In an area famous for dining diversity, local restaurants are working overtime to deliver great food and peace of mind.
By Yankee Staff
Feb 14 2021
Exeter NHPhoto Credit : Mark Fleming
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New Hampshire’s Seacoast Region has seen its culinary star rising in recent years, with the restaurant scene in Portsmouth now ranking among New England’s top dining destinations. But the state’s bustling southeast corner holds hidden gems too, such as Exeter: Already blessed with quaint boutiques and inns, not to mention rich history and miles of recreational trails, this Seacoast town has also become something of a foodie find. Here on the banks of the Squamscott River are both coffee shops and upscale dining options, and everything in between — a buffet of locally owned eateries intent on filling visitors up with all things healthful and delicious.
Among the more recent arrivals is Laney & Lu, which opened its doors on Water Street in 2015. It has quickly become a go-to for nutritious, locally sourced food, including a rainbow of fruit and veggie smoothies and such creations as the Epic Egg Sandwich (local eggs, organic spinach and tomatoes, and cheddar cheese on locally baked organic sourdough bread).
“I was already a resident of a neighboring town, but there weren’t a lot of restaurants in downtown Exeter at the time,” says Jennifer Desrosiers, founder and CEO of Laney & Lu. “I had a good feel for the community, and I knew it was very welcoming and fun — and I also sensed a growing foodie movement.”
Today, that movement has resulted in a diverse assortment of local businesses, ranging from fine dining restaurant Otis, which opened in 2016, to bean-to-bar specialist Enna Chocolate, which debuted its Exeter factory and café last summer.
“Our community was on an incredible growth trajectory,” says Desrosiers. “You would never see a commercial space sitting empty for long here — it was a wonderful mix of companies that have been in business for more than 40 years sitting alongside new businesses that were making a very strong go of things.”
With the arrival of the pandemic, however, Exeter’s dining scene experienced drastic changes. For Laney & Lu it meant shuttering their dining room and moving everything to the takeout window. “Closing down our dining area was devastating,” says Desrosiers. “For us, every time someone comes in to dine, we see it as a chance for genuine connection, not a transaction — guest experience is everything to us, and it’s been hard to meet our standards as we moved to the takeout window.”
Shifting all business to the takeout window involved making sure it was something both staff and patrons could get behind, as a way to give and receive food during the pandemic. “I was bullish about not closing my doors, and I wanted to make sure my staff felt safe and comfortable while taking orders and delivering orders,” she says.
This change in doing business — and the costs that came with it — tested the strength of Desrosiers and her fellow restauranteurs, but it also put a spotlight on the community’s resilience and support network. “When Covid first arrived, I sent an email to local chefs and restaurant owners just reminding them I’m here for them if they needed anything, and the response was overwhelming,” says Desrosiers. “I remember one chef in particular saying, ‘We are leaving no one behind!’”
Community support has appeared in many other ways as well. “We had a beautiful experience with a customer who purchased 10 meals to be donated to the local hospital,” says Desrosiers. “On social media, this customer then encouraged others to do the same.” Within two days, according to Desrosiers, 150 meals had been purchased. This inspired Desrosiers to create Laney & Lu’s Help Others program, a community action plan supporting healthcare workers, first responders, and those in need. “The impact from this one person is amazing,” she says. “We’ve been able to deliver 4,000 free meals to people in need in our community.”
While the pandemic has caused Laney & Lu to pivot in directions never before imagined, Desrosiers is optimistic about the future — and she has already made changes to her dining room with post-pandemic life in mind. “Last October we invested in renovating our dining room to expand our seating,” she says. “When we do reopen our doors, I think social distancing will still be important, and I want my customers to feel safe and comfortable.”
She also gains strength from the support of the Exeter community. “Showing up is an amazing thing, and our customers are doing that,” she says. “We’re all doing the best we can right now; there’s so much good happening out there.”
Thinking of checking out the dining scene in the Seacoast Region? Here is a sampling of locally owned businesses that are open and ready to take your order! Find more options at visitnh.gov/things-to-do/food-drink/restaurants.
Vida Cantina, Portsmouth
Ikko Japanese Restaurant, Dover, and Ikko II, Portsmouth
The Green Bean, Exeter
The Galley Hatch, Hampton