How are New England artists and entrepreneurs weathering the current storm? This week: A New Hampshire artisan gives her creativity free rein during the shutdown, while the owners of the venerable Red Lion Inn in Massachusetts look forward to reopening at long last.
By Ian Aldrich
Jun 19 2020
The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.Photo Credit : Courtesy of Main Street Hospitality
In the face of a pandemic, business owners are among those facing the most extreme challenges. They are tasked with keeping not only themselves and their families healthy, but also their employees, their customers, and the business itself. Throughout this spring, deputy editor Ian Aldrich has been checking in with some of the New England artisans, entrepreneurs, and institutions that Yankee has introduced to its readers over the years, to learn how they have faced the toughest job of all.
Mr. Badger is a handsome boat. A 41-foot Concordia yawl — a type of two-masted sailboat — built in 1957, this wooden yacht was designed for racing and cruising. And it’s rare: There are only about a hundred others like it in the world.
In 2018 Denis Dowling and his wife, Allie Medeiros, purchased Mr. Badger. In a sense, Dowling’s whole life had pointed to this moment. He took to the water early, and by his early 20s he had already been made captain and was leading charter cruises all over the world. But his dream had always been to run his own vessel.
Dowling and Medeiros poured months into overhauling and freshening up Mr. Badger. The work quickly paid off, and last summer, in their first season running the vessel as a charter, the couple booked 30 trips.
This summer had looked even more promising. “I was expecting an incredible season,” Dowling says. “By February we had booked about half of what we had the year before.”
What came next is a familiar story. The COVID-19 crisis slammed communities across the country, and by March the economy began to shut down. For Dowling and Medeiros, the cancelations came swiftly, and in late April they refunded their existing clients and suspended new reservations. Then they hunkered down for the next two months.
Over recent weeks, however, the couple have returned to a form of their sailing life. When I reach Dowling by phone on a warm day in early June, he’s on break from refinishing the boat, a laborious process that requires first stripping it and then layering on 10 coats of varnish.
Dowling says he finds it a relief to work on Mr. Badger, but he has mixed feelings about the summer season. On one hand, he’s eager to be back out on the water, leading charters through Narragansett Bay. But he’s also mindful of the risks and the consequences of trying to rush to open. People may indeed want to sail with him, he says, but ensuring their safety isn’t anything he can guarantee at this point.
“I’ve seen some of the larger charters under sail, but when you’re on our boat it’s shoulder-to-shoulder in the cockpit,” says Dowling. “There’s no way we can operate until I know with certainty we can be safe and that people won’t get sick.
“I’ve definitely cried a few times, looking at my boat. But when this thing hit we knew it wasn’t a joke. We knew what needed to happen. All we can do at this point is try to be ready for when it is safe to take people out again, whether it’s this year or 2021.” —June 19, 2020
In small towns across New England, the general store is more than simply a place to pick up a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. It’s the focal point of the community, the “real” town center, where gossip is traded, and business and even personal differences are hashed out.
One of the best examples lies a just few miles northwest of Yankee’s Dublin, New Hampshire, offices. Tucked into the center of a restored mill village, the Harrisville General Store is part market, part eatery, part gallery, and part social hub. Come lunch the small dining area is a mix of workers, retirees, kid-toting-parents, and hungry Yankee editors. There’s the menu, of course, which includes homemade soups, paninis, burgers made with local beef, organic salads, and towering carrot cakes. But there’s also the ambience of the place. It can feel uplifting even in the most uncertain times.
In the past few months, however, the Harrisville General Store has had to redefine its relationship to its community. In early March, even as COVID-19 began to become a regular national headline, it was still hard to fathom how or even if it would impact the rhythm of small-town life. Then a Massachusetts couple visited the store and reported how hard the state had been hit.
“We had this couple from Massachusetts come to the store around then, I remember how they kept telling us it had hit their state and that it was going to be here soon,” says store manager Samantha Rule. “That it was coming and we needed to prepare. And we were all like, Just chill out. We’re fine. A week later we realized we needed to make plans.”
Rule and her team closed the dining room, halted the making of prepared foods, and eventually closed the store to the public, offering only curbside service. But each change, every alteration to how Harrisville General worked with its community, pained Rule.
“It was exhausting and hard,” she says. “For the first two weeks after we closed the store to the public, I’d wake up each day feeling good about how we were going to run things. And by the end of the day I’d have these chest pains because we were navigating this whole new thing.”
The Harrisville General Store first opened its doors in 1838, and its current business operation gives it some flexibility. Because the market is owned by Historic Harrisville, a nonprofit that is responsible for saving many of the town’s historic mill buildings, it doesn’t face some of the financial pressures that other general stores do.
Even as business dropped “considerably,” Rule got creative in how the store could expand its community outreach. It began offering delivery services to those who couldn’t leave their home or chose not to. For families in need, it slashed or even zeroed out prices for groceries.
“For all of us, I think, it reinforced the store’s connection to the community,” says Rule. “People wrote us saying how much they appreciated the store. We got letters from parents whose children lived in town saying they appreciated that we were still open, that their kid felt taken care of.”
As the warm weather has arrived and states have begun to open up the economy, Harrisville General Store has followed suit. In mid-May it began offering breakfasts again, and in early June it started welcoming customers back into the building. On Monday, June 22, its lunch service will return. Later this summer, the store will offer sit-down dinners that will include alcohol service (once a state permit is granted).
“Prior to all this happening, we’d built up some great momentum at the store,” says Rule. “We’re hopeful that hasn’t been lost. It’s important what we created, and we hope we can find it again.” —June 19, 2020
In mid-March, Simon Rodrigues was on a long-awaited vacation with his family in Costa Rica when his phone started to blow up. The COVID-19 crisis was charging across the United States, and cancellations had started to pour in at Chatham Bars Inn, the luxury Cape Cod retreat where Rodrigues works as sales and marketing director.
“It came on so fast,” says Rodrigues. “All of a sudden I was on my phone every minute. It was nonstop.”
Families, conference groups, and wedding parties were either rescheduling or canceling their reservations altogether. Talk had already started about closing the property and what that might look like. Rodrigues rushed home, and not long after that, the 106-year-old Chatham Bars Inn temporarily closed its doors — a decision, he says, that was hard but necessary.
“I’ve been through 9/11, the financial crash, and the Boston Marathon bombing,” he says. “It wasn’t long after those things that people were ready to travel again. This was different. People weren’t going anywhere. Everything was shutting down. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Adding to the shock, he says, was that the resort had been on pace for a record-breaking first quarter. Both January and February had been above-average months for reservations, and March, with a slate of scheduled corporate and government conference groups, had looked even better.
Three months after that initial whirlwind, Rodrigues and the rest of the management team at Chatham Bars Inn are feeling something else entirely. When I reach Rodrigues, the resort, which sits on 25 acres of oceanfront property, is just days away from its planned June 8 reopening, and he’s elated.
“The sun is out, it feels like summer, and we’re about to welcome guests again,” he says. “It feels really good.”
Like hotels and other businesses across New England, Chatham Bars Inn has tried to use the last few months to restructure how it operates. The management team has reworked the floor plans at the property’s five restaurants to allow for easier social distancing, set up a curbside check-in service, and leveraged mobile technology so guests can communicate with the concierge team and order room service through their phones.
“It’s given us the chance to work on the property and look at how we do everything,” says Rodrigues.
