Portsmouth, NH Restaurants Show Signs of Resilience to COVID-19

October 1, 2020

Beginning in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the travel and tourism industries. Restaurants were forced to close, limiting cash-flow where many were already subsisting on razor-thin margins, leaving them no choice but to furlough and lay off staff members as they navigated the uncertainty.

In Portsmouth, NH, a city reliant on the restaurant industry for economic stability, the onus of mitigating risk, putting people back to work, and stimulating recovery fell on the shoulders of state and local governments.

Fortunately, Portsmouth officials were prepared to support restaurants throughout the State’s reopening process with forward-thinking initiatives. The City waived permitting fees and assembled the Citizen’s Response Taskforce, which was convened to help Portsmouth brainstorm creative ways to utilize downtown parking spots, streets and lots for dining.

In partnership with restaurant owners, the City implemented Taskforce ideas by approving restaurant permit applications online using OpenGov Permitting, Licensing, and Code Enforcement (PLC), a modern cloud-based platform that expedites the permitting process.

For first-time restaurant owners and husband and wife duo Jason and Carolyn Dagostino, who purchased Portsmouth’s BRGR Bar in January, cutting their staff in half and molding the new identity of BRGR Bar were formidable challenges. They had to manage these difficulties while adapting to rapidly changing protocols.

The City’s willingness to create alternative outdoor dining solutions, coupled with OpenGov’s streamlined permitting, gave the Dagostinos a lifeline when they needed it most.

“Every day obviously counts a lot, as far as numbers go. We wouldn’t be succeeding without that patio seating; I can tell you that,” said BRGR Bar’s Carolyn Dagostino. “Having something that is so immediate when one day means possibly paying rent or not, the quickness, the efficiency, the speed of modern permitting has been invaluable to us.”

Since being able to open and expand their patio, the Dagostinos and BRGR Bar have brought back 90 percent of their employees and most weeks’ sales have been up year-over-year. Though some weeks are better than others, the pair counts its blessings.

The Dagostinos are not alone. As of Sept. 3, Portsmouth had issued 83 permits, a sure sign that restaurants are reemerging and trying to make the most out of innovative City ideas.

The Background

For Portsmouth, a vibrant tourism and dining destination that houses James Beard Award finalists and an eclectic array of dining options, the restaurant industry plays a crucial role in the economy.

Former Portsmouth mayor and owner of the long-standing restaurant The Old Ferry Landing Jack Blalock describes Portsmouth’s restaurant industry as “one of the cogs in the big wheel of tourism.”

“We don’t have enough residents to service all of the jobs that we have, so there’s a lot of commuting into our town,” said Blalock. “We actually impact the whole Seacoast area [a stretch of New Hampshire shoreline extending from Massachusetts to Maine]. It’s a very important piece of our economy.”

To spur economic recovery, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu authorized the allocation of $400 million from The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Coronavirus Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to small businesses. As of Sept. 3, according to the State’s Mainstreet Relief Fund Transparency Map, more than 285 businesses in Portsmouth applied for grants, and nearly $24 million has been distributed so far.

Additionally, Sununu issued “Stay at Home 2.0,” an amendment to his original stay-at-home order aimed at reopening businesses. Restaurants were permitted to open for outdoor food service, in addition to takeout and delivery, beginning on May 18.

To ensure a safe resumption to outdoor dining, the State issued various policies, including new cleaning protocols, mandating all servers to wear face coverings, and requiring restaurants to organize their tables six feet apart, with no more than six people at a table. There were also extended guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

 

The Process 

Portsmouth urgently finalized parameters for reopening to get restaurants back on their feet as quickly as possible. Restaurants were required to complete the Health Department and Food and Drug Administration checklists and submit adjusted seating floor plans to the City to gain permit approvals for reopening.

“As soon as the CDC best practices and guidelines came out, [the City] acted quickly, and it took them a day to turn around what they were going to expect from restaurants,” said Chef Brendan Vesey, the owner of Botanica Restaurant and Gin Bar, a first-of-its-kind fine dining experience in Portsmouth’s up-and-coming West End.

The City-issued permits were a necessity for restaurants to operate again. For efficiency’s sake, Deputy City Manager Nancy Colbert Puff says the permitting process operated like a “triage system.” As such, Portsmouth recognized that their current permitting process needed to be swiftly adjusted to serve this nuanced and immediate need. This included accepting permit applications prior to May 18 so that restaurants could quickly reopen when the time came, pursuant to the guidelines set forth by the Governor.

