Hotel rooms

Old Salt flips hotel rooms to give private dining a new meaning

HAMPTON — Rooms Nos. 35 and 39 at Lamie’s Inn will be open for lunch and dinner this winter, as the Old Salt transforms some hotel rooms into secluded dining rooms to weather the pandemic.

Both rooms have been turned into dining rooms with single tables seating 6 to 8 people, groups of six currently allowed by the state to bring an additional four children. Joe Higgins, owner of the Old Salt and its neighbor Lamie’s Inn on Route 1, said the idea was born out of the need to survive winter and its limited outdoor seating.

“We’re trying to think outside the box a bit,” said Higgins, whose outdoor dining tent in the Old Salt parking lot will be taken down next week. “We try to do what we can.”

Restaurant owners have tried new ways to make their restaurants safer for customers as COVID-19 numbers rise. The Galley Hatch has set up two heated plastic igloos in its parking lot for dinner parties for up to six people and outdoor seating during the winter. She and others have invested in HVAC upgrades like ultraviolet lights that kill viruses and bacteria when the air is circulated, a purchase Higgins said he was also considering.

The number of daily new cases has increased since the summer and November 13 saw a record high for New Hampshire with 462 new cases. The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 447 cases Wednesday, Nov. 18, and two new deaths.

“We average 350 cases a day in New Hampshire, every day. We’re nervous about what’s going to happen,” Higgins said.

According to Higgins, The Old Salt has lost around 25% of its revenue due to the pandemic, although this summer they have kept themselves afloat with a robust takeout operation and capitalized on mostly sunny weather. When dine-in service was temporarily banned starting on St. Patrick’s Day, the Old Salt sold 373 meals of corn beef and cabbage with a take-out service.

Their tent was pitched on May 18, and guests enjoyed live music, heaters once fall came, and four wild rabbits who snuggled around guests throughout the season. The Old Salt put a little house for the bunnies to explore near the dining room, and they occasionally wandered near the tables.

As the Old Salt prepares to take down its tent, Higgins said he hears some customers still aren’t ready to dine inside. That uncertainty led the Old Salt to cancel reservations for around 700 people for Thanksgiving Day, instead preparing to do a similar St. Patrick’s Day takeout operation. He said part of the reason was to get ahead of any other potential last-minute cancellations, as people are wary of being inside. Groups of more than six people are allowed to book, even if they are separated into tables of six.

“If a group of 20 a day before calls and says, ‘Grandma is sick, we can’t come in,’ we just lost that group of 20 and we won’t fill it up,” Higgins said.

Lamie’s Inn has had its own downturn. He said the hotel wouldn’t normally be busy at this time of year, but bookings were down about 40%. It made sense, he said, to try secluded dining rooms to attract more guests who might be reluctant to walk through the Old Salt dining room. Guests can enter the hostel without taking more than a few steps through the restaurant to access their dining rooms.

While Higgins has fears about what winter will bring, he hopes new hotel room dining spaces will make the Old Salt safer and more appealing to guests amid the pandemic. He said rooms will be reserved the same way restaurant reservations work, so a reservation will be required. He doesn’t know if the one-room TV will stay up, perhaps for a group to watch football on a Sunday afternoon.

The rooms have air conditioning units and additional ventilation in the bathroom to circulate the air. He said the hotel hallways also had alternative exits to allow people to exit comfortably without passing through the restaurant again.

“They can bring Grandma here,” Higgins said. “From the customer’s point of view, they can be quite safe.”