MANCHESTER, NH – It’s 4 p.m. on Friday, and Chelby’s Pizza bartender Sylvia Caron, who has worked at the restaurant for 40 years, attends to her regulars, delivering pitchers and mixed drinks and a batch of apple martinis for two men at a table in the corner.
In the lounge, set apart from the dining room, three muted televisions project disparate realities of life during the pandemic—Fox News and Dr. Phil and The Masters tournament on the big screen.
At another table, four men huddle around a pitcher of draft beer as Caron—in accordance with a newly-implemented state law—asks her patrons to sign a sheet in case there’s need for future contact-tracing.
“We’re trying to be very careful,” Caron said. “We’re trying to make sure that people are safe.”
But the sign-in sheet is a formality: Caron knows their names, and they know hers. They’ve known each other for years.
They’re her regulars, after all.
And despite the social-distancing and mask requirements as they walk across the lounge to check their tickets at the Keno machine; despite a nagging nostalgia for a year ago when the six tables and five bar stools in the lounge were all occupied, a raucous bar at capacity; despite this deadly virus keeping everyone alert, the regulars have returned to Chelby’s Pizza as they’ve always done, en masse, rallying for the restaurant they embrace.
“It’s like a family,” said Steve Potter, a Manchester resident and a regular at Chelby’s Pizza for 40 years. “It’s like ‘Cheers.’ It’s a home away home.”
And for Chelby’s Pizza owner Heidi Liolios, who started as a cook at the restaurant in 1984, she has nothing but reverence and appreciation for her regular customers.
“The regulars keep us in business,” Liolios said. “There’s never been a time when they haven’t been here for us.”
For the past four decades, Chelby’s Pizza has established itself as — what one online reviewer called — an “old school Manchester restaurant” and one of its well-kept secrets.
Located on Mammoth Road, Chelby’s has seen “generations of regulars” pass through its doors, said Liolios.
“There are people who came here years ago whose kids come here now,” she said. “Our customers here have a sense of belonging.”
Liolios bought the restaurant with her brother John from her old-boss Charlie Vorias—the name “Chelby’s” is a phonetic combination of his own first name, his wife Ellie’s name, and his “two boys”— in November 2002. Vorias, whose children now own the building, assisted the Liolios siblings in reopening Chelby’s after a previous owner left it untenanted.
And again, after the Liolios’s moved to reopen, the regulars answered the bell, helping them and the new staff clean the restaurant and prepare for its new transformation.
While the restaurant had consistently remained solvent, Liolios said it was never about the bottom line.
“It’s not about money,” Liolios said. “We’re not making a killing. It’s about supporting each other. It’s about keeping Chelby’s family together.”
Enter a global pandemic in March that would test everyone’s existential well-being and drive small businesses to precarious brinks.
Liolios said there was no warning ahead of the state’s COVID-19 shutdown, and Chelby’s took an initial hit that insurance wouldn’t cover. Before being required to shutter the doors on St. Patrick’s Day, the restaurant swallowed $2,600 in product, including $600 in corned beef, the type of gut-punch ubiquitous for small businesses during the state’s mandatory quarantine.
According to Fortune, nearly 100,000 small businesses nationwide that temporarily closed due to COVID-19 have been permanently shut down, something that gives Liolios consternation.
“I’m curious to see what this second wave in the winter will bring,” she said. “I want to stay open and I anticipate, at least, staying open for ‘to-go’ orders.”
However, opened at half-capacity, the employees still continue to feel the sting of the COVID-19 restrictions. Caron said, due to social distancing, it now takes her two shifts to net what she once took home during a single shift.
Still, at Chelby’s Pizza, the regulars keep returning and supporting the restaurant.
“Since COVID-19, the regulars have been amazing,” said Liolios. “They do more than their share, and they’re more than generous. They know that the staff has been out of work. Some even tip the cooks.”
Liolios acknowledges that her business model—keeping prices low and cultivating an intimate family-like atmosphere with little turnover in her restaurant—contradicts the capitalist playbook.
“It might not be smart business, but in my heart it feels smart,” she said.
It’s now 8:45 p.m., and Sylvia slides me my tab, asking if I want one more beer before last call. College football now plays on the three muted televisions, and I’m looking at a net-loss from my nightly gambling wages as Eric Clapton’s “Layla” plays on the Touchtunes jukebox. “I really should get home and write my article,” I tell her.
“Will I see you tomorrow?” Sylvia asks.
I grin while signing my tab and putting on my mask. “College football starts at noon,” I say.
Sylvia laughs, a hearty French-Canadian guffaw. “Be safe, Nate,” she says and sanitizes the bartop and stool as I wave goodbye and head back to my other home.