The resort’s popular clambake, for example, isn’t going way — but its buffet line is. A picnic service has been introduced, as have new outdoor dining tables, allowing guests to eat on the lawn as they linger over a view of the Atlantic. With warm weather here, that’s the kind of thing people seem ready to experience again.
“The summer looks promising,” says Rodrigues. “When we started taking reservations [last month], that first day we had about 300 calls by early afternoon. People are ready to travel again. They just want to know that they can feel safe doing so.” —June 12, 2020
How does a museum stay connected to the public when it’s forced to close? And what does it mean to reopen to a world where people may still feel nervous to visit public spaces?
These are the questions David Simmons and his staff at Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vermont, have been grappling with over the past few months.
“It’s been incredibly challenging,” he says. “We’re still a farm, so we’re still operating in that sense. But we’ve also had think through a lot of the things we do and how we have to do some of them differently.”
The property has deep roots as a public space. When Frederick Billings established a farm here in 1871, he did so with a mission to help other dairy operators learn more about best practices and sustainability.
Today, it’s still a working farm, with a herd of award-winning Jersey cows, but it’s also an outdoor history museum that’s owned and operated by the Woodstock Foundation, a nonprofit educational institution begun by Laurance and Mary Rockefeller.
But the Billings experience rests on the kinds of interactions and hands-on experiences that don’t cater easily to a world that’s practicing social distancing. A visit to the museum means a deep dive on the farm’s fully operating dairy operation, as well as a primer on 19th-century Vermont life, from town meetings to one-room schoolhouses to general stores. There are animals to pet, farmers to meet, and if you’re up for it, butter to churn.
As much as any institution could during this crisis, Billings got lucky when COVID-19 hit. Every year, the museum closes to the public for all of March, and so it was already not open to visitors when Vermont’s shelter-in-place orders were put in place.
Still, Billings didn’t wait long to pivot. In a typical year, the farm will welcome as many 60,000 guests. Many of them are school groups, and in the early days, the museum began working to make sure those connections were sustained.
On March 19, Billings rolled out a curbside activity pick-up with a variety of “Bag of Fun” kits for parents to take home. It launched with an all-things-cow theme featuring dairy trivia, butter-making instructions, and craft notes on how to make a brown-bag cow.
In the months since, Billings has leveraged its YouTube and Facebook channels to share sketching and art projects, offer book readings, lead farmhouse tours, and create virtual visits with the animals.
As it has developed these programs, Billings has also fleshed out how it will have to operate when it does open on June 27. The dairy barn, for example, will be closed — “We have to be sure our farmers don’t get sick,” says Simmons — but the new heifer barn, which is open and airy, will still be available to visitors. There will be limits on the number of people who can be on the grounds at any one time, staff will wear masks, and there will be temperature checks of all employees and visitors.
So in other words, Billings will look a little different, though in many ways it remains the same. And Simmons is hopeful that a destination built around beautiful gardens, cute animals, and a yesteryear appearance will help offer visitors the kind of respite they may be looking for.
“This is a special place,” says Simmons. “We’re looking forward to it coming to life again and reminding people what a special place it is.” —June 12, 2020
Next Saturday, Sarah Eustis will feel like she can breathe again.
That’s when, if all goes according to plan, the first guests will begin to file into the Red Lion Inn, the historic 18th–century inn that Eustis and her team had to close nearly three months ago due to the coronavirus pandemic. Main Street Hospitality oversees and runs eight hotels in southern New England, but it’s the Stockbridge property that is especially meaningful to Eustis, since her family has owned the 125-room luxury inn for more than half a century.
“It’s going to be really joyful to see those first guests,” she says. “This place means so much — not just to all of us who work here, but for those who come here as well. There are going to be some tears to have it open again.”
But welcoming guests back has required considerable strategic planning. Over the past three months, Eustis and her team have had to walk a fine line between protecting the “Red Lion experience” and making sure guests and staff feel safe amid a health crisis that still grips the country.
“There’s an emotional part of going away,” she says. “That feeling like you truly are away. That’s the thing we have to make sure isn’t compromised. But we also have to recognize the world we live in.”
At the Red Lion, that’s meant a careful realignment of key guest experiences. New menus have been designed to make for easier food delivery, while lodging packages have been specifically crafted to cater to visitors traveling from Boston and New York. To allow for social distancing, dining and porch spaces will have less seating.
“We have to make sure our guests feel that emotional assurance,” says Eustis. “Eye contact, body language, and the voice and tone we use when we are interacting with guests — those have always been important, but they’re especially vital now.”
If anything, however, the Red Lion’s closure has demonstrated just how much the inn has meant to the guests who regularly visit. Over the past few months, says Eustis, letters and emails have poured in from longtime visitors to express their gratitude for the property and their hopes to visit again. And when the Red Lion began taking new reservations, many familiar names immediately booked their stays, including one guest who booked 27 consecutive nights for later this summer. That kind of loyalty gives Eustis hope in a time when it can feel like that sort of thing is in short supply.
“I was working in New York City when 9/11 happened, and later when the financial crisis hit in 2008. But this was different,” says Eustis, whose company is slated to open two new hotels later this year, the Beatrice in Providence and Hammetts Wharf in Newport. “Trying to get through this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. To come through the other side of it, to go all the way to the edge and look over, but not go over, will feel really good.” —May 29, 2020
Linny Kenney had big goals for 2020. Call it a reboot, call it a reinvigoration, but the artist whose handmade leather bags, guitar straps, and knife rolls have found adoring fans across the country had set in motion plans to reshape not just what she produces but how she produces it.
“I definitely found myself in this creative rut,” she says. “When the holidays would hit, there were only so many oven mitts I really felt like making. It began to feel like I was the working elf.”
So, Kenney looked for ways to change things up. A trip to Europe had introduced her to a high-end Italian tannery in Milan whose leather was “gorgeous,” she says, and more ecologically friendly than anything she’d worked with previously.
Then, not far from her studio in Littleton, Kenney found a manufacturer who could produce her goods, freeing her to focus on design. The production work she did continue to do would be for Soj, an entirely new line of boutique products she planned to produce from Brazilian fish and leaf leather.
In January, things seemed to be on track. The first batch of the Italian leather had arrived, while Soj seemed destined to launch in the second half of 2020.
Then the COVID-19 crisis hit. The manufacturer that she had contracted with shut down, and like so many other small business owners across New England, Kenney had to reassess what the coming year was going to look like for her.
“I haven’t seen a decline in sales, so that’s been good,” says Kinney. “But all that leather has been sitting [at the manufacturer’s] and they don’t even know when they’re going to get to it.”
Throughout the spring, Kenney has had enough material to continue fulfilling orders. She donated items to help support fund-raising for the New Hampshire Food Bank and guitar straps to MusiCares, a musician-support initiative by the Recording Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences that had launched a coronavirus relief fund.
But she’s had to overhaul what the rest of the year will look like. The new boutique line will most likely debut in 2021, and recently Kenney purchased a new sewing machine that will allow her to work with that Italian leather to produce a regular lineup of leather goods, from straps to bags to yes, even those oven mitts.
“It’s not how I hoped things would play out, but this is where we are,” she says. “And in some ways this break has given me a chance to step away from some of the custom work that wasn’t inspiring me. I just haven’t had the product to do some of the custom work I once did. I have that permission to say no.” —May 29, 2020
Amid northern New Hampshire’s booming new tourism economy, Corrine Rober’s ATV and snowmobile rental business, Bear Rock Adventures, had a “phenomenal” summer last year. When winter rolled around, it was much the same. And then, suddenly, everything shut down.
