Fire & Ice thankful for community, grants
MIDDLEBURY — It’s been a long year for restaurant owners.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down restaurants in Vermont in the middle of March 2020, they’ve either been on lockdown or limited to partial capacity, which in Vermont was kept at 25% of indoor seating capacity starting last summer, and has remained at that level for much of the past year with all aspects of universal guidance measures in effect.
To survive with those restrictions, restaurants turned to outdoor seating, locally-sponsored gift certificate programs, and take-out service. They have also tapped into the many state and federal grant programs, as well as locally-sponsored ones, which have largely kept the restaurant industry alive.
“I think the community did a tremendous job supporting the local restaurants with takeout and buying gift certificates,” said Paris Rinder-Goddard, owner of Middlebury’s Fire & Ice restaurant. “Often times people would buy the gift certificates, but they didn’t want to use them until things were better. I’ve been telling people to go ahead and start using them. Things are finally turning in the right direction.”
But it wasn’t always such a bright outlook.
In the midst of the pandemic, restaurant owners were pulling out all the stops to make ends meet.
Fire and Ice, which is well-known for its extensive salad bar housed in a historic, wood-crafted speed boat, had no choice but to forgo its iconic attraction and convert the salad bar space into additional seating. That got its number of seats to a high-enough capacity through the winter to allow the restaurant to make ends meet.
“I’d be on vacation 2,000 miles away, and meet someone, and tell them I have a restaurant in Middlebury, Vt., and they’d go ‘I once went to this restaurant that had a boat with a huge salad bar.’ To take the salad bar out, the thing that you are most known for, was certainly a hard thing to come to. It was not a decision I wanted to make, but with the cards on the table it was really the only decision for me,” Rinder-Goddard recalled.
Even adding seats outside, which enabled some restaurants to double the number of customers it could serve, was not for other eateries.
“Each restaurant is unique and that has made their responses unique. We were fortunate that we had some space that we could build out on without losing parking. The fact that we owned that space was huge,” Rinder-Goddard said. “Other people were in tougher situations, which called for some great teamwork. The new owners of Otter Creek Bakery turned over some of their outdoor dining space to Two Brothers Tavern, who didn’t really have any options to go outdoors. That was really cool to see.”
Fortunately, for Fire & Ice and others, this spring and summer are looking better.
Jump-starting the recent uptick in business, Gov. Phil Scott announced the Vermont Forward Plan in early April. It allowed restaurants throughout the state to remain at 25% indoor seating capacity during the early spring and will allow them to move to 50% occupancy on May 1, with a total capacity of 75 people indoors or 150 people outdoors. Restaurants will also be allowed to offer multi-household seating for groups up to six people, and restrictions are dropping for those who are fully vaccinated.
Under Scott’s plan, which is dependent on most Vermonters getting fully vaccinated and COVID-19 rates under control, it is hoped that Vermont restaurants can return to pre-COVID normalcy as of July 4.
That’s a prospect that elicits one overwhelming feeling from Rinder-Goddard: Eager anticipation.
“We’re really looking forward to putting this all in the rear-view mirror,” he said. “We are excited as more and more people get vaccinated. Hopefully, this summer we can have family barbeques and gather as friends and do all the stuff we missed out on over the last year.”
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