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Duckler: Opening a business is hard enough. With COVID-19, it’s double trouble.

  • Alyssa McClary, co-owner of the newly-opened Penubra Plants on North State Street, tends to plants that are struggling that she calls her ‘Plant ICU’ for plants while her wife and co-owner, Alison Murphy works with customers on Tuesday June 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Alyssa McClary, co-owner of the newly-opened Penubra Plants on North State Street, tends to plants in the plant room on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. McClary owns the store with her wife, Alison Murphy and the pair started the store in the middle of the pandemic. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Alyssa McClary, one of the owners of the newly-opened Penubra Plants on North State Street, tends to plants that are struggling, which the former nurse calls her “Plant ICU.” GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Co-owners Alison Murphy (left), and Alyssa McClary at Penubra Plants on North State Street, on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Remi Hinxhia, the former owner of Remi’s restaurant, which once stood across the street from the Federal Courthouse, is back in business in the same building, cooking and greeting and cleaning as the owner of Nonna’s. His son, Agim looks on as he checks on eggplant cooking in the brick oven with the name, Nonna above it. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Remi Hinxhia, the former owner of Remi’s restaurant, which once stood across the street from the Federal Courthouse, is back in business in the same building, cooking and greeting and cleaning as the owner of Nonna’s. Linxhia with his children Agim, 8, and Refi, 7, in the dining area of the new restaraunt. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Remi Hinxhia, the former owner of Remi’s restaurant, which once stood across the street from the Federal Courthouse, is back in business in the same building, cooking and greeting and cleaning as the owner of Nonna’s. Hinxhia shows his children, Agim, 8, and Refi, 7, the new pasta maker in the kitchen.

  • Remi Hinxhia, the former owner of Remi’s restaurant, which once stood across the street from the Federal Courthouse, is back in business in the same building, cooking and greeting and cleaning as the owner of Nonna’s. Linxhia shows his children, Agim, 8, and Refi, 7, the new menu for the restaraunt. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Amanda Baril opened New Hampshire Doughnut Co. in Chichester in August and was ready to expand to a second location in Concord in February. Geoff Forester—Monitor file

  • Amanda Baril opened New Hampshire Doughnut Co. in Chichester in August and was ready to expand to a second location in Concord in February. Geoff Forester / Monitor file

  • Amanda Baril opened New Hampshire Doughnut Co. in Chichester in August and was ready to expand to a second location in Concord in February. Geoff Forester—Monitor file

  • Geoff Forester—Monitor file

  • The new Wine on Main in downtown Concord. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/27/2020 5:22:47 PM

The rules were spelled out clearly once the virus struck, and for new business owners, that meant double trouble.

Barely anyone was exempt from the shutdown – not experienced merchants or newbies trying to turn an idea into a profitable venture. As it is, about 20% of small businesses fail after their first year. Half never make it past five years.

Add the coronavirus to the already difficult obstacles that exist before you can open – time, money, a location, a business plan, something that people want to buy – and this past spring was and remains a hard time to open a business and stay alive.

Whether you are selling pizza and pasta, like Remi Hinxhia; or high-end wines, like Jenn Conrad and Rich Ruel; or plants out of an old toy store, like Alison Murphy and Alyssa McClary; or planning to offer handmade donuts in downtown Concord like Amanda Baril and her husband, Chad, getting a new business off the ground gets even trickier when you’re forced to shut down like the rest of the world.

Here’s how a few new Concord businesses have fared during a pandemic:

Growing in a new direction

The coronavirus forced Penubra Plants to close one week after it opened. The Farmer’s Market on Saturdays has helped business some. But as of last week, the phone hadn’t been hooked up and a logo had yet to be chosen.

“We have no idea about lots of things,” Murphy told me. “There’s so much at this point that we’re just starting. It’s taking some time during this wild time that we have.”

The co-owners are local. McClary graduated from Concord Christian High School. Murphy grew up in Goffstown. They’ve been married for five years and live in Concord.

They knew nothing about plants at the start, but they did their homework, eating, sleeping and Googling all things green.

Murphy runs her own seasonal business, selling work from artists during the holiday season. She’ll still do that.

But McClary changed careers, leaving the nursing field after 15 years at Concord Hospital. She chose to support her wife. She said it was the right time. She worked with patients immediately after surgeries, but when COVID-19 commanded the most attention, surgeries were being canceled and McClary’s hours were reduced.

Besides, she said, “Nursing is such a grueling, demanding job. I needed a change.”

As far as they were concerned, plant might have referred to Zeppelin’s lead singer.

“She asked me and I told her I knew nothing about plants,” McClary said.

Added Murphy, “I knew nothing about them, either.”

They do now. They closed the deal in December, two new businesswomen trying to find their mojo. McClary built websites, spread the word on social media, painted, took care of any heavy lifting. Murphy was the face of the flowers, smiling and selling out front.