“January and February were fantastic,” says Rober, who founded Bear Rock in 2013 with husband Steve Baillargeon. “Normally, we’re hoping to get to that first week of April with our snowmobile business, but that just didn’t happen.”
As summer looms, Rober is bracing herself for additional losses. “We’re going to be down [in numbers] for the summer, maybe as much as 50 to 75 percent,” she says. “But we’ll be able to survive. If you had talked to me last week, I was feeling a lot different. I was worried whether we’d be able to make it.”
Rober’s tentative optimism is fueled in part by last week’s news that New Hampshire will issue $400 million in small-business grants. That comes on top of widespread speculation that the state will likely have some version of a summer tourism season. Rober says it’s possible she may be able to open Bear Rock by early July, or even mid-June.
She’s also been finalizing plans for Bear Rock’s second season of “glamping” on the 100 acres surrounding her home in Colebrook. “We’re only doing four sites, 10 acres apart, so they’re tailor-made for social distancing,” Rober says. “The response so far has been extremely positive.”
With her core business, though, there are more potential obstacles. The success of Bear Rock’s vehicle-rental service relies on the vast network of riding trails in northern New Hampshire that course through both public and private properties. That partnership has helped transform the region into a magnet for snowmobilers and ATV riders from across New England, which in turn has fueled new restaurants, shops, and lodging.
But Rober says some landowners have expressed concern about opening the region to out-of-staters too quickly. And without their cooperation, the trail network will be seriously diminished.
“People are nervous about an influx of visitors to the area,” she says. “There were already people who are sensitive about the ATV scene. I worry this may intensify those feelings.”
There’s also the question of when the trails will open. Setting aside the fact that there’s still snow on the hilltops throughout the region, the state has to officially green-light the ATV riding season. What might that look like? Will the trails initially be open only to state residents? How would restrictions on out-of-state visitors affect the regional economy? These are the kinds of issues that state and local leaders, as well as business owners, are grappling with.
“The concern is our tourist infrastructure,” says Rober, who serves on the board of the North Country Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not like North Conway, where if we lost two or three restaurants or a hotel or two, we’d be OK. It’s not the same for us. If we have those kinds of losses, it could really hurt us and what we’re all trying to do up here.” —May 22, 2020
For some, the past two months have been a slog. For Courtney Lowe, it’s been a sprint.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard — and it’s been the same for others I work with,” says Lowe, who’s spent the past decade of his career at the Woodstock Inn & Resort, a 142-room luxury retreat in the heart of downtown Woodstock. “The amount of information I’ve had to consume has been crazy. I didn’t think in this business I’d have to learn so much about a virus. But all of us had to educate ourselves and do it in a really short period of time.”
The intensity began even before the decision was made to close the inn on March 16. As the COVID-19 crisis took hold in New York and Boston, two cities that account for a significant number of the inn’s guests, cancellations started rolling in. Eventually, many conferences and weddings — which generate 30 percent of the inn’s revenue — were pushed out to later in the year or 2021.
The Woodstock Inn’s leadership team knew that when time came for them to reopen — now set for June 16 — it couldn’t be business as usual. So, since March, Lowe and the others have been immersed in the process of reorienting how the inn operates.
Some services will be restricted, at least in the beginning, and others will take a different form. For luggage delivery, guests will be asked to load their bags directly onto the cart and take them off again at the room door. For room service, staffers will leave food at the door rather than bring it into the room; full restaurant service won’t be available. And because the spa and wellness center won’t be fully operational, the inn is looking at putting together a robust lineup of exercise classes that can be led via Zoom.
The “pause” in business has also allowed the Woodstock Inn to finish some projects that were already in the works, Lowe says. These include a mobile app that guests can use to check in and even unlock their room doors, and a texting platform that allows them to order food, fresh towels, and other services from their phone.
But even in a luxury retreat like the Woodstock Inn, there’s no getting away from the current health crisis. Beyond requiring all staff to wear masks and gloves and follow strict cleaning procedures that meet or exceed the industry standard, the inn will also introduce things that would been unimaginable just six months ago.
Twenty-four hours before checking in, guests will receive a questionnaire that asks them to detail what exposure, if any, they’ve had to COVID-19. Before entering the hotel itself, all guests and staffers must have their temperature taken. (For guests there will be a self-use, hands-free station located at the entrance.) “If someone’s temperature is 100 degrees or more, they won’t be able to check in,” says Lowe.
Will there be some difficult conversations as a result? Perhaps, says Lowe, but he’s also hopeful that the way the inn communicates with guests before their stay will help put them at ease. And that, in turn, will help them feel they are actually on vacation.
“We need to create an environment where our guests feel comfortable to be here,” Lowe says, “and where our employees feel comfortable working here. These are important safeguards, but we have to think of everyone who comes here.” —May 22, 2020
In navigating the weeks after closing their studios and retail store in mid-March, potter Miranda Thomas and her husband, furniture maker Charlie Shackleton, drew on lessons from another disaster: Tropical Storm Irene, which roared across Vermont in 2011. It had sent floodwaters pouring into their main building, a converted mill on the Ottauquechee River, and halted production at the handmade-goods company, ShackletonThomas, that they’d founded nearly a quarter-century earlier.
“We learned so much from the Irene experience,” Thomas says. For instance, they were quicker to apply for relief money and were better equipped to deal with the unemployment system for staffers that had to be furloughed.
And production continued, thanks to online sales and Thomas’s own creative drive. Though she had a small team working from home, Thomas herself continued coming in so she could put her hands on every part of the operation — from making new work to finishing existing orders and packing up shipments. In that sense, she was thrust back in time to her early days, when she was just starting out as a one-woman business.
“I was a little rusty in some areas,” she says with a laugh. “But pottery is lot like taking care of cows. If you’re a farmer you can’t just say, ‘Well, I think I’ll skip the milking today.’ New pots are the same. They need to be looked after every day and pushed through the process.”
Thomas’s creations often draw on nature, and she says these kinds of pieces — featuring wildlife such as rabbits, birds, and fish — have been especially popular lately. “It seems to be what’s on people’s mind,” she says. Coffee mugs have been selling well, as have her “Blue Birds of Hope,” small, hand-modeled figurines based on the ones she handed out as a guest at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos.
She’s also begun making what she calls elopement bowls (“for people who can’t have their wedding this summer”); other decorative pieces are finding homes with new parents. “People getting married, people having babies — life marches on, even now,” she says.
The same is true for Thomas and Shackleton. Their home life during Vermont’s statewide shut-down has become a pleasant routine of gardening, making dinners, spending time with their two grown children, and making plans for the arrival of their first grandchild later this summer.
Lately, a hint of normalcy has also returned to their company. Two employees are back in the pottery studio, and a trio of furniture makers are carefully spaced out in the woodshop areas. It’s not what it was — not yet, at least — but Thomas is hopeful about the future.
“We’re workhorses,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot: 9/11, the financial crash of 2007, the flood. Just as we build up some momentum — whammo! Something new hits. But through those experiences we’ve learned how to deal with these times.” —May 15, 2020
In just a matter of weeks, sometime around Memorial Day, Jamie Oakes will become a first-time father. He has spent the past two months thinking about the world right now, and how he can one day explain it to his child.
“My wife and I go for walks, and I bring a camcorder and tap my inner Scorsese as we talk about what’s going on,” he says. “We’ve been working toward this for a long time, and we feel pretty good being tucked in the woods like we are, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t strange.”
