Why is much of the $3 million in pandemic relief at NH restaurants still unspent?

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

He was about to get stronger. As Governor Chris Sununu issued an executive order closing indoor restaurants and officials urged residents to stay home, many restaurants have found themselves faced with dwindling customers and departing employees. Blue Harbor Coffee in Hampton took a different approach. They shifted the business model to street-side takeaway cafes and took on a new role as a wholesale supplier to other cafes, hotels and restaurants.

“We couldn’t keep up with what we were roasting for coffee,” said co-owner Stephanie Bergeron. “I mean we could keep up, if you wanted to roast 12 hours a day and do nothing else.”

Bergeron admits: “It was a big problem to have, obviously.” But that didn’t stop the stress that came with it. Bergeron and her husband, Coskun “Josh” Yazgan, did their work with a six-pound roaster. The small capacity prevented Yazgan from returning to the restaurant late at night, Bergeron said.

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Two years later, Blue Harbor has a new tool in the fight: a 25-pound roaster to go along with its original. And a new state and federal aid program helped get it.

Less than $200,000 out of $3 million awarded

Blue Harbor Coffee is one of the few recipients of the Local Restaurant Infrastructure Investment Program, an initiative that uses a portion of the state’s share of U.S. bailout funding to reimburse restaurants that bought equipment, infrastructure or technology to address public health concerns related to COVID-19.

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

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So far, only a handful of restaurants have received funds. The Executive Board approved nine of them on July 12 after an initial round of applications, including Blue Harbor Coffee for $15,000.

As of July 12, the state had spent only $153,357 of the $3 million set aside, but officials from the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery said they expected more. grant more refunds 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 announce the new funding, according to Chase Hagaman, deputy director of GOFERR, and plans to open new funding rounds in the future.

Blue Harbor Coffee has expanded its operations.

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“We’re doing our best to try to keep that word out there and get applications,” Hagerman told the board. “As the program progressed, more and more applications came in. They just haven’t been fully considered yet.”

Reimbursements that have been approved have varied.

Airfield Cafee in North Hampton benefits from funds

The Airfield Cafe in North Hampton successfully applied for $13,189 in funding to secure reimbursement for new payment terminals along the service bar, new tablets to better facilitate advance ordering and more seating at the outside. Owner Scott Aversano says the shopping has helped spread customers and manage a surge in demand for takeout food.

“Actually, probably without COVID, I wouldn’t have done this stuff,” Aversano said.

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Business at the Airfield Cafe is also booming. It took a hit in the spring and summer of 2020, but in the fall of that year, “things started to pick up speed,” Aversano said. Sales dipped in winter 2020, but came back strong in 2021. It’s now in full gear — “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 cost $15, Aversano said. Last week he paid $57. The price of a case of chicken has gone from $38 to $133.

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

“You’re definitely not doing what you were doing before because of the cost of food. The cost of labor is on the rise,” he said. “So you have to (serve) more people now to make the numbers work.”

NH restaurants still face great challenges

Mike Somers, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association, said the crisis was being felt in restaurants across the state this summer. Demand is high while food and labor have proven difficult. 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 people were all understaffed and they were literally working 10-hour shifts and such,” he said. “So I’m sure the weather is a bit of a factor.”

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The program requires restaurants to pay the fee and then seek reimbursement from the state. Some companies may not have the funds to fund a major expansion or upgrade, Somers said. Some may have already used federal relief dollars to pay for these purchases. Some may worry about finding subcontractors to even install upgrades or spending time training employees.

“I think there’s some hesitation to take on something new if, right now, things are actually working,” he said. “But I think the industry as a whole is going to have to start adopting new technologies to find those efficiencies in order to stay competitive.”

But for other business owners, he said, the additional state aid 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, program apps to swap in and out shifts more easily, or kiosks to help customers get served faster.

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

Blue Harbor finds a successful formula

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

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

Now the couple say they have the opportunity to expand into the wholesale market, one of their long-term goals. It’s a fitting capstone to what Bergeron felt was a two-year act of survival, bolstered by community support.

“We’re hitting wood left and right, that’s for sure,” Bergeron said.

This story was originally posted by New Hampshire Bulletin.

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