Local Businesses Adapt to Continue Serving Upper Valley

As green leaves and warm days underscore the arrival of summer, many local businesses are finding new ways to keep serving the community. Here are just a few!

Long River Gallery

Rachel Obbard, owner of Long River Gallery in White River Junction, took advantage of the shutdown to get her online store up and running. Customers can browse original paintings, puzzles, photography, and much more.  “What we really want is for the community to think of us first,” said Rachel. “Buy a new piece of functional pottery or woodenware for your kitchen. Buy gifts for someone or for an occasion.” (Pictured: A photo of Penny Koburger’s show “Reflections” at Long River Gallery.)

Piecemeal Pies

Pie-Day Friday: Piecemeal Pies in White River Junction is currently accepting pre-orders throughout the week for Friday pickups. They will also be hosting their first Outdoor Boozy Brunch beginning on Saturday, June 20! A new order-at-table, pay-at-table system is being implemented to keep the fun clean and safe. “We’re working to create a great experience, while eliminating as much customer and employee contact as possible,” explained owner Justin Barrett. (Pictured: pies ready for pickup on Pie-Day Friday).

Upper Valley Produce

Upper Valley Produce is continuing to offer curbside service, which allows customers to buy food in household quantities while paying wholesale prices. Those interested can visit Upper Valley Produce’s website to pick out what they would like from a list of over 70 fruits, vegetables, cheeses, local meats, and more. Upon arrival, the packaged food is placed directly in the buyer’s car. “We have people who are repeat customers because they have auto-immune deficiencies or are older and don’t want to risk going to the stores,” explained Larry Lowndes, vice president of sales and marketing at Upper Valley Produce. “As long as they continue to find value in this, we’ll keep doing it.”

Skinny Pancake:

Skinny Pancake’s Shift Meals program continues to run. Since starting in late March, the program has distributed over 35,000 free, nourishing meals to Vermonters and organizations fighting food insecurity. “We saw people in our own community, such as restaurant workers, musicians, artists, and others, who all of a sudden were experiencing food insecurity,” explained Michael Cyr, marketing brand director at the Skinny Pancake. “We wanted to serve that population. So we said, let’s make food and give it to them.” Anyone who could use a free Shift Meal is encouraged to sign up to receive one. Those who wish to support the program can do so by donating or visiting one of the Skinny Pancake restaurants. The Quechee, Montpelier, and Burlington Waterfront locations are currently open for take-out, with the Quechee location also offering delivery.

West Lebanon Feed and Supply

 

West Lebanon Feed and Supply recently launched Gooberpick.com, a platform that allows customers to shop online and then retrieve their purchases from various “Goober Pod” pickup locations at a convenient time. The first two Goober Pods, which resemble large shipping containers, are located at the West Lebanon Feed and Supply store and on Route 4 in Enfield. After paying online, shoppers receive a code that allows them to enter the closest pod and open an individual locker containing their product. 

“We understand that customers really enjoy shopping with local companies, but have only a limited amount of time,” explained Ira Richards, vice president of marketing and business development at West Lebanon Feed and Supply. “Goober Pick allows customers to balance the desire to shop local with the convenience and 24 hour access of online shopping.” With time, Richards hopes that the platform will grow to feature 10 to 12 pickup pods and will be used by multiple businesses in the area. 

Shopping at these and other local businesses is a great way to support the Upper Valley business community. If you have a business that you think we should highlight, let us know at rebecca@vitalcommunities.org.

LISTEN community dinners go take-out

Before the pandemic, the doors of LISTEN’s Community Dinner Hall opened six days a week to welcome anyone in need of a warm dinner. Inside the handsome facility by the bridge linking White River Junction and West Lebanon, each guest was treated to a three-course meal, served on real plates and cutlery and with cloth napkins. “It’s wonderful to see the different friendships and conversations that come about from having those nightly meals,” said LISTEN executive director Kyle Fisher. “Some folks need that food because of a disability or an inability for whatever reason to cook for themselves. Some people are homeless, and that’s their only way of getting a warm cooked meal. And, you know, other folks come just for the conversation.” 

COVID-19 threw a wrench in the works, initially. It became no longer safe for the cooking to be done by alternating teams of volunteers, many of whom were seniors. Funding became a challenge when LISTEN’s thrift stores, which account for 80% of their revenue, had to temporarily close. The need for the dinners, however, was greater than ever. 

