Concord restaurants to hear how they’ve adapted and how their business will change.

Dos Amigos Burritos

“It’s been a little weird,” said Kina Gilson, manager of Dos Amigos Burritos in Concord. “We don’t see our regulars anymore.” For Dos Amigos, Gilson said, a key change has been the use of online ordering. This shift has kept their sales “kind of level,” she said. “So far, we’ve been hanging in there.”

Adjusting their business model was difficult in the beginning. Gilson said that they cut down on staff before realizing that they would need to build numbers back up in order to meet takeout demand. “It was kind of a slow process in the beginning, but we kind of have it down,” she said. And the changes to their business model have been far-reaching, Gilson said. “Everything is run pretty differently now, and it’s going to be hard to go back to the old ways.”

The Windmill

For Smirnioudis, going back to the old ways is the ultimate goal. “I’m barely making enough to cover my everyday cost and pay the staff I have on hand,” he said. Part of the reason for this, he said, is the fact that guidelines dictate reducing capacity to 50% and implementing six-foot distancing, meaning that he simply can’t have as many people in the restaurant as he used to. And that, Smirnioudis said, “just pushes customers away from my business.”

Other difficulties include the constant cleaning, Smirnioudis said, and mask-wearing. “We have to be a lot cleaner, we have to be very aware of making sure everything stays clean, and it’s a lot more work that way,” he said. And wearing masks in the kitchen is hot and uncomfortable. Smirnioudis said he’s developing rashes behind his ears from the straps.

Despite this, Smirnioudis hasn’t been alone. “We’re run by our family and we rely on each other,” Smirnioudis said. “I’m really blessed to have my family’s support.”

Looking forward, he’s hoping to get back on track, and grow. “We may be on the tail-end,” he said, “but you got to remember that we’re a year behind. We’re still playing catch-up.” He added, “It’s going to take us a little while to get back to where we were in 2019.”

T-Bones American Eatery

Other local restaurants were set back, too. Tom Boucher, the CEO of Great NH Restaurants, said that their opening of the T-Bones American Eatery location in Concord was delayed by months due to pandemic-related shutdowns. “We literally couldn’t get our booths because the manufacturer down in Georgia shut down,” he said.

So they delayed opening until mid-September, when it “looked like we were turning the corner” in the pandemic, Boucher said. T-Bones was doing well, and then as winter began to roll around, sales declined again as cases began to climb.

Still, since then, Boucher said things have started to improve. “We’re definitely headed in a trickling-up situation, which I think will obviously continue as the vaccine gets rolled out and as the warmer weather comes,” he said.

He plans to keep some business models that were put into place for the pandemic. One of those is outdoor dining, specifically the tent that’s been put up in the T-Bones parking lot. Another is online ordering, which Boucher said was “always on our wishlist” and now makes up a big part of the business. “They’re here to stay,” he said.

However, Boucher said that they will be avoiding using Uber Eats and other middle-man companies. “It was a disaster, to be honest,” Boucher said. Oftentimes, drivers would pick up the wrong food or not get to the restaurant in a timely manner. “And of course, when they make a mistake, who do you think the customer blames? Us,” Boucher said

For Boucher, there were a lot of lessons to be learned about the industry. “Our company, and the industry...we’re really nimble,” he said. The ability to adapt to the crisis helped immensely. “You can’t plan for it, we had no idea this was coming.” Another lesson, he said, was the importance of loyal and hardworking employees. “The longevity,” he said, “the loyalty that they have, that really kept us together this last 12 months.”

Revival Kitchen and Bar

Corey Fletcher, owner and chef at Revival Kitchen and Bar, noted a similar upside with his staff. “Morale with the staff was good,” he said. “Luckily no one had a confirmed case in our group of 16 employees,” he added, over the course of the whole year. Fletcher emphasized screening for symptoms and heavily enforced mask-wearing. “If anyone had a cough or a sniffle or anything in question, they were sent home,” he said. “If we didn’t have people to work, then no one was going to be making money to get through the pandemic.”

Revival had another set-back midway through the pandemic, when a ruptured hot-water pipe caused massive water damage. The restaurant is still shut down, but Fletcher hopes to be back up and running in a couple months. For him, it was another setback after a year of change. “For a while, we were kind of all joking that from start to finish we probably had like seven or eight different ways of doing business,” he said. Takeout was huge, and then the addition of a deck for outdoor dining, and now this.

What’s ahead

Fletcher says he’s now looking to the future. “We’re all flexible and adapted to the situation. At the end of the day, we’re still going to be serving really good farm-to-table local foods,” he said.

Boucher, also looking to the future, is excited for what it may hold. He anticipates that everybody will want to “get back to their lives and have fun.” He added, “I think we’re going to see just a booming recovery” for the hospitality industry.

Fletcher agreed. “I think the need for people to out and celebrate life – all the big occasions people would want to out to eat for, birthdays, anniversaries, stuff like that – I think people are going to be more likely to go out to celebrate smaller things, like finishing the week at work. Just to get out and celebrate life and the little things, not just the big things anymore.”

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