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From online to curbside, technology delivers food, packages | What’s Working

A year ago, patrons at Taj India in Manchester’s downtown could serve themselves curry from the lunch buffet.

Today, servers bring individual stainless steel trays of food to customers’ tables with the option of another helping at no additional cost.

“They can eat as much as they can,” owner Rakesh Kumar said last week. “If someone wants more chicken, you can have more chicken.”

Kumar said he could assign workers to serve customers at the buffet station, but with many office workers toiling remotely, he doesn’t have the crowds yet at his Elm Street restaurant.

Customers surely don’t derive the same joy as scanning the buffet choices and spooning an unfamiliar option on their plate to taste test.

The pandemic — which has quelled many joyful acts, big and small — is approaching the first anniversary of Gov. Chris Sununu’s order last March 16 banning indoor dining for what turned out to be months. Today, many people remain leery of eating indoors until they are vaccinated.

A year ago, people didn’t need to worry about a toilet paper shortage, but the supply has rebounded.

“Many people did stock up early in the pandemic, but they seem to be working through that stockpile now that shelves are more full,” said Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom.

Meanwhile, supermarket shelves offer less variety than a year ago.

“What a lot of manufacturers were forced to do is stop manufacturing items that didn’t sell as well,” said Mike Violette, president and CEO of Associated Grocers of New England in Pembroke, which supplies around 650 stores in several states, including New Hampshire.

So for example, instead of 16 kinds of Wish-Bone salad dressing, there might be a dozen, he said.

Violette doesn’t think people will rush back to restaurants.

“What we’re continuing to see is a lot of people have learned to cook in the last year,” Violette said. “I think you’re going to continue to see more people cook at home and as things loosen up, entertain at home.”

Takeout and delivery time

The pandemic dealt uneven fortunes to restaurants.

“The restaurants that were built around the takeout-delivery model have done quite well,” said Mike Somers, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Lodging & Restaurant Association.

“It was the casual, fine dining that has been most affected by the pandemic. They also had to reinvent themselves. They had to adapt new technologies for online ordering apps.”

Some had to rewrite menus to simplify operations and adapt or eliminate food that “didn’t travel well,” he said.

No one knows how quickly restaurants will recover to pre-pandemic sales.

“I think there’s a great deal of debate within the industry. What does this ultimately look like in six months, 12 months, 18 months?” Somers said. “I think much of it will come back, but come back slowly.”

A year ago, as news of the pandemic deepened, Emmett Soldati remembered a busy weekend at the Teatotaller, a Somersworth cafe that serves breakfast items, salads and sandwiches.

“I kind of expected it to be dead,” he said, but it was quite the opposite at the eatery, which also hosts events and community groups, just before it shut temporarily for the pandemic.

Soon, he started his own delivery of specialty drinks on assigned routes to about 15 communities.

“It has exploded,” Soldati said. “We’re now never not going to have a delivery service. And we don’t use DoorDash. We don’t use Grubhub. We set up our own delivery company.”

“We just sort of figured out a business model that really worked and responded to our customers and the needs of folks and that was most important,” Soldati said.

“I didn’t want to be open during COVID handing out avocado toast through a Styrofoam container at the front door,” he said.

DoorDash and UberEats said they don’t share statewide data but certainly benefited from the pandemic lockdown.

“I’ll also add that COVID-19 accelerated trends we were already seeing with consumers — edging toward more demand for more convenience,” DoorDash spokeswoman Abby Homer said by email. “And, as you’d imagine, there are people (like my parents in rural Maine, for example), who might now know about and use DoorDash, and didn’t really do so before the pandemic.”

Uber Eats said hundreds of New Hampshire residents signed up to deliver with Uber Eats last year.

“Over the last year, we’ve helped put millions of dollars into the pocket of workers and restaurants across the Granite State, and we know there is even more work we can do to support restaurants and delivery workers statewide.” said spokesman Harry Hartfield.

Online shopping booms

Violette said many AGNE corporate stores have added online ordering for groceries, a feature that “is here to stay.”

At many food stores, customers no longer find self-served areas to customize a salad or put together a meal of prepared foods, something that might continue “for years to come,” Violette said.

Spices, canning jars and TGIFridays frozen appetizers remain in short supply, according to Violette.

A year ago, many supermarket shoppers clutched reusable bags for groceries rather than disposable plastic bags used today.

“We have seen a substantial drop in reusable bag usage,” Blom said in an email.

A year ago, people could shop in stores big and small before those retailers and entire malls shuttered for months and then at reduced capacity until last week.

“Curbside pickup and delivery, like your local businesses delivering to your home, will remain,” said Nancy Kyle, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Retail Association

Many smaller retailers didn’t have websites or a social media presence and had to develop them. “All of that will stick around,” Kyle said.

The Toadstool Bookshop, with stores in Nashua, Keene and Peterborough, sold nearly as many books in 2020 as in the previous year thanks to increased online sales and new curbside pickup.

“We will always be willing to bring books out to people (in the parking lot),” said co-owner Willard Williams.

A year ago, Toadstool hosted authors to give talks and sign books.

“That went to doing mostly Zoom events, which is nothing like having people in the store,” Willard said. “We may continue some of those partially because it means we can have an author do an event even though they don’t live in the area.”

A year ago, workers at The Trainer’s Loft in Tilton used a loading dock for people to pick up horse feed. That extended to other things once the store shut temporarily when the pandemic hit.

“They just drove right up to the loading dock, told us when they’d be there, and we had it ready for them,” co-owner Shira Nafshi said. “The loading dock option is still available for anybody who wants it.”