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Business Quarterly: Local businesses prepare to fully reopen

  • Heidi Morris hands a to-go order out of the window at Aesop’s Tables in Peterborough on Monday. Aesop’s is planning on reopening for indoor dining soon, a change from the to-go only policy created to keep patrons and employees safe during COVID-19. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/12/2021 4:51:51 PM

It’s been a little over two months since Governor Chris Sununu lifted the state’s mandated restrictions for New Hampshire businesses in favor of a voluntary set of universal best practices.

No longer are businesses and restaurants required to make customers wear masks or maintain a necessary distance, allowing for some of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic to take further steps toward recovery.

Eliza Allen, owner of Aesop’s Tables in Peterborough, said the change in state guidance didn’t alter the way she had been doing business since last March. The small cafe and catering business inside the Toadstool Bookshop has continued to operate under a takeout model with an increase in outdoor seating. Those eating outside are still given their meals using paper goods and considered takeout.

But this week, Allen said she plans to slowly reintroduce indoor dining, using about half the tables she had prior to the pandemic. For the last year-plus, the dining room has been used for storage to have enough product on hand to handle the increase in takeout business.

“It went up a lot because that’s all we’ve been doing,” Allen said of the takeout. “Because we stayed open the whole time, our takeout business was a big increase.”

It has not been easy being a restaurant owner since last March, Allen said.

“The whole last year it’s been let’s get through the day,” she said, adding it’s been really hard to plan even a week in advance. “You never knew which way it was going to go and it was about constantly adapting.”

She said the reasoning behind a return to indoor dining is the increased number of people that are around town recently and the increase in business other restaurants have seen since the warm weather returned.

“I don’t think there’s as much uncertainty,” Allen said. “I feel like I can finally breathe.”

She said masks will not be required for indoor dining after Toadstool owner Willard Williams dropped the mask mandate at the beginning of July. Allen said she’s not quite sure what to expect when indoor tables are open, but she suspects her customers will continue to support whatever they do.

Dominique Caissie, who owns Terrapin Glassblowing Studio in Jaffrey, said “we haven’t really made any changes since the guidelines changed.”

They do allow renters and students in the studio at the same time, which hasn’t always been the case since the pandemic hit last March, but everyone is still required to wear masks.

Caissie said they still have not reintroduced classes in the hot shop, which requires people to use their breath in the creation process. The hope is for those to return in the fall when “the world will feel a little more safe.”

Classes on the torch have done well, as it allows for students to space out and keep masks on. But instead of big group classes, Terrapin has been operating by offering only smaller private classes for those in the same group.

“It is kind of different, but we have the most amazing customers and we’re following their lead,” Caissie said. And in a way it has allowed Terrapin to bring in their target customers.

The pandemic has definitely changed things, Caissie said, as Terrapin is run by just her and her mom Anne Marie as they have yet to bring any staff back. It allowed her to make a shift to more online offerings and get rid of the in-house shopping area. In many ways, she said, they’ve completely changed their business model.

“People are able to support us by not physically going into the studio and it’s carried us,” she said. “In some ways, I feel like I lost my business, but in other ways it helped me find my business.”

She is grateful for the support and it is what has allowed the doors to stay open. And for Caissie, it has brought about excitement for what the future holds.

On one hand, Bill Littles, who owns Steele’s Stationers in Peterborough with his wife Elizabeth, expected a huge surge in business once Sununu lifted restrictions for New Hampshire businesses on May 7. On the other though, he was trying to be realistic about the likelihood of such an occurrence.

As of early July, Littles said that business is better than it was at the same time in 2020, but it’s still below pre-pandemic levels. His assumption is that with the summer in full swing that people are spending money on vacations and excursions to enjoy themselves after being unable to do so in 2020.

“I honestly think it’s going to be another year before things start getting back to normal,” Littles said. In the words of Littles, it’s simply “going to take time.”

Littles said that despite the lifting of the state mask mandate on April 16, he held off removing the mask requirement at his store.

“Nobody did around here when the Governor did that,” Littles said. “We waited until a couple of weeks ago and a lot of people in town did too.”

He said nobody put up a fuss about the requirement remaining in effect. The reason he maintained the mask requirement is because he was waiting until the younger age group had a chance to go through the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Even still, Littles said about 30 percent of patrons still continue to wear masks and he always has his available in order to make customers feel comfortable.

“We’re leaving it up to how everybody feels comfortable,” he said. “We’re just trying to be respectful of everybody.” He said lifting the mandate felt good and weird at the same time.

While business is better than one year ago, Littles said he isn’t sure what to expect for the rest of the year. He’s just hopeful is will continue to get better.

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