As longtime general manager and master distiller at Tamworth Distilling, a small-batch spirits producer in the idyllic village of Tamworth, Oakes has been busy at work, too. Over the past decade, the company has become renowned for its spirits infused with local flavors: beets grown in the company garden, say, or mushrooms and balsam buds foraged from the surrounding woods.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, though, Tamworth Distilling has been turning out a surprising (and hugely successful) new product: hand sanitizer. “If you had asked me a year ago that I’d be making alcohol that’s not for drinking, I’m not sure I would have believed you,” Oakes says.
And yet, Oakes and his fellow master distiller, Matt Power, had long been talking about how to make use of their operation’s waste alcohol, with hand sanitizer being one of the most logical byproducts. So, when the current health crisis hit — and with the blessing of Tamworth Distilling owner Steven Grasse — the two swung into action.
The initial batch of 60 gallons sold out in just three minutes. Since then, the Tamworth team has increased weekly production by 30 percent, bottling it in whatever they can get their hands on: sometimes pump bottles, other times liquor bottles.
Both Oakes and Power are local boys, a connection that has helped give Tamworth Distilling a strong community spirit. That same spirit runs through this latest initiative, with a portion of both sanitizer and sales proceeds being donated to the nonprofit Tamworth Nurses Association. Tamworth Distilling sanitizer has also been provided to other nearby nursing groups and the New Hampshire State Police.
Through all this, Oakes and his team have still been able to maintain solid sales for the distillery’s core business. They’ve made curbside delivery available for an array of their flavorful spirits — gin, vodka, whiskey, and more — as well as cocktail kits for those needing a hand with the mixology.
Oakes is optimistic they’ll be able to welcome visitors again by summer, although instead of inviting people into the distillery itself, they might set up a sampling and sales operation outside.
“Because [our products] are so different, people really do have to sample what we make,” Oakes says. “I think we can create something where people can feel safe and be outdoors. Hopefully, the weather will be great.” —May 15, 2020
Joanne Chang isn’t solely in the food business. Sure, she presides over a mini empire of eight bakeries and co-owns the popular South End restaurant Myers + Chang — but when your payroll tops 500 employees and your customer base stretches into the thousands, what you’re really managing is people.
And so, in the weeks following Massachusetts’s stay-at-home orders in mid-March, Chang found herself in the throes of figuring out what effect the shuttered economy would have on both her staff and her business. She held meetings to help furloughed employees navigate filing for unemployment. For those who didn’t qualify for state or federal aid, she organized food deliveries and established an emergency relief fund to assist them in paying rent and utilities.
To feed both that relief fund as well as the nationwide Restaurant Strong Fund, Chang has enlisted customers’ support through things like pop-up bakery stands and donations via the Flour website. And when we spoke this week, she was preparing to deliver what amounted to a third round of payments to Flour and Myers + Chang employees.
“The support has been overwhelming,” she says. “So many of our customers have been incredibly generous.”
But for Chang, the best thing she can do for her team is to keep the business going. And that, too, is something she’s been plugging away at. Since mid-April, Myers + Chang and three Flour locations have been open for curbside pickup and delivery. Staffers are also staying busy making donated meals for Boston-area healthcare workers, shelters, and soup kitchens.
In the weeks ahead, Chang will be looking at other ways to bring back more business. That means not only ensuring that working conditions allow for proper social distancing, but also — because public transportation isn’t an option — that her staff can safely commute to work.
“There’s a lot to consider,” she says. “I know people are talking about all the things they’re doing during this pandemic, but I’ve never worked harder in my life. We’re faced with the challenge of rebuilding things with only a fraction of the team. We had bakeries that used to have 40 people working in them. Now there are five or six. It’s all so different.” —May 8, 2020
Last Saturday, on one of those beautiful spring afternoons that hint that summer is not so far away, Bess Clarke took a drive up Nantucket’s Main Street and was greeted by the island’s new reality: At a time when the weekend scene would normally be in full swing, downtown was completely empty.
“I had these confusing emotions about it,” says Clarke, an island native and CEO of Nantucket Looms, a company that began here more than 50 years ago. “I was glad to see people were following the rules and being safe. But to see Main Street so quiet like that was just so sad. Nantucket is a lovely place to shelter in place, but it’s doing a number on business owners.”
Across New England, brick-and-mortar companies have taken a huge hit from COVID-19-related shutdowns. But in a community as small as an island, an economic downturn can feel especially dire. Clarke and many fellow Nantucket retailers closed their shops in mid-March, and for weeks afterward, Massachusetts’s shutdown orders didn’t even allow for curbside pickup at “nonessential” businesses like theirs.
Clarke, who had to lay off a third of her staff last month, recently organized a petition to Governor Charlie Baker to ease that restriction. In the meantime, Clarke and her two partners, Stephanie Hall and Becky Peraner, have leveraged a mixture of luck and innovation. Shortly after shutting its doors, Nantucket Looms — which is both a home decor retailer and interior design service — held an online sale on its island-made handwoven goods that increased business by more than 60 percent. Web orders have continued to roll in, Clarke’s interior design projects have stayed on track, and a new line of furniture scheduled to debut this year was delivered right before supply chains began to stumble.
“I haven’t totally crossed off the summer,” Clarke says. “At some point, we will be able to reopen. But I’m not what that will look like. Will we only be able to allow two or four people in at a time? We just don’t know, but I remain hopeful. I have to be.”
Clarke isn’t the only one wondering what the summer season will look like. On an island that relies heavily on visitors and second-home owners to drive its economy, there’s a lot of mixed emotion among residents these days, she says.
“Because we’ve only had 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus, people are really up in the air about how to welcome back the summer people,” she says. “Will those [illness] numbers change as people from the hot spots come here? We’re worried about the exposure, but we’re also so dependent on visitors for a source of revenue. How do you say, ‘Please stay away but we also need you’?”
But Nantucket’s long history as a seafaring hub means it has weathered many a crisis. Hard days have hit before, Clarke says, and islanders have always risen to the challenge.
“This is a historic place,” she says. “We’ve withstood various tests through our history. That’s comforting to know — that this will also pass, and there will be better days ahead.” —May 8, 2020
For a windjammer captain, spring introduces a welcome rhythm to the days. It’s a time known in sailing parlance as “fit-out,” when all the labor needed to awaken a vessel from winter hibernation takes place, and the crew gets ready for the season ahead. It can be quiet, almost meditative work.
So it’s been for Sam Sikkema, who’s spent the past several weeks working on the c. 1900 Victory Chimes, the largest passenger sailing ship in the country and the grand dame of the Maine windjamming scene. When we spoke, though, he was actually putting the finishing touches on a smaller sailing vessel he built this winter to use for small group outings from Victory Chimes.
The routine of his work has preserved a sense of normalcy for Sikkema. While many others have had to turn to TV, exercise, or other diversions during this period of isolation, the 32-year-old captain has been able to carry on with life much as he always has. “I feel really fortunate because my job is my passion,” he says.
But come Memorial Day, which typically would kick off Sikkema’s four-month season of leading windjamming cruises along Maine’s coast, that sense of normalcy will vanish. He has already cancelled the first four trips of the summer, a decision he called both “difficult and relieving”: Passenger cancellations were starting to come in, while at the same time he was having a hard time finding folks who could fill out his crew.
“If we can’t go out this year, it will be the first time in 120 years this ship hasn’t made money,” he says. “It’s worked through two world wars, the 1918 flu, the Great Depression — it would be interesting if this was the year it’s not able to work.”
