NH small businesses pushed to limit by pandemic



When the pandemic hit last year, many businesses and restaurants found themselves challenged to find new ways to keep their doors open. 

Roni Reino Watkins, owner of My Country Story in Dover, was one of the business owners who had to rethink how to connect with customers, when the store wasn’t set up for heavy e-commerce.

Watkins offered curbside pickup and partnered with a nearby business to help deliver products until she could get her e-commerce presence built up and transition to a new website. Now, e-commerce is an integral part of her business. 

“It wasn’t something I thought I’d find myself doing anytime soon, it just wasn’t on our immediate to do list,” Watkins said. “But the pandemic made us take that step. It was a point where you have to ask what can we do to compete with the bigger box stores who already have this platform. Amid everything, people still wanted to shop local and shop small.”

Watkins partners with 45 local artists and companies, with thousands of their unique items in her shop. At that time, she said, her sho was the only avenue for these artists to sell their work.

“One of the biggest issues for our artists was the fact that markets, craft fairs and festivals were all canceled,” Watkins said. “That is where they were making most of their money for the year, so no one could find them. It was up to us to share what artists we had so that our artists had a platform to sell during this time. We were all in this together.”

Roni Reino Watkins, of My Country Story in Dover, says e-commerce has become a key part of the business.

Cinco de Mayo Bar & Grill of Dover had just opened a second location in Epping, called Cinco’s Cantina, five weeks before the pandemic shutdowns began. Takeout was always a small fraction of the Dover restaurant’s business, but it was suddenly the only part of business for a short time, until indoor dining returned. Even with their doors open, takeout remains a growing part of its business.

“That is one of the biggest silver linings, because people are still ordering takeout in numbers that we never had imagined,” Erin Tellez, business manager for the family-run Cinco de Mayo Bar & Grill said. “We’ve had to hire extra staff, we’ve had to come up with different logistical things inside the restaurant to manage the amount of takeout – even now that we’re open completely. We are really just crossing our fingers that it continues to be a big part of our business.”

Watkins and Tellez aren’t alone in the challenges they faced, and opportunities they found amid the chaos sparked by the pandemic. 

NH small business survey

The New Hampshire Small Business Development Center recently completed the second phase of its business resiliency survey to evaluate pandemic-related effects on New Hampshire businesses. More than 570 Seacoast businesses within Strafford and Rockingham counties completed the survey, sharing similar struggles to the ones Watkins and Tellez faced.

The first survey was conducted a few months into the pandemic in June 2020, and while much has changed for businesses since then, the in-depth survey shows that Seacoast businesses are showing signs of recovery.

“Small businesses are showing promising growth as their concerns and needs shift,” Liz Gray, director of the state SBDC said. “They still definitely need support, we are not out of the woods yet, by any means. By understanding the challenges and needs of our local business owners we can more effectively help businesses recover and become more resilient.”

New Hampshire SBDC's State Director Liz Gray.

Many of the responding Seacoast businesses are located in Portsmouth, but a large response also came from Dover, Rochester, Salem, and Derry businesses. Seacoast businesses largely represented professional, scientific, and technical services, the retail trade, the accommodation and food services, and the arts, entertainment, and recreation industries. 

“I found it interesting that although there was a large number of Seacoast businesses that responded, their issues, challenges and concerns are very similar to the rest of the state,” Gray said.

A map of the areas where the businesses that replied to the SBDC's survey are primarily located.

Confidence in recovery increases

Nearly 90% of Seacoast respondents are confident that their business will be operating in 12 months, which is a jump from the June 2020, when only 76% reported that same confidence.

Shoppers stroll down Congress Street on Friday afternoon in Portsmouth.

“It’s a positive sign,” Gray said. “Businesses are showing improvement in their level of concern for certain challenges and issues. It also shows that our businesses are successfully listening to their customers and responding to their needs.”

Watkins said that her own confidence has gone up since the shock of the pandemic has started to ease.

“It was extremely scary,” Watkins said. “But our customers have shown us they want to shop small and want to make sure these businesses are still here in the coming years. And that made me, and other businesses, really confident that our communities will support us and want us around.”

Roni Reino Watkins and her husband, Andy, owners of My Country Story in Dover, began selling a line of baby clothes during the pandemic.

While some recovery concerns have gone down significantly, the survey shows that new concerns are being raised by Seacoast businesses around cyber security.

“There are pretty significant changes in some of the issues that are top of mind for businesses,” Gray said. “Some pandemic-related issues have gone down because businesses have figured out how how to mitigate and manage those challenges. As businesses diversified or shifted to areas like e-commerce and new websites, it raised concerns around cyber security by more than 12%. Keeping your doors open is not just managing the customer relationship anymore as the No. 1 priority, there’s so many other factors that are now playing into it.”

One of the biggest lessons businesses have learned in the past year is that anything can happen. While a worldwide pandemic was not something businesses had anticipated, Gray says that more owners now are preparing business continuity plans to strengthen their resiliency. Only 15% of responding Seacoast businesses had a resiliency or continuity plan prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but 20% have since developed one. 

