Back to business: Restaurants welcome their regulars back

  • A masked server delivers lunch to a table at the Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant in Manchester, N.H., Monday, May 18, 2020. The restaurant, which closed their inside dining area in March due to business restrictions created by the COVID-19 virus outbreak, reopened Monday as New Hampshire restaurants were allowed to serve their customers with outdoor table service. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • A masked server delivers lunch to a table at the Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant in Manchester, N.H., Monday, May 18, 2020. The restaurant, which closed their inside dining area in March due to business restrictions created by the COVID-19 virus outbreak, reopened Monday as New Hampshire restaurants were allowed to serve their customers with outdoor table service. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • A masked and gloved waitress takes a lunch order outside at the Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant in Manchester, N.H., Monday, May 18, 2020. The restaurant, which closed their inside dining area in March due to business restrictions created by the COVID-19 virus outbreak, reopened Monday as New Hampshire restaurants were allowed to serve their customers with outdoor table service. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Carpenters Tom Percoco (left) and Dan Mercier build an outdoor area at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester. AP

  • Carpenters Tom Percoco, right, and Dan Mercier build an outdoor dining area at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, N.H., Monday, May 18, 2020. The diner, which closed their inside dining area in March due to business restrictions created by the COVID-19 virus outbreak, expects to open their outdoor area for customers later in the day once construction is complete. Restaurants across New Hampshire reopened to outdoor table service on Monday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 5/18/2020 5:13:25 PM

For a moment, everything seemed back to normal. The Common Man upper deck brimmed with lunchtime customers sitting in the sun. Diners worked through drinks and sank into lobster rolls. They caught up on little things and big changes, from weekend plans to new pregnancies.

And then Charles the waiter returned in black gloves and an American flag mask, and reality barged back in.

Across New Hampshire Monday, restaurants launched into a new phase of pandemic reality: outdoor dining. Following weeks of shuttered indoor seating and attempts at takeout and delivery, restaurants were allowed to experiment putting diners in tables outdoors after Gov. Chris Sununu relaxed his previous shutdown order in response to COVID-19. Some did; others waited on the sidelines.

The transition is a work in progress. At the Concord Common Man, the staff outnumbered the customers at Monday lunch hour. All of the dozen or so wooden picnic tables in the parking lot stayed empty, as customers flocked to the upper decks.

But the seats that did fill went to some old friends and regular customers.

Normally, David Masinich comes in often – practically daily, he joked. On Monday, he and his wife were up on the deck, perched against the wall. Further back was Linda Pike.

In better days, Masinich and Pike are part of a Common Man group of regulars, a loosely associated group of friends that manage to keep finding each other in the bar or at the tables for lunch. That gang has dissipated as restaurants have shut down in-house services. And if Monday was the first spark, a full return for the group is a long way off.

Still, Masinich was just happy to be back. “We’ve been stuck in our house for two months,” he said. “It’s not back to normal, but it was wonderful to be out socializing again.”

The conversation picked up where it had left off. The staff bustled about disinfecting doors and tables. Charles, a server beloved to the group, darted in and out with pepper mills and water glasses, stopping for commentary and life updates.

“It definitely beats eating lunch alone every day,” said Pike.

Times have been hard for the service industry, but these are the scenes that some restaurants are hoping to capitalize on in the coming weeks: the eager return of diehard regulars in a new era.

At least for now that means tables six feet apart and waitstaff wearing masks. Customers may be asked to wear masks as well as they enter and exit the property, and if they go inside to use restrooms.

For the staff of the Concord Common Man, the last two months have been a whir of productivity. After securing a Paycheck Protection Program loan that allowed him to keep paying staff, general manager Scott McCann put employees of all stripes to work on a series of renovation projects, from genaral repairs to a floor to ceiling re-painting.

In the past two weeks, the six-restaurant chain kicked into ramp-up mode for outdoor dining. The company directed maintenance workers to build and distribute between 70 to 80 new wooden picnic tables to accommodate outdoor parking lot seating, each with the Common Man brand, said Dan St. Jean, the Concord facility’s executive chef.

And now, as it moves toward seated dining, the restaurant is in a continual negotiation with vendors as supply chains get dicey.

“It’s taking the concept of the takeout, where we modified our menu down,” St. Jean said of the reopening. “Now we want to get back to normal with our offerings. So we were able to bring almost, probably 90% of our main menu back.”

Sean Brown, chief operating officer for the Common Man family of restaurants, said many customers arrived for lunch without masks Monday, but the restaurants provided them. Most locations were moderately busy despite a rainy morning, he said.

“We certainly were not overwhelmed, but the guests that were dining with us were appreciative, they were happy to see us and we were happy to see them,” he said. “I’m confident that the outdoor dining business will continue to grow as guests become more comfortable.”

Brown said staff were happy to get back to work.

“Everyone had a smile on their face today,” he said. “I’ve been telling everyone, even if you have a mask on, our customers can still see a big smile.”

As restaurants opened up across the city and state Monday, Jim Tanner and Steve Duprey may have been the first to take advantage of it.

They were sitting outside The Works Café in Concord with their coffee by 6:02 a.m., two minutes after it opened.

For several years, they’ve been among a group of friends who meet at the café every weekday morning. Since the governor issued the stay-at-home order, Tanner and Duprey have altered the tradition — getting coffee to go and chatting outside for a few minutes, standing 10 feet apart.

“Today was nice because we saw the tables out and thought, ‘Hey, we can sit here and enjoy the nice weather,’” said Tanner, a retired IBM sales executive who has missed the morning gatherings.

“Folks kind of paraded in ... it was a very nice way for many of us to start our day and get a lot of social contact with all facets of society,” he said.

Back at the Common Man, as they waited on the check, Masinich and Pike were pleased with the dining too, conditions and all.

“Hey as long as they have wine, I can get used to it,” Pike said.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.)




Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301
603-224-5301

 

© 2020 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy