Upper Valley coffee enthusiasts, the wait is almost over. Renovations to Dirt Cowboy Cafe are slated to conclude sometime between March 15 and March 23 — just prior to the arrival of students for the start of spring term.
Dirt Cowboy has been closed for food service since Nov. 15, though it has continued to sell coffee by the pound in store. When it reopens, the cafe will shift entirely to takeout, according to owner Tom Guerra. It will relocate its bakery, previously in its basement, to the main floor, replacing the indoor seating space. Guerra said that there will be seasonal seating located directly outside the cafe from roughly March through November every year.
Guerra explained that, following the suspension of Dirt Cowboy’s dine-in option due to COVID-19, he and his staff noticed they did “much more focused work” when they exclusively served takeout customers. Takeout has historically comprised the majority of Dirt Cowboy’s business, while dining in has accounted for roughly 25% of the cafe’s operations.
“In essence, the dine-in was distracting us from our main business, and now, with no more dine-in, we really focused in on what the demand is really for — the demand for this place is mostly takeout,” he said.
Guerra noted the difficulty of coordinating between two teams of employees, one upstairs and another downstairs. Whenever a crowd entered Dirt Cowboy, employees on the main floor rang a bell to notify bakers in the downstairs kitchen to hurry upstairs and help manage the rush, Guerra added.
Dirt Cowboy manager Maura Jenks said she is excited to have a more fluid operation, with a singular team of customer service employees and bakers on the main floor. This workflow will be “less stressful for the crew,” she said.
Since the kitchen has always been hidden in the basement, customers often do not realize Dirt Cowboy makes all of its baked goods from scratch, Guerra said.
“We’ve been in business for 27 years, so, believe it or not, some of my steady customers would ask me six or seven years in, ‘Who does your baked goods?’” Guerra said. “… Now that’s not going to be a question anymore because they’re going to see that we’re baking this stuff.”
Dirt Cowboy will split up its operation into different stations, occupying distinct sections of the main floor, Guerra said. The cafe revamped its point-of-sale system — the touch-screen register that employees use to take orders — to “communicate with the stations,” according to Guerra. The POS system now connects to label printers and video screens displaying orders at each station.
Guerra emphasized that the updated system’s “robust” software will help to streamline orders. The bakery’s new layout also has increased capacity for equipment and technology.
Prior to the renovations, staff had limited space to prepare beverages, but with the spacious new barista station, the cafe has been able to install a second espresso machine. The old menu will be replaced with a digital menu as well.
Dirt Cowboy was operating at a loss in the three years leading up to COVID-19, according to Guerra, but it has since become profitable. As students’ absence from the Hanover area threatened to shutter several local businesses last spring, students and alumni rallied to support Dirt Cowboy by ordering coffee beans online, a critical turning point in the cafe’s reversal of past losses. The cafe was able to build up reserves from takeout and online coffee orders over the course of the pandemic, Guerra said.
Guerra explained that he originally planned to reopen the cafe as early as December but ran into unforeseen issues with hiring an electrician. However, he said he was ultimately happy that he was forced to bear the losses of staying closed because he was “able to get at issues that [he] would have just let go,” like cleaning scuff marks and scratches off of the glass pastry case.
“What we’ve been doing for the past three months is just really going in and doing some really nice, detailed work,” he said.
Guerra said around 90% of the remodeling has been completed. Now, the cafe is working on final touches. Since the kitchen will now be on full display for customers, Guerra said one of these final projects is replacing the food storage containers.
Since its opening in 1993, Dirt Cowboy has undergone three renovation projects — once soon after it opened, again in 1998 and this year. Compared to the cafe’s first two renovations, Guerra said the 2021 renovation has gone “really smoothly.” He noted that he was on a “shoestring budget” for the first two projects. In particular, he said the renovation in 1998 was a “panic,” as there was “immense financial pressure” to reopen the cafe’s doors.
Hanover town manager Julia Griffin — whose office provides permits for building modifications and performs inspections throughout the renovation process — said that many local businesses took the reduced foot traffic following Thanksgiving as an opportunity to spruce up their interiors.
“Having our local coffee purveyors in town really adds, I think, to our sense of community,” Griffin said. “We know that lots of folks love Dirt Cowboy, so I think anything that they can do that makes it easier for them to operate their business while also continuing to do what they do with the coffee roasting, is great.”
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