The Falls Chamber in Somersworth and Greater Dover Chamber of Commerce were two of many chambers in the Seacoast and statewide that was involved in helping to distribute the survey to gauge what business need right now.

“Most of our members have shared an increased level of confidence in recent months,” said Allison St. Laurent, executive director of the Falls Chamber. “When I think back to June 2020, many of our members were seriously concerned that their business would not survive the year. It’s incredible to look back and see how many businesses have not only survived, but have become stronger, smarter, and more confident than ever.”

Margaret Joyce, president of the Dover chamber, said her chamber, and others, had to entirely change programing to accommodate the needs of their members. 

“We were doing out best to help our members by shifting our programming away from … marketing seminars or business after hours to be how can we help you, here’s what you need to know to stay in business and thrive,” Joyce said.

Shoppers stroll down Market Street on Friday afternoon in Portsmouth.

Pandemic effects on businesses remain a year later

Is your business better off now then it was in June? Four in 10 Seacoast businesses responded they feel worse off financially now than they were in June 2020, while two in  10 say their business is better off now. Survey respondents located elsewhere in the state shared a similar assessment of their businesses.

This trend is closely tied to the surge of pandemic relief given to businesses in 2020. Two-thirds of responding Seacoast businesses report lower monthly revenue as a result of the pandemic, with many reporting continued diminished revenue due to a decline in sales, reduced hours of operation and closures.

Watkins said that financially navigating this past year has been difficult. Too afraid to take out too much in loans, she only took advantage of the Economic Injury loan, and New Hampshire’s Main Street Relief Fund. Three-quarters of responding Seacoast businesses applied for financial relief in 2020 and half plan to apply for relief in 2021, with the Payroll Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Advance or Loan being the most commonly utilized federal relief programs among Seacoast businesses.

“It was great to see how many businesses had actually taken advantage of the relief programs that were available to them,” Gray said. “That has helped a lot of businesses. In the survey comments I was surprised at how many businesses told stories of how they are collaborating with other small business to help each other through this time.”

Tellez said that adaptability and community were the keys to survival.  

“It was exhausting and challenging,” Tellez said. “Every two weeks, there were different protocols, restrictions and guidelines that we had to follow. So it was almost like we’re building and rebuilding our business model every two weeks for the first few months. We built our website better, made our online and Door Dash menus better. We used those marketing tools that were always on the back burner, that we never had time to do before.”

‘It’s scary’:Seacoast restaurants can’t hire enough staff: Will relief funds help?

Tellez credits how the local businesses and community came together to promote takeout as one of the reasons they are doing as well as they are right now. A Facebook page, called Dover (NH) Takeout Restaurants, was born during the pandemic, as a way to give businesses a platform to share takeout menus and updated information.

“It helped the restaurants and the community come together to support the takeout movement during that uncertain time,” Tellez said. It was just amazing, the amount of people who showed up or posted in the group that absolutely was the defining moment for our survivor survivability.”

Nearly half of Seacoast businesses reported reducing their hours or closing temporarily altogether. Half of those who closed say they did so for one to three months and a third closed for more than three months. The report did not specifically look into the business that went into hibernation this winter.

Results also show that workforce is not quite back to pre-pandemic levels for most responding Seacoast businesses, which is an issue of concern. Many Seacoast restaurants have expressed frustration about their inability to find workers. Tellez said that her restaurant has had a very difficult time trying to find new employees, especially as takeout continues to add to their plate.  

Future impact on business

Gray said that a bright spot of the pandemic has been the push for businesses to grow in ways they perhaps, wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the challenges faced by pandemic. 

“This was one of the largest business surveys that has been done through the pandemic of restaurants (and) of businesses from across the state,” Gray said. “These results help us understand what’s really happening out there in our business community. It gives us hard data and anecdotal stories, allowing us to connect with our local business owners and quantify the challenges and needs they face. In this process we’ve also seen businesses get innovative, offer new services, and many say they will continue those new concepts long past the pandemic.”

Watkins said if it weren’t for the pandemic, she’s not sure if her small business would have shifted to build a stronger online presence. But now that it has, she said it will continue to be as much a part of her business as the in-store footprint she’s always had.

“It’s been a lot juggling,” Watkins said. “I’ve had to juggle how comfortable my staff and customers feel, with what we need to do to stay open. I’ve just been on this roller coaster of adapting with whatever’s thrown at us. But, I think that the most successful businesses in the area are the ones that have been and continue to change and pivot when needed.”

Cinco De Mayo is typically the busiest day of the year for Tellez’s restaurant. During the pandemic, their doors were closed but take out was open. By 4 p.m. the restaurant was so inundated with online orders, they had to stop taking orders. Sales at that point were 20% higher than previous years, and it had been their most successful and busiest day of the year, all due to takeout.

“Now we’re balancing, we’re trying to balance our dining experience, which is ultimately what we’re in business for, and adapt takeout to its max potential without affecting our dining customers in the service they receive.”

Tellez said this year really pushed restaurants to new limits, and new heights. 

“A year later, we are stronger than ever in our takeout game and our online presence – in all the areas that for so long, we were just forgetting about because we were just trying to survive the day,” Tellez said. “And I think that’s going to be true for a lot of people. I think this really tested all of us.”



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