To make the permitting process even easier, the City approved a motion to waive all permitting fees for restaurants, including building permit fees, sidewalk permit fees, and sidewalk obstruction fees in a May 18 City Council meeting.

Portsmouth updated its permitting software to OpenGov PLC, in 2017, an action that proved critical in supporting the City’s revised permitting process during the pandemic. “A foundation existed from which to build a COVID-19 response,” shared Colbert Puff. “[Permitting] was seamless. Staff was so experienced in using [OpenGov PLC] and likewise, restaurants had familiarity with [OpenGov PLC], so I’d say we were well prepared.” The fully online, cloud-based platform eliminated many of the inefficiencies associated with the former process, like paper forms, back-and-forth phone calls, and in-person City Hall meetings.

Moreover, various permits are aggregated in a single online portal and are accessible anytime. Colbert Puff noted that having permit applications available for review around-the-clock, especially with City Hall closures due to stay-at-home orders, helped accelerate the process.

Portsmouth’s City Clerk’s Office, Fire Department, Health Department, Inspection Department, Planning Department and Public Works Department all use the software for permitting, licensing and code enforcement, which expedites the process since all parties can view, comment and raise questions on applications within the platform. Similarly, applicants can follow the conversation, provide necessary updates and information, and track their progress from the portal.

 

The Results

Portsmouth Gas Light Co. owner Paul Sorli is accustomed to large crowds at his restaurant and club located in the heart of the City. However, counties most affected by COVID-19 and those more prone to viral spread given their proximity to Boston, MA, like Rockingham County, where Portsmouth is located, were required to operate at 50 percent capacity when New Hampshire updated its guidelines to allow indoor dining in late June. The limited capacity proved to be a challenge, though, extended outdoor seating continued to make a positive difference.

Before COVID-19, outdoor seating accounted for 40 percent of Gas Light Co.’s total seating. Thanks to the addition of seating in parking spaces and an adjacent alleyway, outdoor seating accounted for nearly 60 percent of Sorli’s total seating under Rockingham County’s broader capacity restrictions. These restrictions were lifted in late August, permitting restaurants to operate at 100 percent dine-in capacity.

Though he estimates he’s only doing about 45 percent of his normal sales in what would be a pre-pandemic world, he says he’s “very pleased” with the business he’s been doing despite the various challenges the restaurant industry is facing.

During this uncertain time, Botanica’s Vesey appreciated that Portsmouth had the foresight to adopt modern technology to provide a high level of transparency and accountability.

“There’s no concern about something being lost. As soon as I submit [an application], the acknowledgment of it being received by the person that needs to see it happens automatically,” explains Vesey. “To me, it’s a no brainer.”

With outdoor seating and a steadfast customer base, Vesey and Botanica are “doing OK.” Per Vesey, “no one’s getting rich, but we’re able to pay our obligations and try and stock away a little bit of money for an uncertain future this fall and winter.”

For restaurants whose location hindered their access to outdoor dining, Portsmouth opened a pop-up dining and entertainment venue in a local city parking lot, called ServiceCU @ Pop Up NH. Beleaguered restaurants and artists have praised the space for providing them an opportunity to showcase their food and talents, marking another impactful way the City has tried to accommodate and support all restaurants.

Bouncing Back

Portsmouth’s tourism and dining scene will undoubtedly look different in the coming weeks and months, especially with colder weather around the corner.

Vesey is hopeful for the future, citing that “…small business owners, especially restaurant owners, are creative people who want to try new things.”

Colbert Puff also believes in the ingenuity of Portsmouth and its residents. “It may be that we start entertaining applications for outdoor activities that the City hasn’t typically seen before,” said Colbert Puff. “I do think there’s a way we’ll be using [OpenGov PLC] into the future that we haven’t yet identified.”

It may be some time until the life-stream of tourists return in full force and large numbers can gather at restaurants indoors but celebrating the survival stories of Portsmouth’s local restaurants due to city foresight, its fast response, and innovative ideas serve as a sign of hope for an uncertain future.

 

 

About the author:

Grace Murray is a communications professional with experience in sports, entertainment, media, and public relations. Her educational background in communication and economics has given her a broad base from which to approach many topics. Follow her on Twitter at @Grace_Murray24.