Being forced to close your dream after five years in business is painful enough, but Darryl Parker has a bigger worry than his Main Street coffee shop. He’s worried about Main Street itself.
“We literally could come out of this on the other side and there won’t be a single restaurant in town. We could wipe Warner out, and it won’t be because people don’t want it,” Parker said Tuesday, two days after he announced that Schoodacs coffee shop on Warner’s Main Street is closing permanently. “If we get a second wave (of virus), a year from now I don’t know who will be left. Downtown has the potential to be vacant again.”
Actually, he added, he could guess who would be left. “Exit 9 will win,” he said, referring to a passel of franchise eateries off Interstate 89, a mile down the road. “But how do these independent brands survive?”
The feeling isn’t quite that pessimistic at some of the other locally-owned restaurants that have given Warner a personality much larger than its population of 2,800 people would suggest, but it’s not cheerful.
“We run such a tight margin here that it’s going to be very difficult,” said Deb Moore, who has owned The Foothills restaurant with husband Ron for 16 years.
The Moores have been offering takeout for three weeks and just put three tables on their small porch, but she says only the Paycheck Protection Program loan has kept them going. “Most of it is for payroll, 25% of it to pay bills. We’re making enough now to at least do our food orders and pay off small bills.”
The federal PPP program is slated to wind up in June. “If by the end of June, we’re not back – we wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves with 50% capacity,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to sustain a payroll on our own. We have to wait and see.”
At The Local, another Main Street mainstay, owner Bill Meadows has cut back but says he can keep going with take-out only, even though the bar which he can’t reopen was 30% of revenue. He had to furlough waitstaff, a move that he says was made more palatable by the federal unemployment package, but kept the kitchen staff working.
“If we can keep going what we’re doing now, we’re good to go,” he said Tuesday, taking a moment from putting together lunch orders.
Meadows has an extra weapon: Family.
“There’s myself plus four family members, we have some built-in labor,” he said. He wife also has a “day job” that provides health insurance.
Parker, a North Carolina transplant who learned the area after visiting with family, opened Schoodacs five years in a former law office on Warner’s Main Street. He named it after a section of town and a brook that flows out of Long Pond; some say the name was coined to imitate the noise of sawmills built along local waterways, although that’s not certain.
Schoodacs joined other locally owned restaurants that, along with unique draws like the New Hampshire Telephone Museum and Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, created a surprisingly vibrant core for this small town.
“It has a very small downtown but it is a downtown, a very traditional downtown,” Parker said. “I looked at the other investors, all working together to try to create something in this center. I saw an opportunity to participate in that. I like to participate in the community.”
In the fall he offered pumpkins, after Thanksgiving he sold Christmas trees.
“Our value to the community was a gathering place. Our value wasn’t a cup of coffee – McDonald’s is a mile from us if you want a quick cup of coffee,” he said.
Parker, 49, who owns a web-design firm that has a half-dozen staffers and has experience running other firms as well as working in restaurants, was realistic about the business opportunity.
“I was never going to pay my mortgage with it. It was meant to create some jobs, create new space in the community,” he said.
The reality of cash flow in a small market was always an issue – “a normal coffee shop will do 300 to 400 checks a day; ours was doing 100 at its best” – but he was confident enough in the way things were going to build a cold-brew brewery across the street and had hired a consultant to expand the menu and increase per-customer sales.
Then the coronavirus showed up and the stay-at-home order followed.
“I spent $60,000 doing that build-out” for the brewery, he said. “We were starting that process, buying that equipment. I had just placed order in February for a second round of equipment. I had to turn the trucks around on March 15. ”
Take-out orders didn’t begin to replace what was lost, Parker said, but he held on, hoping that things would reopen and people could start gathering again.
“You take the gathering out of it and what’s left? The only reason we even looked at reopening was that outside dining was coming,” he said.
Then he hit another snag: staffing. “The challenges of hiring someone in this market, holy smokes!”
Finding full-time staff was always tough in a small town, but fear of getting COVID-19 from customers has created another obstacle while higher unemployment benefits during the pandemic have given people the option of staying away.
“I had a trial run May 9. I reached out to he staff and said ‘OK we’re going to do this, who can come back?’” Parker said. “Just one barista came Saturday, the only one. How do you fault them? They were averaging $300 or $400 a week, now getting $800 or $900 a week. How do you fault that?”
Among those who didn’t come back was the trainer who brings new baristas up to speed. Combined with the closing of the Vermont barista school where some staff have taken classes, he couldn’t train new staff even if he hired them, which could be fatal: “Restaurants live and die on quality.”
As a result, Parker said, his one-day trial convinced him that enough was enough.
“Every week that goes by is a thousand bucks. How many thousands of dollars am I supposed to invest in hopes of reopening?” he said. “I had to choose what pays the bills.”
A major part of the decision involves the future of the coronavirus.
“What do you believe in, where the crisis is going, where the pandemic is going? Some people think it is ending … I do not believe that. I believe we’re going to see a second wave in three months, four months at the outside, and maybe we’ll shut down again,” he said. “It was a confluence of all these factors that made the decision.”
Parker announced on Facebook that he was closing and a follow-up article in the online magazine Slate from Ruth Graham, a staff writer who lives in Warner, has drawn considerable attention. Among those responding are some people interested in buying the shop; he says he’ll lease it, equipment and all, if people are serious about investing the money and the time to try again.
But he won’t hide the obstacles.
“I want the public to understand the struggle these small business are going through. I want other business owners who are fighting the fight to see that they’re not alone,” he said.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or email@example.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)