For now, though, Sikkema isn’t ready to cross off the entire season. June is shot and he’s not optimistic about July, but he still feels OK about August and September. And so do his clients. Most of those bookings have held, and in fact a few new ones have even trickled in.
And if those cruises get canceled too? Well, the sailor in Sikkema isn’t going to leave Victory Chimes under wraps all summer.
“Even if it’s just a few of us, we’ll take her out,” he says. “I’m sure of that.” —May 1, 2020
Gene Devlin finds himself in a place no business owner wants to be in.
“We’re just not sure where things are headed, and that means we’re having to play everything by ear,” he says.
That’s especially challenging when you have to make your living in the seasonal hospitality industry. Along with his wife, Lilly, Devlin owns and runs Quimby Country, a decades-old family camp located in the upper reaches of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The property, which spans more than 1,000 acres, includes a lodge, a clubhouse, 19 lakefront cottages, and two lakes.
In spring and early fall, Quimby Country hosts weddings, conferences, and weekend vacationers. The heart of its season, though, is Quimby’s summer “family camp,” a soup-to-nuts stay for all ages that’s filled with programmed activities and three big meals a day in the main lodge. Under normal circumstances, the Devlins, who have been the principal owners of Quimby since 2018, would be in the midst of summer preparations — cleaning up downed trees, fixing up cabins, clearing trails, rounding out the staff.
But beginning in mid-March, circumstances became anything but normal. As states shut down nonessential businesses and the economy unraveled, cancellations started coming in — a May wedding, a June retreat. A few weeks later, the Devlins were contemplating not just a shortened family camp season but the possibility that Quimby might not be open at all this summer, a first in the resort’s 127-year history.
“I know some other camps have already called it. And if we can’t promise a safe environment or offer something similar to what people have come to expect, we will have to do the same,” says Devlin, who has been keeping his customers up to date through newsletters and social media. “Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be open in some fashion. But it’s safe to say we won’t open up like we have over the last 100 years.”
But at a place beloved for its traditions, how much can you change or compromise? Do you restrict how many guests can stay at one time? Do you scale back on the food service? Or reconsider the kinds of activities that kids can participate in? These are the kinds of questions the Devlins are wrestling with.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but I do know that this time next year, when we have some normalcy back and people can travel, a place like Quimby will be one people are going to be eager to visit,” Devlin says. “People will not have been outdoors, they won’t have seen much of their family, and … we’ll be here and ready to help them out.” —May 1, 2020
The past two months have had a mixed effect on business for Jeremy Frey, an award-winning Passamaquoddy basket weaver. On one hand, many of the big craft shows he relies on for over-the-counter sales have been canceled, which amounts to a “massive loss” of income, he says.
But on the other hand, this quiet period has allowed the 41-year-old artisan to catch up on orders. After all, Frey doesn’t make the sorts of baskets that people use to tote things to the beach or carry gardening supplies. His are painstakingly constructed pieces of art that can sell for tens of thousands of dollars and require an inordinate amount of time and concentration.
“I have some orders that are two years old that I’m now able to turn my attention back to,” says Frey, who grew up in Passamaquoddy Indian Township, near the Canadian border, and hails from a family that’s made baskets for seven generations.
Overall, Frey’s optimistic about the coming year. He’s received four orders in the past two months — “That’s a lot for me” — and nobody has canceled an existing order. Plus, not having to go to all those craft shows “makes it more relaxing for me,” he says. “I don’t have to deal with planes and rental cars and setting up. And it’s not like those shows aren’t expensive.”
Which is to say Frey has made a kind of peace with staying close to home, which allows him to remain tethered to his work and studio and be around his three young children.
“I have more time to create,” he says. “I’m calling it freedom now — but you know, if this continues for more than a year, who knows what I’ll be calling it then.” —May 1, 2020
Blair Marvin counts herself as one of the lucky ones. Nobody in her immediate circle has fallen sick with COVID-19, and business at Elmore Mountain Bread, the wood-fired bakery she runs with husband Andrew Heyn, has seen only a mild downturn.
But not that long ago, Marvin received an email from a local nurse who had spent the past month on the front lines fighting the coronavirus. The note was a reminder of just how uneven a toll the pandemic has taken, even in a small community like Elmore, Vermont.
“I don’t sleep anymore,” the woman wrote. “Well, I fall asleep, sadly, around 7:30 p.m. from exhaustion but wake up around 10 p.m. and remain awake by the thoughts of how to better prepare and train, how not to ask staff to put themselves in front of this, how not to get sick myself, how to not let these patients see me cry. Days are longer and longer because things need to get done and, honestly, a lot of it can’t wait until tomorrow.
“Normally, self-care is really lacking in a nurse’s life, but right now I have nothing left to give personally when I get home. And the lack of well-prepared meals in my home [is] so hard for me as a wife, pregnant woman, and foodie.”
And then, the tone of the note shifted — to one of thanks and appreciation. That’s because for the past month Elmore Mountain Bread has been contributing loaves to the weekly gift bags of local foods that are going to the nurses, doctors, and other frontline workers at the region’s healthcare hub, Copley Hospital in Morrisville.
Organized by Cork Restaurant & Wine Shop in Stowe, these “Giveback Packs” are filled with a variety of local edibles — cheese from Sage Farm Goat Dairy, sweets from Laughing Moon Chocolates, greens from Naked Acre Farm — and delivered to the hospital every Friday.
“Having this ONE thing provided for us means sooo much to our physical, mental, and emotional health that it actually can’t be expressed in verbal words,” the nurse wrote to Marvin and the other food donors. “The support and assistance provided by this gesture from our local community means so much to me [and] I’m sure, to many other staff who are facing this same tidal wave.”
For Marvin, that kind of appreciation puts into perspective any woes that her own business is suffering. “For someone to even write when they’re so stressed and exhausted, it’s like, Oh, my goodness,” she says.
Although restaurant closures have triggered a 15 percent drop in production at Elmore Mountain, the bakery continues to turn out breads for its regular lineup of grocery stores and other wholesale clients. And Marvin says the loss of restaurant business has been somewhat mitigated by a newfound appreciation for local food. With farm stands and CSAs looking to expand their offerings, Elmore Mountain breads are finding a wider customer base.
“All these farmers are seeing a burst in business, and so now we’re having conversations with people we’ve been wanting to talk to for some time,” she says. “There’s a moment going on around local food, and that’s really interesting. People are having to slow down and they’re looking to make better choices about what they eat. Seeing how we can be a part of that and be a part of our community makes it easy to get up in the morning.” —April 24, 2020
As a small business owner, designer Melinda Cox has seen firsthand the effects of an economy quickly grinding to a halt. It’s not just that orders are down at her custom textile and rug company, Balanced Design — her entire production process has been disrupted. The Pawtucket textile mill where her fabrics are printed is closed, as is the Fall River, Massachusetts, company that handles her sewing.
“Around the first of the year, things were going really well and moving right along,” Cox says. “Then it all quickly changed.”
As a daughter, though, she’s been experiencing the coronavirus crisis in a much more personal way. Cox’s 73-year-old mother, who has early-onset dementia, used to live at a nursing home in Worcester, Massachusetts. But when that facility was converted to COVID-19 recovery center for hospital patients, she was transferred to another one — with little notice, Cox says, and without being tested for the virus before the move.
