Hanover restaurants face Main Street outdoor dining closure

by Ben Fagell | 11/10/20 2:00am

by Natalie Dameron / The Dartmouth

As the town braces for winter weather, outdoor dining on Main Street in Hanover officially closed on Oct. 31. In an effort to offset an anticipated decline in business this winter, local restaurants have begun to consider alternative ways to increase profits.

According to Hanover director of planning, zoning and codes Robert Houseman, the tents and barriers used for outdoor seating this fall are unable to withstand intense snowstorms, potentially endangering restaurant-goers and other town residents. Since Hanover must follow New Hampshire’s safety regulations on buildings and structures, outdoor dining on town property had to be shut down.

“Snow doesn't care what time of day or night it is,” Houseman said, adding that with six to 10 inches of snow, the tent structures risk collapse. “We don’t want to put the community or the customers at risk.”

In addition, street tents had to be removed so maintenance crews can plow the streets, Hanover town manager Julia Griffin wrote in an email statement.

Outdoor dining had become the lifeblood of many restaurants in Hanover after the pandemic forced them to decrease indoor occupancy. Now, without outdoor dining, restaurants are seeking new ways to drum up business.

At Murphy’s on the Green, owner Nigel Leeming noted that a recent uptick in indoor business has not been enough to “make up the difference of having the tents outside,” largely due to the public’s fear of contracting COVID-19 in indoor establishments. To increase cash flow, Murphy’s has started using the delivery service Snackpass. Additionally, Leeming said he has worked to ease customers’ concerns associated with indoor dining.

“We're showing the public that we're safe, using all the precautions,” Leeming said.“ … We've got it down.”

For owner and CEO of Lou’s Restaurant Jarett Berke Tu’17, the falloff in customers from the closure of outdoor dining has not been as steep as he thought it would be.  

“I've been surprised that more people than I thought are comfortable and willing to dine inside,” Berke said. “I originally felt that most people wouldn't want to do that.” Still, he added, “We're filling up the few tables that we have.”

Now that Lou’s has closed its 11-table outdoor seating area, Berke noted that the restaurant is operating at only about 25% of regular capacity, an issue that he said could be exacerbated when students — a key customer base — go home for the winter holidays. In an effort to augment business, Lou’s has expanded its evening offerings and added a waitlist so customers can walk around town until their table is ready instead of waiting in a line at the restaurant.

For the long term, Berke said he is in conversation with Murphy’s and Boloco about restructuring and revamping the three businesses’ delivery operations by employing their own delivery drivers. Currently, third-party delivery apps like Grubhub and DoorDash are siphoning large fees from restaurants on each order, which Berke said is “not only hurting profitability, but eliminating profitability” for the restaurants. When delivery apps demand a 30% cut of sales, Berke said, many restaurants, which operate in the single-digit profit margins, cannot survive off delivery orders.

Berke has proposed a model in which restaurants in town form a delivery cooperative and hire an independent pool of delivery drivers, eliminating the need for third-party apps.

“If we can do it ourselves and have a better experience, … we don't rely on an outside source or Silicon Valley to patrol us,” Leeming said. “We would be serving the community way better. And we want to do that.”

In addition, Leeming said that he believes the new delivery cooperative — which would deliver locally, including to Dartmouth dorms — would cut current expenses in half, a helpful boost in a challenging economic climate.

Although Murphy’s and Lou’s were forced to move seating completely indoors, Pine and Boloco have their own personal patios, which are being left open for outdoor seating.  

According to Pine manager Emily Chism, the patio had been closed but was reopened last weekend due to a spell of warm weather and may stay open until Tuesday. She said that as soon as winter officially arrives, the patio will be “packed up for the year.”

Boloco owner John Pepper '91 Tu'97 said that he will not close the patio and is considering adding heaters during the winter months.

According to Berke, the town of Hanover has been very helpful as local businesses try to stay afloat. In addition to facilitating the expansion of outdoor dining, the town is also considering large-scale changes to the downtown area.

For example, Houseman said the town is considering widening the sidewalk by up to 16 feet to allow for more outdoor seating. Parking spaces also may be replaced by fixed outdoor seating in an effort to support businesses.