Blue Harbor Coffee was four months old when COVID-19 first arrived in New Hampshire, and business was strong.
It was about to get stronger. As Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order closing down indoor dining and officials urged residents to stay at home, many restaurants found themselves challenged by dwindling customers and departing employees. Blue Harbor Coffee, in Hampton, took a different tack. They shifted the business model to grab-and-go coffees from the street, and embraced a new role as wholesale supplier to other cafes, hotels, and restaurants.
“We couldn’t keep up with what we were roasting for the cafe,” said co-owner Stephanie Bergeron. “I mean we could keep up with it, if you wanted to roast 12 hours a day and not do anything else.”
Bergeron admits: “It was a great problem to have, obviously.” But it didn’t stop the accompanying stress. Bergeron and her husband, Coskun “Josh” Yazgan, carried out their work with a six-pound roaster. The small capacity kept Yazgan returning to the restaurant deep into the night, Bergeron said.
Two years on, Blue Harbor has a new tool in the fight: a 25-pound coffee roaster to accompany its original one. And a new state and federal assistance program helped get it.
Blue Harbor Coffee is one of a handful of early recipients of the Local Restaurant Infrastructure Investment Program, an initiative that uses a portion of the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan funding to reimburse restaurants that have purchased equipment, infrastructure, or technology to respond to COVID-19 public health concerns.
The program awards up to $15,000 per restaurant and imposes limits on which restaurants can apply; chain restaurants operating in three or more states are barred, as are take-out only restaurants and any restaurant making more than $20 million a year.
So far, only a handful of restaurants have been awarded funds. The Executive Council approved nine of them July 12 after an early round of applications, including Blue Harbor Coffee’s for $15,000.
As of July 12, the state has spent just $153,357 of the $3 million set aside, but officials in the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery say that they expect to award more reimbursements 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 advertise the new funding, according to Chase Hagaman, deputy director of GOFERR, and is considering opening new rounds of funding in the future.
“We are doing our darndest to try and keep that word out there and get applications coming in,” Hagerman told the council. “As the program has progressed, more and more applications have in fact come in. They just haven’t been fully reviewed yet.”
The reimbursements that have been approved have varied.
The Airfield Cafe in North Hampton successfully applied for $13,189 in funding to get reimbursement for new payment terminals along the serving bar, new tablets to better facilitate call-ahead orders, and more outdoor seating. Owner Scott Aversano says the purchases have helped spread out customers and handle an uptick in demand for to-go food.
“Realistically, probably if it wasn’t for COVID I wouldn’t have been doing this stuff,” Aversano said.