Written by Crystal Ward Kent
People in the restaurant business will frequently tell you that working in that field feels like being part of a family. Even though Lisa Allen and Nicole Barreira work for a small corporation, Great New Hampshire Restaurants Inc., they feel the same—and never was that sense of family stronger than during this year’s pandemic.
Lisa Allen is chief administrative officer, overseeing human resources, accounting, marketing, charitable efforts and a wide range of administrative tasks. The job is always challenging, but COVID brought new hurdles as the business had new laws to interpret and implement and every detail of their work model had to be reshaped to adjust to the pandemic. “There were new challenges coming at us every day, but our team is strong and the company’s foundation is strong,” she says. “I don’t think I realized how strong until we faced this crisis. As a leadership team, we strove to maintain a calm and reasonable approach. I knew how critical it was to maintain balance as we navigated our way through this, and I’m proud to say, I think we achieved that goal.”
Nicole Barreira is director of marketing and menu development, handling every aspect of branding, marketing, and customer relations. She also works with the menu team to develop new menus and teaches cooking classes. When COVID hit, Barreira saw their world “flipped upside down,” just before St. Patrick’s Day, one of the busiest restaurant days of the year. “If anyone had told me that this would happen, I wouldn’t have believed them,” she recalls. “But it did, and we immediately sat down and pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. This is a passion-driven industry and we all care deeply about what we do. We talked to our employees and reached out to customers and worked quickly to pivot our businesses into a new model. For myself and my team, I found that we had tools in our tool belts that we didn’t realize we had, so I was grateful to be able to have those skills at my disposal.”
Great New Hampshire Restaurants owns the Copper Door, T-BONES, CJ’s Great West Grill and Cactus Jack’s Grill and Watering Hole. More than 700 employees work at these restaurants, in their catering business, and at their commissary. With the COVID Crisis, the company was determined to take care of employees as well as continue to serve customers. “Almost immediately, our team jumped into action to get a PCP Loan,” says Allen. “We secured one within hours of its becoming available, and were able to continue to pay all full-time employees and keep on all of our management. The loan allowed us to keep our business viable, and on June 15th, we were able to hire everyone back. This is amazing when you consider that for two whole months we were not able to serve customers inside or out, yet the company still took care of their employees, including their insurance benefits. I’ve never been prouder to work here than I was during that time.
“I am also so proud of the fact that in September, we actually opened a new restaurant in Concord,” she continues. “We were supposed to open in May, but had to postpone due to the pandemic. Some companies would have shelved this opening, but we were determined to show people that we believed better days were ahead. We opened and in doing so, created new jobs for people at a time when they are greatly needed.”
“I was impressed by how quickly our web team got an online ordering system in place,” says Barreira. “We didn’t have one before and setting one up is not easy, especially since we have a lot of restaurants with a lot of menu options. Our technical team worked 60 hours a week to get one in place, and then our restaurant managers and employees worked just as hard to get familiar with the system. In no time, it was like we had always had this service. We were also very quick to initiate a major communications roll-out to our guests, letting them know that we were open, and about the new ordering options. I have to also recognize the restaurant staff for being so adaptable in going from a dining-in setup to a mostly take-out setup—it’s very different, having to package everything up—but they handled it like pros.”
Both women feel that they have learned some valuable lessons along the way. “I always knew that our company felt strongly about teamwork, integrity, and maintaining quality in everything that you do, but I never realized how much this stood you in good stead until we were put in such a tough situation,” says Barreira. “We realized that because we had these values, our customers and our employees maintained their faith in us, and these values gave us the strength to go on. When we talk about core values, it isn’t just lip service, it really means something.”
“I learned that we really are a team, even when we’re not all together,” says Allen. “Usually, there are upwards of 15 people in our office. If you have questions, you just pop into someone’s office. It was a very supportive environment. Then, when the crisis hit, we were suddenly all working in different places, and things we took for granted, were not there. But it didn’t take long for us to adjust and help each other through this new situation. As a woman, and a mother, I’ve also had to make major adjustments. I have a demanding job and a demanding home life; suddenly, I’m helping my kids do remote learning and my time is even more compressed. I’ve learned that it’s okay to put my hand up and say I need help or I need time, and I know my team has my back. I’ve also learned that I have to make more time for myself. My goal for 2021 is to focus more on my physical, mental and emotional health and to better understand my limitations. This will help me perform better in all aspects of my life.”
Barreira, who recently had a baby, has also learned how important her team is. “As women, we sometimes feel like we can’t let our coworkers know we have a family life or family issues—we’re supposed to keep things separate. But here, people are very supportive. Family matters and people help each other. It means a lot.”
No one knows when the world will achieve normalcy again, and for the restaurant business, the future is especially uncertain. When will dining out become the easy treat that it once was? No one knows, but both women are confident that that day is coming. “My number one goal for 2021 is to get our businesses back to what they should be—places where families and friends can celebrate and connect where people can hug their favorite waitstaff or shake a bartender’s hand, where relationships and friendships can bloom again,” affirms Barreira. “We need human connections, human touch! And those of us in the hospitality industry are in this industry for a reason—because we want to engage with people and help them enjoy some of the best moments of their lives. For me, the hardest part of this crisis has been being without those human connections. Being with people nourishes you spiritually and fills you up. I can’t contemplate a world without people coming together to share a meal and enjoy one another, and I’ll do everything I can to help get us back there.”
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