Since then, Cox has joined the ranks of those speaking up about the care of residents at long-term facilities, including the availability of COVID-19 testing. Cox, who hasn’t seen her mother since early March because of visitation restrictions, has been interviewed on the topic by TheBoston Globe and the Boston public radio station WBUR.
“These are folks like my mom who don’t have a voice in this crisis,” she says. “I’m trying to get the message out about the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Cox has found some respite, though, at her Pawtucket studio. She has been using the downtime to tackle projects that have been sitting atop her to-do list, like building out her website and looking at how she can create and market graphic wall prints.
“Having gone through the financial crisis 10 years ago, I’m just trying to be ready for whatever comes,” Cox says. “But the uncertainty of when this all might be over is a big factor. Nobody is sure about the future. But as entrepreneurs and creative thinkers, maybe we can find new ways to help shape that future.” —April 24, 2020
Late April is an especially busy time of year on most farms, and Carr’s Ciderhouse, a 40-acre orchard in central Massachusetts, is no exception. Owners Jonathan Carr and his wife, Nicole Blum, have been working typically long days — putting in new trees, pruning old ones, sowing crops in the greenhouse next to their residence. When I speak with Carr, they had just spent hours planting a new batch of chestnut saplings.
But the financial fallout from the coronavirus crisis has added to their workload. Having earned national attention with their small-batch hard ciders, jellies, syrups, and vinegars, Carr and Blum are now are trying to navigate a radically different marketplace. Initial forecasts show that losses in wholesale orders and farmers’ market sales could take as much as a 50 percent bite out of their business.
Those numbers may soften if and when the farmers’ markets open up, Carr says, but that kind of retail setup won’t operate the way it used to.
“There will be social distancing. There won’t be any sampling. Basically, people will be pre-ordering and picking up,” he says. “But with our products, people really need to taste them, because they’re often different from what they’ve had before.”
This puts even more pressure on a farm where spring expenditures far outstrip income. To give the business a little relief, Carr has been working with his farm loan lender and his insurance company on relaxing the structure of his next few payments. And if that doesn’t go far enough? “I was a contractor before I got into this business,” Carr says, “and so the worst-case scenario is I go back to doing that and I help run the farm on the side.”
To prevent that from happening, Carr and Blum have been exploring ways to enhance their business. They’re promoting more of their online business and building an unmanned farm stand to sell Carr’s products, including its hard cider, which they’ll store in a locker at the site. Customers will prepay for their order and receive the locker combination via email for pickup.
“We’re having to be innovative,” Carr says. “I’d love nothing more to sell our ciders to restaurants again. Or at festivals. But we don’t what know things are going to look like when we come out of this. People are adapting, and so we have to adapt too.” —April 24, 2020
Even before the coronavirus crisis, James Johnson and his partner, Candice Passehl, were living a kind of quarantined life. The couple make their home in a yurt in the woods not far from the southern Vermont town of Poultney, and their custom bike shop, Analog Cycles, operates out of a converted sugar shack nearby.
Over the past several weeks, “how we live hasn’t changed much,” Johnson says. “We wake up, do a bunch of office work, then go to the shop and do some bike work.”
And there has been a lot of work to tackle.
In what Johnson calls a “complicated twist” on the larger economic picture, Analog’s prospects have actually been looking pretty good recently. The first two months of the year saw a sharp uptick in business for the company, whose offerings include custom bags, hard-to-find specialty parts, and bikes with price tags that run into the thousands. Then in March, when many other kinds of businesses were forced to shut down, Analog’s sales momentum just continued.
“A lot of our customers are people who, with the quarantine, have been able to work from home and not really have their finances affected,” says Johnson, who recently took an order from a customer in Japan for a $7,000 bike. “They’ve been looking to do a little retail therapy. We’re thankful for the business, but seeing how others have been affected, it’s a weird position for us to be in.”
Johnson and Passehl don’t have to look too far to see the virus’s real-world impact. Businesses on Poultney’s formerly vibrant Main Street are largely shuttered; many of the informal social interactions that drive the day-to-day life of any small town have vanished.
But in their own quiet way, Johnson and Passehl are working to support the community that was so quick to embrace them when they moved here from Maryland in 2018. At least once a week, they deliver groceries to some of the town’s most vulnerable residents. By bike, of course.
“One of the silver linings out of all this is to see how many other people are on their bikes, or out for walks,” says Johnson. “People are getting out more. I hope that continues.” —April 17, 2020
Innkeeper Eileen Hornor was serving breakfast to her guests on the morning of March 11 when she received a call that she says felt like a “punch to the gut.” On the line was a friend informing her that Bowdoin College, which is just a short walk from her 16-room inn, was closing down and transitioning to online classes.
For Hornor, who bought the Brunswick Inn 11 years ago, Bowdoin was a driver of most of her business. Parents, speakers, performers — if anyone connected with the college needed an overnight, they often ended up at the Brunswick Inn.
“Bowdoin had been my insurance plan,” says Hornor, who after the school shut down lost all of her reservations through July and had to return thousands of dollars in deposits. “Who would have thought that it would close?”
But Hornor’s long relationship with the school community did not go unnoticed by Bowdoin officials. A few days after the campus closed, the school’s president, Clayton Rose, visited the inn to discuss how they could help Hornor stay in business.
The answer came in the unlikely form of several Bowdoin students who couldn’t go home — the two brothers from New Jersey whose parents worried it was unsafe for their sons to return, for instance. Then there was the senior from California who preferred to stay because he had more connections in Brunswick than in his hometown. As students began receiving room-and-board refunds from Bowdoin, word spread that Hornor’s inn could be a place for them to stay.
Eventually, five Bowdoin undergraduates moved into the B&B. To keep everyone safe, owner and guests follow strict social-distancing protocols. Every day, for example, Hornor prepares their meals and sets them on trays in the dining room, which the students then pick up to take back to their rooms.
For Hornor, who had to lay off her 10-person staff and now manages all of the inn’s operations on her own, the students have not only given her an important business lifeline but also a sense of purpose and connection.
“Having to lay off my staff was brutal,” says Hornor, who’s been logging 13-hour days over the past few weeks. “We’re like family around here, and not having them here, everything became so quiet. These boys have just punctuated my days with joy. It’s rewarding to give comfort to these kids who’ve been stranded.”
The Brunswick Inn has been haven for others, too, from a small team of telecommunications workers who briefly needed a place to stay, to a man whose girlfriend, a local nurse, feared she might get him sick. And late last month, the inn welcomed perhaps Brunswick’s most famous resident: U.S. Senator Angus King, who had to self-quarantine for a week after returning home from Washington, D.C. (“Each night his wife would visit for a walk,” Hornor reports. “It was very cute.”)
Moments like these have helped brighten Hornor’s life as her business faces the choppiest waters imaginable. “I’ve never been through anything like this,” says Hornor, who lives in Freeport with her husband and two teenage children. “It’s hard, but it feels great to show my kids how resilient and adaptable we can be. Every day I just have to keep going. I don’t have a choice.” —April 17, 2020
Mayfair Farm is a kind of rural New England dreamscape. The 70-acre property is shaped by hilly pastures, forests, and lakes. There are miles of stone walls and acres of orchards and gardens. There are pigs and lambs and even a showcase event space, where owners Sarah Heffron and her partner, Craig Thompson, host weddings and farm dinners spring through fall.
It’s the kind of destination that might take your breath away at any time of year, but over the past few weeks Mayfair Farm has been an especially poignant stop for its customers, who come for maple products, prepared meals, and baked goods (the farm’s almond cake won a 2017 Yankee Editors’ Choice Food Award).
