After 3 months of waiting, restaurants start opening indoor seats to customers

One day at a time as restaurants adjust to reduced capacity and heightened cleaning rituals.

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Tuscan Kitchen in Salem welcomes diners back. Courtesy Photo

MANCHESTER, NH – Now that New Hampshire restaurants are allowed to open half of their indoor seating to customers, businesses are working double-time to sanitize and space out their tables.

Meanwhile, other small restaurants see no rush in moving people inside, and a recent UNH Survey Center poll shows most people are still staying home.

Andy Day of Cask & Vine in Derry said he and co-owner Alana Wentworth have been working to get ready for the opening of indoor dining Wednesday afternoon, by doing an extra round of sanitizing (using house-made sanitizer at their next-door distillery), and moving about 25 bar stools, and some couches and big chairs into the rear lounge area to make room for spaced out tables. 

“We did completely rearrange the dining room,” Day said.

Between three outdoor tables and seven larger indoor tables that seat up to six people, they have a total capacity of about 48, though Day said they won’t likely fill every table. 

Dining is available by reservation only. 

In the days ahead, they hope to also add seating for up to 12 more people in their adjacent taproom and on the sidewalk in front. Day said the Town Council also approved a plan Tuesday that would allow them to put tables in some street-side parking spaces with Jersey barriers. He expects that will be for beer drinkers only after they come back from a week off for July 4.

Day said they’re taking it one day at a time, not sure what business will be like since the summer is usually their slowest season. But travel restrictions may mean customers who are usually away on vacation may still be around.

The business is running a skeleton crew of Day and Wentworth, a bar manager and a chef, and a fifth person who will come in on weekends to help out. When the brewery opens, Day expects he and Wentworth will work the brewery side while the bar manager covers the front end of the restaurant.

At Shaskeen Irish Pub in Manchester, regular patrons reunited on Monday and Tuesday for the first time in months.

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The Shaskeen on Elm Street in Manchester. Courtesy Photo

Co-owner Neal Brown said business was steady on Monday until they closed at 1 a.m. People have been lining up outside during regular business hours and served first come, first served.

“We’re trying to be as normal as we can be without infringing on any guidelines,” Brown said.

The front bar area can seat about 10 groups of six or less, and the rear bar can also fit 10 groups, but would need to ensure smaller groups so as not to exceed their current maximum capacity of 110.

So far, the folks at Cask & Vine at Shakseen don’t expect the addition of indoor seating to increase their expenses, but some larger companies are spending more in overhead to comply with the new regulations.

Tuscan Brands sales and marketing director Edwin Santana said Tuscan Kitchen in Salem has made a number of changes to the way it operates and keeps their indoor facilities clean, which has increased some expenses.

Santana said they increased their third party overnight cleaning crews from two people to six, for example.

“We’ve always had a cleaning company come and turn down the restaurant from day one,” Santana said.

Plus, they’ve dedicated two employees per shift to focus on cleaning and safety, and increased their number of bussers from two to eight.

But so far business has been good.

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Tuscan Kitchen in Salem has been feeling the love from regulars. Courtesy Photo

“Surprisingly, in the Salem location, the amount of support has been overwhelming, so the restaurant is doing well with the amount of people coming in. They’re also being generous with their tips,” Santana said.

Some companies are offering new cleaning programs to meet the demand for restaurants, like Derry-based Household Environmental, which recently started a sanitizer fogging service.

Jack Draghi, a technical sales associate with the company, said it usually costs about 30 cents per square foot, takes one to two hours, but kills 99.99 percent of germs including COVID-19 on all surfaces. The space is safe for occupancy within 10 to 15 minutes after.

“We really want to grow this sector of our business, considering that this is now the new normal,” Draghi.

He said restaurants can book weekly, biweekly or daily cleanings, and the business operates across southern New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts.

The outdoor tent at Tuscan Kitchen offers seating for up to 160 people, according to Santana. So far, they are only offering indoor seating in the first floor of the restaurant with 16 tables and up to about 54 seats. That’s down from a first floor capacity of 175 and over 300 in the whole building.

Eventually, as they hire more staff, they’ll be able to increase indoor seating with roughly 100 more seats, so when the weather gets too cold for the tent, they’ll be able to serve as many customers as they were just with outside seating.

Still, it’s unclear if demand will be there to meet increased capacity. A study by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center published Tuesday found that while people are leaving their homes more than they did in April and May, most people chose to stay home in the last seven days.

On the plus side for restaurants, the survey also found that financial stress among residents is trending downward.

Santana said Tuscan Kitchen is doing same-day call-ahead seating, not reservations. And they’re not limiting the time customers can stay. He said owner Joe Faro felt strongly about that.

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Sunlight filters through the new lattice fencing around Candia Road Brewing Co.’s new outdoor seating area. Photo/Carol Robidoux

“We’ve always been a restaurant where people stayed for a while and had many courses and enjoyed conversations, and we didn’t want to take that away from people,” Santana said.

However, making accommodations for indoor seating at the next-door Tuscan Market will be more difficult since they have a smaller cafe space in the store. So, once the Market’s outdoor patio closes, they’ll likely see some business lost there.

Brown at the Shaskeen said they’ve encountered a few challenges with the current system. For one, they can’t offer live music or comedy inside yet, which is traditionally a big draw for the bar.

And since people are only allowed to sit, folks aren’t allowed to hang around standing at the bar like they’re used to.

“We have had a few people who say we’ll come back when there are seats at the bar. That’s what they like,” Brown said. 

Day said he’s worried that they will take a hit on reservations because they don’t have a web portal like some larger operations offer.

Some small restaurants are biding their time before opening indoor seating, like Candia Road Brewing Company in Manchester.

Brewer Mike Neel said the outdoor patio has proven very popular and as long as there is good weather, they don’t feel the pressure to bring the customers inside yet.

“As of right now, we’re kind of up in the air,” Neel said.

The plan, for now, is to use the good weather days to clean up and prepare the inside, since eventually they’ll have little choice but to invite customers in when the weather is bad. But their hesitancy is partly to protect staff, Neel said, since they only have three people running the business and if any of them get sick, it would grind the operation to a halt.

About this Author

Ryan Lessard

Ryan Lessard is a freelance reporter.