Overcoming these challenges has taken some ingenuity, as well as support from the community that LISTEN has always been the first to help. First, a grant from Upper Valley Strong allowed LISTEN to redeploy four warehouse and trucking employees as paid kitchen staff. One employee, who had worked previously as a cook at Jessie’s Restaurant in Hanover, has taken charge. “He’s now got his staff all trained up to be his sous-chefs,” joked Kyle.

That team is currently producing 200 to-go meals a day, up from an average of 100 meals served before the crisis. Some of those are picked up by the Upper Valley Response Team, a grassroots mutual aid network dedicated to working with COVID-19 relief initiatives. They are then brought to White River Junction, where folks experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity are currently being housed in hotels using state vouchers. 

The effort speaks to the possibilities when different service organizations work together. “The Upper Valley is just so different than anywhere else that I’ve seen,” said Kyle. “It’s an extremely tight-knit community where folks communicate and ensure that all the resources that are available get to the people who really need them.” 

Moving forward, LISTEN’s services, including their community dining service, will remain essential. If you are able, make a donation to help bridge the financial gap until the thrift stores can fully reopen and ensure that LISTEN is able to keep providing support to those who need it.

By Henry Allison. Pictured: from left, LISTEN employees Robert Broadwell, James Hutchins, and Jason Stauffer-Laurie prepare take out dinners. Meals can be picked up to-go Monday through Saturday from 5-5:30 at the LISTEN Community Dinner Hall, located at 42 Maple Street in White River Junction, Vermont. More information, along with the menu for June, can be found here

 

Isolate and Create: Local restaurant recipes, right from your kitchen

Ever wanted to cook a meal from a local restaurant in your own kitchen? Now you can! Released last Friday, the “Isolate and Create” digital cookbook features delicious recipes from 15 Vermont restaurants. All profits go to the Vermont component of the Restaurant Strong Fund, a national effort to provide grants to restaurant workers who have lost income due to the pandemic.

Creator Jenna Rice (above, left), who runs her own business as a freelance photographer, web designer and graphic designer, was inspired after seeing a friend in Boston start a similar project. She reached out to restaurants she knew for recipes and was connected to more by her friend Zea Luce and the Vermont Fresh Network

For help on the culinary side, she enlisted her sister, Nora Rice (above, right). Nora, who graduated last year from Ashburton Chefs Academy in the United Kingdom, had been working at the Herb Farm, a renowned restaurant in Woodinville, WA. Back in Hartland, Vermont to stay home and safe, the two teamed up to cook and photograph each dish.  

The digital cookbook has been an immediate success, with over $2,000 earned already. “I was surprised just by how willing everyone was to contribute a recipe and how many people have purchased it so far,” Jenna said. “I think it shows that we live in a pretty special and giving, supportive, community.” 

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The Isolate and Create digital cookbook can be purchased for $20 and includes delicious recipes from Putney Mountain Spirits in Putney, Mad River Distillers in Waitsfield, Kate Wise Cocktails and Spruce Peak in Stowe, Skunk Hollow Tavern and The Hartland Diner in Hartland, Public House Pub and Chef Brad’s Crazy Side in Quechee, Odyssey Events in Bridgewater, Michael’s On The Hill Restaurant in Waterbury Center, Bistro de Margot in Burlington, Piecemeal Pies in White River Junction, Richmond Community Kitchen in Richmond, Artisan Eats in Windsor, and Let’s Pretend Catering in South Hero.

All profits go to the Vermont component of the Restaurant Strong Fund, a national effort to provide grants to restaurant workers who have lost income due to the pandemic. 

Upper Valley Housing Update

A quick update on Upper Valley housing from our Workforce Housing Coordinator, Mike Kiess:

Support for people experiencing homeless and housing insecurity has been expanded on both sides of the river. In Vermont, the state has provided vouchers for 130 people without housing to stay in hotels. Thanks to the Super 8, South on Five, White River Junction Inn, and Comfort Inn for being partners in this effort. At the same time, organizations like the Upper Valley Haven that help with homelessness and housing insecurity are expanding services and outreach. Another example is LISTEN Community Services, which is providing free meals to those sheltering in White River Junction.  

