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The Yankee Express

Optimism for 2021 at bankHometown, MNB, and Hunter’s Grille

Feb 25, 2021 08:42AM ● By Rob Lee

Classic pub-style food is what keeps customers coming back to Hunter’s Grille & Tap.

The mood within the business community across the northern communities of the Blackstone Valley brightened considerably with Gov. Baker’s recent decision to allow restaurants, gyms and other establishments impacted by the coronavirus pandemic to increase capacity from 25% to 40% as part of a relaxing of previously stringent restrictions.

For Michael Mahlert, executive vice president and senior loan officer with bankHometown in Millbury, John T. Latino Jr., VP and chief operating officer of Millbury National Bank, and Jay Hunter, owner/operator of Hunter’s Grille & Tap at the Grafton Inn, Gov. Baker’s action was an encouraging sign.

Nevertheless, challenges remain.

This is especially true for restaurants, 20 percent of which in the state of Massachusetts have closed according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association—in what the National Restaurant Associaion describes as “the most challenging year ever for the industry.” 

One of the biggest mitigating factors, Mr. Hunter said, is alarm about the pandemic spread by newspapers, radio and television.

“The restrictions don’t impact us as much as the constant barrage from the media,” Mr. Hunter said on February 10. “People are now trained to live in fear and be home by 9:00 p.m.

“Our customers are starting to return but I feel this will be an ongoing two to five-year process to get everyone comfortable to dine out.”

Survival of restaurants during the pandemic hinges on a number of factors, Boston 25 News reported after an investigation. Among these are location, menu, clientele, alcohol sales, state and local restrictions and taxes. Good relationships with vendors, banks, financial backers and landlords can mean the difference between staying in business—or shutting your doors for good—Boston 25 News concluded.

As steward of the fortunes of Hunter’s Grille, Mr. Hunter tries to maintain a positive outlook. He is also a booster of other enterprises in town that are trying to work their way through the pandemic. Recently, for instance, he interviewed Cindy Wyman, owner of the Madison Place hair salon, as part of a “business-to-business” collaboration with Grafton Community Television.

Mr. Hunter likes to remind the public that there is more to the story than what they might be hearing or reading about.

“What most people don’t understand is that restaurants are cleaner than most houses,” Mr. Hunter said. “That’s because we’re in constant cleaning mode. Every time someone finishes dining with us we clean and sanitize their table and chairs. Every time we finish a task in the kitchen we clean and sanitize. Our HVAC system purifies the air. We do a thorough cleaning and sanitizing at the start and end of each day. Most folks only clean their house once a week. That’s the point we need to be aware of.”

Hunter’s Grille & Tap qualified for both rounds of PPP money available through the SBA, Mr. Hunter said. He still sees full recovery for restaurants like his as “a two to five-year process.”

Since the pandemic began, Mr. Mahlert said, the many conversations he’s had with small business owners left the impression that some are doing relatively well but that other sectors of the economy, like hotels and restaurants, are still suffering.

Mr. Mahlert has an explanation for why this is the case.

“During the most recent round of the SBA’s Payroll Protection Program, one of the qualifying factors for businesses was that they must demonstrate a 25% or greater reduction in revenues in at least one quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter of 2019. To date, we have received roughly half of the number of PPP loan applications we received in the first round, but believe that has much to do with businesses not being able to show the reduction in revenues. We believe this potentially shows some improvement in the economy (or at least, not a great enough reduction) in businesses’ performance year-to-year, which could be a reason for optimism.”

Mr. Latino offered a similar perspective from the viewpoint of Millbury National Bank.

“I would say we are cautiously optimistic,” Mr. Latino said. “We have seen the last year create a lot of challenges for many people in our community and for small businesses. However, I continue to be impressed by the fortitude and entrepreneurial spirit of small business owners. They really are the backbone of our community and our economy.

“People have not been traveling and have been receiving stimulus funds, and for the most part have been cautious about controlling what they can, and being prudent with saving.

“There have been some bright spots,” Mr. Latino said. “The trades are extremely busy and some businesses have actually seen their strongest year. The residential real estate market is very strong, and it seems to be driven by lack of inventory. This seems to support that it is not a bubble and with low rates here to stay for the foreseeable future, I expect the market will continue to remain strong. Homeowners are building equity, rental rates are strong, and there is a demand for construction and home improvement.

“Certainly the longer the pandemic continues the harder it will be for many. Certain industries have been hit very hard such as travel, entertainment, and hospitality. I think there is some pent-up demand for those industries when they reopen, which should hopefully help with a speedy recovery.

At MNB, Mr. Latino said, “we are watching the commercial real estate market for impacts of vacancies and reduced demand stemming from business closures and a migration to work from home. Some of the consumer behavior towards online will be a permanent shift, which is a challenge for the retail industry. Working from home will also likely have somewhat of a permanent shift—how long that remains is to be determined.

“I am hopeful that the post-pandemic economy will provide lots of opportunity for new entrepreneurs to start new businesses and that we can rebuild stronger than ever. Central Mass. is a hub for innovation, small business, education, biotech and many other industries. I think we are ripe for a strong recovery.”


Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.