“There have been several people who’ve come to pick things up and they’ll ask, ‘Can I walk up and see the sheep?’” says Heffron. “I think they find it a nice escape from everything else that’s happening.”
Meanwhile, amid the deepening COVID-19 crisis, Heffron has had to navigate both an uncertain broader economy and a booming demand for local food. Even as her events business has slowed — a few early summer weddings have been rescheduled for later in the year or pushed to 2021 — Heffron has been putting in 15-hour days to handle the growing number of food orders.
“We’ve got our regular customers, who are just ordering more,” says Heffron, who for safety concerns has closed the farm store and is accepting pickup orders only. “And we’re also seeing new faces.”
The biggest sellers? Comfort food — pulled pork, lasagna, enchiladas, potpies. “I think because people can’t go out to eat that explains some of why we’re so busy,” she says. “Maybe people were eating out more than I thought, but now that we’re all home more … we have time to eat at home.” —April 17, 2020
The best restaurants are not just places where food is served. They’re community spaces where families gather and friends reconnect. Where there is a sense of tradition and a spirit of creativity.
Evan Mallett’s Black Trumpet, an intimate bistro tucked away on the Portsmouth waterfront, is that kind of restaurant. And while Mallett, a frequent James Beard Award nominee, knew his eatery held a special place in the hearts of many diners, he didn’t realize how deep that feeling ran — until now.
Since New Hampshire began its statewide shutdown in late March, Mallett has kept Black Trumpet open four nights a week for take-out service. In a world desperate for a sense of normalcy, this has provided some solace to his most dedicated diners.
“I can’t help but feel the weight of that — that we’re giving them a little bit of positivity,” he says. “We’ve had people in tears as they pick up their food. Just to see how much they appreciate and respect our restaurant has been kind of incredible.”
Mallett’s team has even enhanced the food pickup experience. On select evenings, bar manager Jon Plaza and sous chef Cameron Heins perform thank-you songs for customers on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Their stage name? Body Lasagna. (Mallett explains: “We were prepping on Friday night and our general manager was talking about how she was feeling so much anxiety on so many levels… she says she felt like a body lasagna, and the name just stuck.”)
Aside from seeing the depth of his customers’ devotion, Mallett has made other discoveries, too. He has long had a relationship with Three River Farmers Alliance, which distributes food from 40 farmers across the Seacoast region, and he says that even as restaurants are taking a big hit, local producers are experiencing an uptick in demand.
To meet that growing interest as well as boost his own restaurant’s bottom line, Mallett has partnered with Three River to create and deliver meal kits. Offering customers a chance to cook up the kind of dinner they might order at Black Trumpet, the kits are delivered twice a week — and in the three weeks since the launch, they’ve built a customer base of more than 80 people.
“I’m cooking single things at a volume that I never cooked before — not even on our best nights,” Mallett says. “The other day I was making gumbo in a 10-gallon pot. That’s unheard of. But we’re all being forced to adapt and be creative in ways we never had to before.” —April 10, 2020
Even as New England’s small businesses are fighting to survive, many are also fighting back. You can count Maine-based Sea Bags, a company that turns recycled sails into upscale tote bags, among those working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
On the day I talk with Sea Bags president Beth Shissler, she’s at her Portland office, pulling together a number of face masks that her company has made for a veterans home in Scarborough. By the end of the afternoon, she will deliver this personal protective equipment (PPE) in person.
It’s part of a larger initiative that began in March, when Sea Bags shifted part of its manufacturing operations toward making face masks and clinical shields for hospitals, retirement facilities, and other Maine businesses. The company’s first 450 PPE items were donated to 75 State Street, an assisted-living facility in Portland.
Shissler, who has run Sea Bags since 2006 and has helped lead an expansion that includes opening 26 stores in 11 states, says her company’s pivot is a part of a broader community spirit she’s seen across her home state.
“Maine steps up,” she says. “It’s made me super-proud to be a business owner in Maine. We may be small, but we’re powerful.”
All of this, of course, is happening even as Sea Bags’ core business has taken a hit, with all of its retail outlets now closed. Yet Shissler is still upbeat about the company’s ability to recover when this moment is finally over.
“My hope is that Americans will really understand the importance of being made in the USA,” she says. “I think we will see more of a resurgence of made in the U.S, and supporting local businesses.” —April 10, 2020
Three decades ago, Will Dewey, a newly minted culinary and hotel graduate from Johnson & Wales University, opened a genteel 20-room inn in a historic downtown manse, naming it for the Newport shipping merchant who’d built the property in 1760.
This spring, to celebrate his inn’s landmark 30th anniversary, Dewey had planned a special wine tasting and advertised a series of discounted rates around the same time as Newport’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration. That event is an important entry point for the spring and summer tourist season, and at the Malbone, rooms typically sell out months in advance, with Dewey upping the ante by treating his guests to an Irish breakfast and serving high tea.
Then, just two days before St. Patrick’s Day, Newport called off its festivities. And Dewey shut down his inn.
In the weeks since, he’s been navigating a “surreal” present while trying to plan around an uncertain future. A huge wedding group from Belgium canceled its May booking, as have other European guests. The flow of visitors from New York and New Jersey — on which the Malbone and other Newport hotels rely heavily — has been virtually shut off. Dewey is cloudy on what a reopening would even look like at this point.
“It’s so odd to look at downtown Newport and just see it all closed,” he says. “It’s happened before, like when we’ve had a hurricane, but everyone was back up and running in two days. This is different. We had to close, but it was heart-wrenching. Turning off the lights, shutting down refrigerators, turning off the cable — that wasn’t easy.”
Just as difficult is the fact Dewey, a self-described social person, doesn’t have any guests to welcome into his home.
“Two years ago, I had a pipe burst in the front foyer,” he says. “It took a few days to get it fixed, and my guests helped me move out all this antique furniture so it could be saved. Many of these people are my friends.
“I don’t know what the new normal is going to look like when we’re done with this. Will people be cautious about being around others?” he continues. “Right now, all I can do is to stay positive, and get this place ready so it’s around for another 30 years.” —April 10, 2020
A statewide shutdown in late March has left April Lemay between two worlds. The café at her maple sugaring operation, which serves breakfast and lunch and normally would be bustling in early spring, has gone quiet. At the same time, the sap is running hard from the 13,300 taps that span her 800-acre sugarbush. If conditions hold during the next two weeks, Lemay will be on track to surpass last year’s take of 3,000 gallons of syrup.
“In that way, it’s been a good spring for us,” says Lemay, whose sugarmaking team is now reduced to her husband and her parents.
But maple season is traditionally a time for community — and in a remote region like Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, that’s no small matter. “Sugarers visit each other,” she says. “We have our customers. People come to watch us boil. Those are the face-to-face interactions we’re not getting right now.”
The café now serves as a storage space, as Lemay tends to production and manages the online orders, which continue to roll in. She says people are buying mapley things, of course — the syrup, candy, cream, and sugar — but also the “comfort food” items, like mixes for soup, bread, pancakes, and scones. Orders are coming in from out of state and, in a sign of the times, from nearby communities.
“We had an order from someone just 20 miles from here,” she says. “Normally they’d just come in and pick it up.” She pauses. “Not right now.