Then the coronavirus struck. The business, on North State Street, opened then closed in a blink.

“We were ready to open,” Murphy said, “We had a business plan, a budget, we were totally ready to go. But we knew we had to get creative.”

And she did. With the customer’s blessing, Murphy arranged plants herself, first asking about an individual’s house – pets? light available? – then choosing the plants that would fit best, grow strong, under the circumstances. She delivered surprise packages, an exciting way to divert attention from other things. They still offer that today.

Food and family

Hinxhia, the former owner of Remi’s restaurant, which once stood across the street from the Federal Courthouse, is back in business, in the same building, cooking and greeting and cleaning as the owner of Nonna’s.

He built Remi’s from scratch, renovating or adding a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and brick oven. But he chose not to re-sign the lease in 2014. The public noticed.

“People contacted me and would see me downtown and say, ‘When will you reopen? I grew up at Remi’s. I have an emotional attachment,’ ” Hinxhia said.

Family has a lot to do with it.

The United States allowed Hinxhia into the country in 1996, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He washed dishes, bussed tables and cooked until he felt ready to open his own business less than four years later. His mother and sister joined him here and became the core of his staff.

By 2017, he owned the property and building, something he dearly wanted before leaving six years ago. He said business at the new restaurant was good. Until recently. He said a federal grant has helped.

“We generated enough income to pay bills,” Hinxhia said. “We tried to stay a little above water, and now it’s 50% of sales of what it once was.”

When the coronavirus hit, Hinxhia combined his two separate menus, lunch and dinner, into one, making sure customers could order their favorites at any time of day.

He thanked shoppers for any business they brought in during the pandemic, and gave hospital workers and police free pizza.

“It was not about us anymore,” Hinxhia said. “People support you on good days and bad days, and we need the support of the community.”

And about that new name, Nonna’s? At Remi’s, Hinxhia’s mother used to take the grandchildren by the hand and bring them into the kitchen to play with the dough. They loved spending time with her.

“It means grandma,” Hinxhia said. “They kept saying when she wasn’t there, ‘When are we going to see Nonna, when are we going to Nonna’s?’ ”

Now it’s officially Nonna’s Place.

Toast to a side project

Conrad and Ruel toasted to their new business venture selling unique wines after working together at a lighting company in Manchester. They’ve known each other for 10 years. Ruel was once Conrad’s manager.

“We met each other through corporate America,” Ruel said. “We’re good friends. We like each other.”

With the sale of the lighting business looming and layoffs a certainty, they joined forces, confident their chemistry and instincts would lead to success.

“We were speaking about ways to maybe have a side business,” said Conrad, who lives in Manchester. “And then we both love wine, we drank a lot of it during those times. We started to get some knowledge and history on wine and we asked a lot of questions, did our research.”

They signed a lease in December. They began renovating on North Main Street in March, about a week before the COVID announcement. Their Grand Opening was scheduled for April 17. They knew well before then that wasn’t going to happen.

“We were upset like everybody in the world and shocked,” Conrad said. “We were uncertain and scared, all of the emotions you would feel.”

When the shutdown was announced in March, the store had no floor, no ceiling and no future. At least not right away.

Finally, they opened four weeks ago, like everyone else. They followed the rules, kept consumers six-feet apart, limited how many could come in.

The store is breezy now, with vines and brick and music and paintings. There are three tables in the back for wine tasting and wine stocked to the clouds out front. Some days, cheese will be served.

And some day, people will shop there, completely fear free.

“I do love staying home,” Ruel said. “That’s the new going out.”

Responded Conrad, “You like that? Good, but you have to kind of work with this little thing that we’re all going through now.”

Rolling out the doughnuts

The coronavirus works in mysterious ways.

Take the New Hampshire Doughnut Company in Chichester, for example. The owners, Amanda Baril and her husband, Chad, expected to open Shop No. 2 in May, at the Capital Plaza, where the Capital Deli once stood.

The fact that they had to turn back, put the expansion on hold until, perhaps, this fall, blends well with the other business owners’ stories, but this one has a twist: Since opening a drive-through three weeks ago, business might actually be better than ever.

In fact, Amanda, the hands-on top banana at the company, was too busy making doughnuts to come to the phone.

Chad explained it this way: “The business model is better for the customers at these times, and most folks are requesting this because they want to be safe.”

You can no longer put the crazy toppings – from Fruity Pebbles, to coconut, to peanut butter – on the doughnuts yourself, but that unique feature has transferred nicely to the grab-and-go style.

Stay home. Call in your order. Zip in, zip out. No traffic because scheduling is staggered.

Take out started on May 22, and Chad will use that same format at the couple’s new shop, for continued safety reasons. They’ve signed the lease, made all the necessary arrangements.

Chad is confident both places will open fully by autumn.

“But I can’t tell you exactly when,” he said.




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