There is concern moving forward that economic disruption from the pandemic will increase homelessness and housing insecurity. NH and VT advocacy groups are asking Concord and Montpelier to allocate CARES funds to continue expanded shelter and service support. Local organizations, such as Continuum of Care and Upper Valley Strong’s housing committee, are also working towards long term solutions. The goal is to help connect community members with available housing, possibly by working out deals with landlords or providing rent assistance. 

It is still too early to predict what the consequences for housing and housing finance markets will be. While a rise in joblessness and a fall in incomes is expected to hurt the housing market, demand among those who live in urban areas for “get away” locations could cause prices to rise. March real estate data did not show any decrease in transactions, which had started the year on a strong note. April data shows that prices have risen and supply has diminished as potential sellers are waiting to enter the market.

Going forward, housing affordability and availability is expected to remain a challenge, and the pandemic may be shifting our solutions. It does not seem that development costs will be reduced by the economic disruption, while public and business investor development funds are likely to be impacted. At the same time, there seems to be increased openness to creative partnerships for incremental creation of workforce housing through smaller projects and renovations.

New Partners and the Vermont Telecommuting Guide

One significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is the sheer number of people now working from home. Though telework is now normal for many, we are still trying to find the answers to many questions. How can collaboration occur without shared space? How can employers be sure their employees are actually working? What are the implications for health and wellness? If your office is your home, can you ever leave the office?

Vital Communities and the Chittenden Area Transportation Management Association (CATMA) are answering these questions with a statewide telecommuting guide. The guide, now in development, will provide resources for both employers and employees to make sure that a shift to working from home isn’t accompanied by a loss of structure and support. 

The collaboration is a new type of partnership between our organizations. We haven’t collaborated before on a project like this,” says Vital Communities Transportation Manager Bethany Fleishman, “but it’s something we both need. We thought, ‘This is so obvious. We should be doing this together.’ It’s nice to know that we’re producing something that will be useful, not just for the Upper Valley, but for people all over the state.”

On Tuesday, Twitter announced that its employees will be allowed to work from home “forever.” It’s a signal that telecommuting isn’t just relevant in a pandemic. There are permanent advantages, from reducing fossil fuels, to reducing barriers for those who live in rural areas as well as folks who have disabilities or illnesses that make it hard to leave the home. Hopefully this upcoming guide, as well as the new partnership formed in its creation, will have an impact that lasts beyond our current situation. Stay tuned!

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Image (“Working vs Chores”) by Charles Deluvio

UV Strong: what is it, what’s it doing, and how can we help?

In the wake of 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, Upper Valley organizations and volunteers scrambled to identify and support emergency needs in their communities. To better coordinate and serve, a coalition of over 45 human service agencies and faith-based organizations formed Upper Valley Strong. UV Strong is active only in times of crisis, and this spring the coalition came back together to respond to the pandemic. UV Strong works to determine the needs of the community, to increase coordination between those trying to help, and to gather and distribute funds to aid their efforts.

A simple, powerful example of the coordination efforts is the Childcare and Family Resources page on the UV Strong website. Well-organized resources for locating childcare for essential workers, financial assistance for families needing childcare, baby supplies, COVID-specific parental education, and child abuse and domestic violence support are collected together. By facilitating a dialogue between the organizations who work to support families, UV Strong helps ensure that needs are effectively met while avoiding the duplication of services. Even more importantly, having everything in one place makes it easier for parents to find and utilize the resources.

UV Strong also collects and distributes funds. Over $60,000 dollars, donated by community members and organizations such as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, have already gone out to support local efforts. These funds have helped the Upper Valley Haven set up a new outdoor food tent and Willing Hands to put an additional truck on the road, bringing food to the people and organizations that need it. Another grant has allowed LISTEN to add a paid kitchen staff in order to meet a 125% increase in demand for its community dining program.

Barbara Farnsworth, manager of community health improvement at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and co-chair of UV Strong, says we all can be part of UV Strong by checking in with our neighbors. “See how people are doing and if they need help. Many folks can’t get out right now to get their groceries or medications. Or maybe they’re at an age where they are high-risk, so they’re not comfortable getting out. Neighbors helping neighbors is one of the really essential ways for us to get through this.” She recommends using the UV Strong website to familiarize ourselves with the broad range of services available in our communities, and then reaching out to neighbors.

