Much of $3 million in pandemic aid for restaurants remains unspent

By: - July 22, 2022 2:05 am

Blue Bean Harbor received $15,000 through an pandemic assistance program for restaurants to shift to grab-and-go options. (Courtesy)

Blue Harbor Coffee was four months old when COVID-19 first arrived in New Hampshire, and business was strong. 

It was about to get stronger. As Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order closing down indoor dining and officials urged residents to stay at home, many restaurants found themselves challenged by dwindling customers and departing employees. Blue Harbor Coffee, in Hampton, took a different tack. They shifted the business model to grab-and-go coffees from  the street, and embraced a new role as wholesale supplier to other cafes, hotels, and restaurants. 

“We couldn’t keep up with what we were roasting for the cafe,” said co-owner Stephanie Bergeron. “I mean we could keep up with it, if you wanted to roast 12 hours a day and not do anything else.”

Bergeron admits: “It was a great problem to have, obviously.” But it didn’t stop the accompanying stress. Bergeron and her husband, Coskun “Josh” Yazgan, carried out their work with a six-pound roaster. The small capacity kept Yazgan returning to the restaurant  deep into the night, Bergeron said. 

Two years on, Blue Harbor has a new tool in the fight: a 25-pound coffee roaster to accompany its original one. And a new state and federal assistance program helped get it. 

Blue Harbor Coffee is one of a handful of early recipients of the Local Restaurant Infrastructure Investment Program, an initiative that uses a portion of the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan funding to reimburse restaurants that have purchased equipment, infrastructure, or technology to respond to COVID-19 public health concerns.

The program awards up to $15,000 per restaurant and imposes limits on which restaurants can apply; chain restaurants operating in three or more states are barred, as are take-out only restaurants and any restaurant making more than $20 million a year. 

So far, only a handful of restaurants have been awarded funds. The Executive Council approved nine of them July 12 after an early round of applications, including Blue Harbor Coffee’s for $15,000. 

As of July 12, the state has spent just $153,357 of the $3 million set aside, but officials in the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery say that they expect to award more reimbursements to restaurants in the coming weeks. The official deadline for applications was July 13, but the office is still processing applications received on time.

The state has made an effort to advertise the new funding, according to Chase Hagaman, deputy director of GOFERR, and is considering opening new rounds of funding in the future.

“We are doing our darndest to try and keep that word out there and get applications coming in,” Hagerman told the council. “As the program has progressed, more and more applications have in fact come in. They just haven’t been fully reviewed yet.” 

The reimbursements that have been approved have varied. 

The Airfield Cafe in North Hampton successfully applied for $13,189 in funding to get reimbursement  for new payment terminals along the serving bar, new tablets to better facilitate call-ahead orders, and more outdoor seating. Owner Scott Aversano says the purchases have helped spread out customers and handle an uptick in demand for to-go food. 

“Realistically, probably if it wasn’t for COVID I wouldn’t have been doing this stuff,” Aversano said. 

Business at the Airfield Cafe has also been booming. It took a hit in spring and summer of 2020, but by fall of that year “things started ramping up,” Aversano said. Sales dipped in winter 2020 but came roaring back in 2021. It’s now at full tilt speed – “gangbusters,” Aversano said. 

For Aversano, the challenges now have less to do with the virus, and more with food prices and supply. A case of eggs used to cost $15, Aversano said. Last week, he paid $57. The price for a case of chicken has risen from $38 to $133. 

The increase in customer demand is helping him plug the dam. 

“You’re definitely not making what you used to make because of food costs. Labor cost is way up,” he said. “So you gotta (serve) more people now to make the numbers work.”

Mike Somers, president and chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, says that crunch is being felt by restaurants across the state this summer. Demand is high while food and labor has proven challenging. The environment may explain why relatively few restaurants have applied for the new funds so far. 

“It goes back to: We’re in the busy season and folks were all short staffed and they were literally working 10-hour shifts and things,” he said. “So I’m sure time is a bit of a factor.” 

The program requires restaurants to pay for costs and then seek reimbursement from the state. Some businesses may not have the money on hand to fund a major expansion or upgrade, Somers said. Some may have already used federal relief dollars to pay for those purchases. Some may be worried about finding contractors to even install the upgrades, or carving out time to train employees. 

“I think that there is some hesitancy to take on something new if, right now, things are actually working,” he said. “But I do think that the industry is going to have to as a whole start to adopt newer technologies to find those efficiencies in order to remain competitive.”

But for other business owners, he said, the extra state assistance could provide a critical boost. At a time of low labor availability, technology can help, he said. Restaurants could install more computers to handle orders, scheduling apps to more easily swap shifts in and out, or kiosks to help customers be served faster.

“Those kinds of technologies are the things that I think we’re going to start to see more and more of,” Somers said. 

At Blue Harbor Coffee, which added equipment not technology, the new roaster looks like a functional art piece. Made to order in Nevada, the machine features a deep cyan, round exterior, complete with a funnel,damper, drum to hold and rotate the beans, and a hot air fan. 

For Bergeron and her husband, the extra capacity has dramatically improved their operations. With staff hard to come by outside of the summer months – when high school and college students are most free – the workload has fallen on the two of them for years. The bigger roaster allows them to maintain the same output of beans and reduce their hours.

Now, the couple says it has the flexibility to expand into the wholesale market, a long term goal of theirs. It’s a fitting cap to what Bergeron has felt like a two-year act of survival, buoyed by community support. 

“We’re knocking wood left and right, for sure,” Bergeron said. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]