“But I’m glad to be a part of it — to try and give people something that helps them make happy memories in these uncertain times.” —April 3, 2020
Dan Cote struggles to keep his emotions in check as he talks about the decision to temporarily close Inn Victoria, the nine-room B&B that he and his wife, Penny, have owned for the past decade.
On the one hand, he says, it was an easy call. He and Penny were concerned about the health of their staff and guests; plus, it was only a matter of time before Vermont ordered nonessential businesses to close to the public, which it did on March 25.
Still, Inn Victoria is their life. The couple left their corporate careers to run the inn, pouring every ounce of themselves into it. And as the national economy roared, so did their business. (Just a month ago, the job market was so tight that many small inns were hard-pressed to find workers, Dan says.)
“We had our best winter ever,” Dan says. “Then all of a sudden, we were put on this trajectory into the unthinkable. In a matter of three days. It was just so instant.”
In 2012 I saw first-hand just how hard the Cotes worked when I shadowed them during a peak fall weekend for a Yankee article on what it takes to run a B&B. I also witnessed the devotion they had earned from their guests, many of them repeat visitors. The Cotes treated all who walked through their door like close friends — asking about their families, remembering their favorite Vermont haunts, sharing meals and a post-dinner bottle of wine with them.
So it isn’t a surprise when I learn that a number of Dan and Penny’s past guests have stepped up to help. In a matter of days, they bought more than $5,000 in gift certificates. They have been calling and emailing, wanting to make sure the Cotes are OK. That their family is safe and healthy. That they know they have support getting through this difficult time.
It’s the kind of pick-me-up the Cotes say they have desperately needed. “We were incredibly humbled by the response,” Dan says. “Now we have hope.”
“But we miss our people,” Penny adds. “We really enjoy guests coming into our home…. We love the connections. We’re just so blessed, and we don’t want to lose that.” —April 3, 2020
It takes a lot to rock a blacksmith back on his heels, but the coronavirus crisis has certainly landed a few body blows on Nick Moreau. Working from a shop on his farm 30 miles north of Portland, this 32-year-old third-generation craftsman has been reevaluating what the coming year may mean for his business.
Springtime normally finds Moreau — whose creations include music stands, gates, furniture, and door hardware — gearing up for a packed schedule of craft fairs. In recent days, however, some of the earliest of those fairs have been cancelled, and when I talk with Moreau he tells me there’s no guarantee the later ones will survive, either. Or, if they do, how big they’ll be or what they’ll even look like.
“Every weekend from mid-July to just about Christmas, we’re at those shows,” he says. “And the business we get from them can run anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of my revenue.”
But as he tries to navigate the current crisis, Moreau takes heart in how others are staying connected and staying positive. His former high school pottery teacher in Connecticut, for example, has been making online tutorials for his students that he also shares with the public. A friend who is also a music teacher in Portland recorded a cover of Carole King’s “Beautiful” for her students and colleagues; she shared it on Instagram, and it was eventually reposted by King herself. “That was pretty cool,” says Moreau.
In ways like these, he says, artists and artisans can play a vital role in offering a respite from the stress of what we’re all living through.
“They bring a little bit of beauty into the world,” he says. “I think that philosophy has been cemented in this situation. People are isolated, and having things they can use in their everyday life that are also beautiful is important.” —April 3, 2020
To anyone familiar with the community-mindedness of this 30-year-old independent bookstore, it will come as no surprise that owner Roxanne Coady is forging a strategy that supports a literacy nonprofit even as it helps her retain and pay the 70 employees at R.J. Julia’s Madison location and a second shop in Middletown.
On March 16, Coady closed both stores to foot traffic. A week later she announced a partnership with Read to Grow, a Connecticut-based literacy nonprofit, to give free books to underprivileged children and families in New Haven. She explained her idea in a newsletter titled “Let’s All Pitch In!” that went out to the bookstore’s customers on March 23.
“Like many small business owners, I have lost sleep these last few days worrying about how we can continue to keep our employees … employed as sales plummet by 60 to 70 percent,” she wrote. “In addition, I’m keenly aware of how many families will lose access to books because schools and libraries are closed. Middle-of-the-night sleeplessness is custom-made for solutions and ideas, and I think I’ve found a way to solve both of these challenges….”
The idea works like this: Customers buy books for the program from R.J. Julia’s, which delivers those titles to Read to Grow for pickup at New Haven food pantries. Coady set a goal of collecting $100,000 worth of donations — and in less than a week she reached the $20,000 mark.
Given that R.J. Julia’s is well known for hosting readings and other community events, Coady has been exploring other ways of staying connected with customers. The stores have organized online video book discussions and published a series of Web posts and newsletters filled with staff reading suggestions and children’s storytelling activities.
“It’s a really hard time and really scary in every way, but as an employer you need to move past that,” Coady tells me. “You need to offer encouragement. It comes down to putting one foot in front of the other, and doing what you can to try to take care of another.” —March 27, 2020
On the day I catch up with Matt Cavallaro, a craftsman who makes high-end cast-iron cookware, he is readying his Providence home to host some friends who had temporarily moved out of their New York City apartment. “They’re going to be sequestered in our house,” he says of the couple and their two young kids. “My partner and I going to cook all their meals and do as much as we can for them as they quarantine.”
Amid these changes to his home life, Cavallaro is continuing to run his business. He’s still going into his workshop most days, working on designs and fulfilling orders that had been placed before the coronavirus crisis hit. Still, a year that had started with so much promise has pretty much ground to a halt.
“We’re just getting a trickle of orders, maybe two a week,” he tells me. “We had ramped up to make 2020 a big one for us. We had all this momentum and now that all may be gone.”
An important international trade show in mid-March has been cancelled, supply chains are disrupted, and the machine shop he works with has pushed his orders to the back of the line. “They produce a lot of military and medical supplies,” he explains, “so they had to rightfully prioritize those things.”
Still, as he’s wading through these uncharted waters, Cavallaro is also seeing a new sense of community emerging — a kind of “we’re all in it together” attitude among many fellow Providence-area artisans as they try to help each other weather the tough times.
“We’re looking out for each other,” he says. “If someone is going to the grocery store, they’ll check in with others to see if they need anything. The community has come together at a time when we can’t be together, and that’s been special to see.” —March 27, 2020
For Ben Svenson, the decision was clear. He’d stayed on top of the news about what was happening with coronavirus in the United States, and he knew there was only one right thing to do: temporarily shutter Tourists, the Berkshires hotel he had opened just 18 months ago. “We had an obligation to society,” he says.
He also feels an obligation to his 66 employees, which he’s continued to pay. “We’re connected to an old family business, and we’ve always known the waters can change at any moment,” Svenson said. “We were fortunate enough to be prepared.”
The Tourists team is using this pause in the business to reset things: clearing new outdoor trails, building deck furniture, tackle various repairs across the property. Next week, hotel manager Nina Zacek Konsa will video-stream to staffers a presentation playfully titled “Tourist University,” which will cover small but vital aspects of hospitality, like how to make better small talk; delve into the history of the region as well as the property itself; and help fine-tune the hotel’s food and beverage services.
Svenson, a Boston-based developer whose love of the Berkshires inspired him to build a hotel in North Adams, is also working with a team to create online content that showcases the hotel’s natural surroundings and conveys a sense of calm and beauty — two things, he says, that people really need right now.
“I think of it as just a little ‘power pellet’ of art and adventure, the kind of things that make Tourists what it is,” he says. “To be displaced is a chance to reconsider where we were and look at where we’re headed. Maybe out of all of this, we can find some personal growth.” —March 27, 2020