As the first peak of the pandemic recedes but its impact persists, UV Strong’s work remains vital. By giving time and/or money if we are able, we can ensure that support services reach the people who need them.

School Food Workers Ensure Local Kids are Fed

“Food is nourishing,” said Craig Locarno, food service director for the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, when asked why it’s so important that students continue to have access to school meals during the shutdown. “I always say this, and I’m gonna continue to say it until I stop working in school food service. Food is just as important as English and math and history. It’s part of our culture, and we need to provide them something great.” 

Last Friday, May 1st, was National School Lunch Hero Day. This year the name feels especially apt, as school food employees have continued to go to work so that local kids can stay safe and well fed at home. Vital Communities spoke to three local food service directors about the challenges of providing food during a pandemic. For all of them, the solutions came through collaboration between food employees, teachers, bus drivers, and volunteers.

When schools shut down in March, quick adaptations were needed to keep producing food in a safe way. “Both of our kitchens [in Bethel and Royalton] are older-style kitchens, so there’s not a lot of extra room,” said Willy Walker, food service manager for the White River Valley School District. “We had to take a real strong look at how to break that up, how to reschedule people, split up their times in the kitchen, times in our cafeteria, and set up separate prep stations outside of the kitchen.” 

Employee safety goes beyond maintaining physical distance. Gretchen Czaja, food service director for the Windsor Central Unified District, added that staying healthy is just as important. “Masks and gloves, that’s the easy stuff. The hard stuff is making sure that you’re sleeping and staying hydrated, and making sure we’re taking care of each other.” She ensures that her employees, who are currently all working together out of Woodstock Union High School, understand that by staying healthy themselves they are keeping students safe.

Once the food is prepared, the final hurdle is getting it to families. Every district is finding a unique solution. In Windsor, Hartland, and Weathersfield, meals are packaged centrally and then sent out to families on school buses. In Bethel and South Royalton, parents pick up the meals at the schools, which operate as “open sites,”  free for anyone under 18. For students in Woodstock, Killington, Barnard, and Reading, there is now an “open site” at the Woodstock Elementary School. Additionally, paraeducators have been using their own cars to deliver meals to students enrolled in free and reduced breakfast and lunch. “We put a big spreadsheet together and then they figured the routes out on Google Maps,” said Gretchen. “It’s just amazing, the massive team effort that went on to switch gears during this crisis and be able to get food out to our most vulnerable families. And it was the relationships between the special education department and the food service department that really allowed that to happen.” 

“It’s truly been a community effort,” echoed Willy, describing the process in Royalton and Bethel, where volunteers have been helping to package while his teams prepare the meals. “I’m always so moved by that. If it wasn’t for my staff and the volunteers and the teachers that come in to help out, none of this would have ever happened.” 

It’s not only physical nourishment they are supplying, either. By providing food, schools are also providing stability, an important and elusive commodity in the midst of a crisis. “When people get back to me, they’re thankful for the normalcy that we’re giving them,” Willy said. “The routines for the kids, even just of having the milk cartons, are so important.” 

Craig added that he thinks the work being done now will have a lasting effect. “It’s all about community. And I think this is a huge opportunity to build trust in our students and in our community that we’re here for them and we care for them. The struggle we always have in school food service is getting the buy-in that we have a quality product. So they’re gonna see that we’re serving them good quality and good tasting food, on a daily basis. And I think that’s gonna have an impact.”

For many families in the Upper Valley, the impact has already been felt. So although National School Lunch Hero Day has passed, keep thanking the folks who make sure Upper Valley kids have a daily meal, and a milk carton too.

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By Henry Allison. Photo of food prep at Woodstock High School courtesy of Gretchen Czaja. This and other similar stories can be followed at #communitiesfeedkids.

 

Dan & Whit’s Takes a Central Role in Norwich COVID-19 Response

Dan Fraser, owner of Dan and Whit’s general store in Norwich, is posting often on the Norwich Discussion List these days, usually opening with an inspirational quote. “‘Leaders never use the word failure. They look upon setbacks as learning experiences,’  (Brian Tracy).” “‘The true test of leadership is how you function in a crisis,’ (Brian Tracy).” “‘The three C’S of leadership are consideration, caring and courtesy. Be polite to everyone,’ (Brian Tracy).” Who is Brian Tracy? Dan says, “I have no idea who he is. He just has a lot of motivational quotes that seem to apply.”

