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Opening Restaurants Amid a Pandemic

Published Thursday Sep 3, 2020

Gary “Diz” and Judi Window, owners of Diz’s Downtown. Photo by Christine Carignan.

Opening a new restaurant is a risky endeavor even in a good economy, never mind a pandemic. Yet even in this crisis, new restaurants are attempting to make a go of it. COVID-19 hit two weeks before Diz’s Downtown was slated to open, delaying the launch of the cafe until late May. And when COVID-19 forced the owners of Vulgar Display of Poutine to close their doors in rural Island Pond, Vt., they decided to relocate to the growing town of Littleton instead, where they hope to open in July.

Gary “Diz” and Judi Window have extensive restaurant and hospitality industry experience. Diz has worked in restaurants since he was 16 and has been a chef at several area establishments. Meanwhile, wife Judi founded the Granite State Ambassadors program.

After the couple decided they wanted a restaurant of their own in Manchester, they began searching for a location in earnest last fall. The couple heard Lorena’s Cantina was closing and contacted the building owner. The couple took over in January, stripping the 2,800-square-foot space down to its bones.

Judi describes Diz’s as a hybrid: made-from-scratch comfort food with a fast service mentality. Menu items include sandwiches, burgers, meatloaf, as well as a “build your own” meal option where customers can choose a protein, three sides and a sauce. Before they could open the dining room, the Windows offered window service for pick up orders. They later added outdoor seating. The indoor service allows guests to order via a kiosk or online instead of through a server. Judi notes that was their concept from the start though they had no idea how critical that decision would end up being.

Judi says if they were going to be sidelined by the pandemic, the timing actually worked as they did not have staff to lay off and they hadn’t stockpiled food yet. While they still had money in reserves, they were able to secure $30,000 in PPP funding. It took six weeks past their original start date before they could open. And they now have 15 employees. “It’s way slower than we initially thought,” Window says, but she adds people are starting to venture out more.

Ryan Fisher, chef owner of Vulgar Display of Poutine, and co-owner Shannon Shepard, are partners in business and life.

While relocating during the pandemic seems audacious, audacity is part of Fisher’s makeup. He was previously a drummer in a touring punk rock band. It was during those tours that Fisher yearned to feed his love of cooking. He wanted to open a food truck focused on poutine—that Canadian specialty that combines fries, cheese curd and gravy.

Ryan Fisher, left, and Shannon Shepard, co-owners of Vulgar Display of Poutine. Courtesy photo.

Like many musicians, Fisher spent most of his life working in restaurants. While the food truck never materialized, Fisher and Shepard launched a pop-up poutine business in 2016 serving crowds at events and breweries. By 2019, they opened a restaurant in Vermont. “It is a versatile dish. It’s almost like pizza. You’re able to put many toppings on it,” Fisher says, adding everything is made from scratch. Offerings have ranged from a vegan option with charred broccoli and seitan to one topped with slow cooked pork shoulder, bacon and onion jam, and crispy shiitake mushrooms.

Vulgar Display of Poutine initially did well in Island Pond despite its remote location. “We were shocked. It got 50,000 shares on Facebook,” Fisher says.

However, a mild abbreviated winter season meant fewer snowmobilers and tourists that threatened the viability of the restaurant. The couple heard a space was opening up in Littleton, a town they have frequently visited. “It was refreshing to see young faces. There was a scene here that we were missing,” Fisher says of Littleton. And the couple saw the success of such businesses as Schilling Beer Company there. “Over the past couple of years [Littleton] has seen more young people moving here and opening businesses. There is a community of like-minded restaurants here.”

They began talks with the owner of Thayer’s Inn just before the pandemic hit. Fisher says they decided they needed to act now despite the crisis. As of press time, the couple were signing papers for the space and applying for a liquor license with plans to open in July.

Vulgar Display of Poutine will initially offer take out and is investigating outdoor dining. The couple hopes to open in time to participate in the 2020 NH Poutinefest Road Show.

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