MANCHESTER, NH – Throughout 2020, restaurants across Manchester, one by one, dug themselves out of the ditch dug by COVID-19. One address that remained eerily quiet throughout the year was 931 Elm Street, home to the Birch on Elm, a modern American tapas-style eatery with a loyal horde of fans.
The Birch remained inactive for the majority of the year, leading many to believe that their final service was behind them.
Fortunately, thanks to the dedication from Chef/Owner Nick Provencher, General Manager Jeremy LePage, Chef de Cuisine Matt Berry and the rest of the crew, there is a future for The Birch, despite the setbacks brought on by the pandemic.
The team first announced their tentative return back in October. The restaurant’s re-entry into the community began with the launch of their Pantry and Provisions program, which allows people to purchase a wide array of handmade and locally sourced items such as fresh pastas, condiments, full meals and inventive doughnut boxes courtesy of Kate Holowchik, pastry chef and founder of Lionheart Confections.
Many items come from The Birch’s catalogue of innovative dishes in addition to several products inspired by Noodz, The Birch’s sister restaurant. The overarching theme for Matt Berry, however, is freshness and support for farmers across the state, many of whom are struggling to find homes for their products.
“I see what my farmers have; we have a lot of people reaching out to us. I always tell my farmers, ‘I don’t want to dictate what you grow for me. I want to utilize what you grow,’” said Berry.
As the restaurant gets its feet wet with this new program, re-opening for a full dinner service remains a lingering goal, but the challenges of doing so are numerous. The impact of the pandemic on industries that rely on each other for success is among the most significant obstacles.
“Everyone’s in the same boat. This has thrown every industry for a loop,” said Berry. “It definitely causes you to adapt…The biggest struggle is finding out how to navigate through this while everyone else is also navigating at the same time.”
From the front-of-house perspective, the biggest challenge is the six-foot separation between tables, which is especially problematic for small, intimate restaurants like The Birch. Given the restrictions, The Birch can seat upwards of sixteen people, which, according to LePage, simply isn’t enough.
“We’re kind of handcuffed until restrictions are lifted because it’s such a small space. As soon as dining restrictions are gone we’ll be open the [following] week, said LePage.
An additional issue brought on by the pandemic is the uncertainty regarding when normalcy will begin to take effect. This was especially true back at the onset of the pandemic, when the theory that a return to normal life was right around the corner was a popular one.
“We were hoping for the best and trying to prepare for the worst, but back then, the best-case scenario was to be back open in two to three weeks; the worst case was to be open by mid-summer,” said LePage. “It’s hard to lay the groundwork when you don’t know when the endgame will be.”
In spite of the setbacks, the team is committed to bringing the space back to life. The modern, tapas-style menu and handcrafted bar program are to be preserved at their core, although changes to the style of service offered are a possibility. This may include establishing a set, prix-fixe menu each night instead of a traditional pick-and-choose format.
This is the method for their upcoming Valentine’s dinner, which will be their first in-house service since March.
The socially-distanced meal will take place on Valentine’s weekend, Friday to Sunday. The prix-fixe meal includes five courses, and a specialty cocktail menu will be available for drink purchases. Each day features 5 and 7:30 time slots and up to four guests per party are allowed.
Although many challenges lie ahead, the task of nursing a battered and bruised spot back to life will be a rewarding one, especially when that pesky six-foot rule is lifted and we can once again feel the bustling, magnetic energy of a full restaurant.
Stay up-to-date on the latest info about The Pantry and Provisions program and events on The Birch on Elm’s Facebook page. For those looking for a last-minute Valentine’s dinner, book a reservation at https://www.thebirchonelm.com/valentine. Find the Birch on Elm at 931 Elm Street in Manchester, NH.