Dan’s dry sense of humor is obvious on the phone as well as List posts. “I think it’s good to poke fun at ourselves, a little bit,” he told me, “to give some sense of normalcy to this time when there is no normalcy.” The List posts are more than motivational, though. They keep Norwich updated on the many projects Dan & Whit’s has undertaken for the community.

They’ve started a grocery delivery fund for folks who have lost their jobs, and a Feed the Front Lines fund through which people nominate medical professionals to receive free dinners. Another program allows community members to anonymously buy lunch for police officers, firefighters, and postal workers. Dan is collecting milk bottles for McNamara Dairy  and Strafford Organic Creamery, and raising money for a Victory Gardens Fund, which will help community members establish gardens. More donations have been used to purchase groceries for the Haven. Dan & Whit’s is also encouraging Norwich residents to display unity by putting white ribbons up in their yards, and eggs in their windows for a local Easter egg hunt. For many, the crisis has only emphasized the importance of a town general store. “People are realizing that we are here for them, and that as much as they need us, we need them,” Dan said.

As for what folks can do to support their local businesses, Dan told me the most important thing is shopping locally and helping others if you are in a position to do so. “We’re all in this together, and sometimes you’re gonna need some help. And if you can help someone else, that’s great too. So it just depends which side of the coin you’re on at the time.” Step aside, Brian Tracy, because Dan’s sentiment would be a great motivational quote for a Community Discussion List post.

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Vital Communities will be posting periodic updates on local businesses who have adapted to continue providing services for the Upper Valley. If you have a story for us to share, please email info@vitalcommunities.org.

From Fashion to Face Masks

On March 4th, Fat Hat clothing in Quechee was on track for its most profitable quarter ever. The brand’s easy-to-wear designs were in catalogues, such as Artful Home, and over 200 stores. That day, a truck left Los Angeles loaded with fabric destined for Fat Hat’s factory in New York City. Shortly after, California declared a state of emergency, and by the time the truck arrived in New York, a state of emergency had been declared there, too.

“It got to New York to unload and there was nobody there,” says Joan Ecker, founder and designer at Fat Hat. “Nobody was allowed to be. The elevators were shut down and the guy’s in the truck with all the fabric, with no place to go.” She couldn’t send it back to California, so the cloth sat in the truck for four days before she found someone in Long Island who could hold it. It’s still there today, waiting for the economy to reopen. Unable to continue production, and with further shutdowns closing their sales outlets, Joan and the Fat Hat team found a new direction: using their existing fabric supply to sew and donate face masks to those in the Upper Valley who need them. 

The face mask project emphasizes the family in family business. Joan cuts and irons the fabric herself, which her daughter’s boyfriend Leon Guedel then sews. Her daughter Jen organizes mask delivery while her other daughter Sara comes in once a week to staff the phones. Fat Hat’s main sewer, Lak Vorachak, and her sister-in-law, Linda Louangkhoth, continue to work from home. Another employee, Erica O’Hara, cuts more fabric in the basement. Fat Hat has already produced over 1,300 masks, which have found their way to housing developments, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Veterans Administration Hospital, local grocery stores, the correctional system, and more.

Community members can support Fat Hat’s efforts and help keep them in business by purchasing gift certificates. Fat Hat is also gladly accepting phone orders for clothing that they have in stock. “We are sitting here waiting for those phone calls happily, and we love to hear from people,” Joan says. “We’re like personal shoppers.” Given their expert questions about fit preferences and custom alterations, Fat Hat has gotten almost no returns.

And really, what better way to help a local business than by having your style personally customized by your brand’s designer herself? A new outfit might be just the thing to bring a little brightness into some difficult days.

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To order a Fat Hat Face Mask for pick up or delivery, call (802) 296-6646. You can also browse Fat Hat’s clothing collections at https://fathat.com/ and find them on Facebook. Orders must be made over the phone.

Vital Communities will be posting periodic updates on local businesses who have adapted to continue providing services for the Upper Valley. If you have a story for us to share, please email info@vitalcommunities.org.