Best of NH 2021 Above and Beyond All-Stars
14,527: that’s how many readers made their favorites known to determine this year’s roster of winners for our annual poll of the best stuff in our state. Meanwhile, our editors also got some help with their picks when we invited readers and advisers to nominate some “Above and Beyond All-Stars” — each managing to defy the downturn of the pandemic and carry on (safely, of course) serving their communities in spite of all the setbacks and challenges of the past year.
ABOVE AND BEYOND ALL-STARS: FOOD AND DRINK
When grocery store shelves were empty and items from flour to veggies to toilet paper became scarce, when endless days of homeschooling and caregiving sapped time and energy and families found themselves hungry and stressed at the end of the day, The Refinery was ready with some Southern comfort. This Andover BBQ/comfort food spot provided just that. Readers who found themselves in need described The Refinery as “a lifeline” and “essential to surrounding communities.” In addition to becoming a temporary provider of essentials and feeding its neighbors during a difficult time, its staff and owners sponsored virtual charitable events and cooked and donated meals for churches and food pantries. One neighbor put it best: “Good people, good food, good works.” The Refinery radiates a special glow in this small Merrimack County town.
Feeding Neighbors (and Beyond)
There’s no “S” hidden beneath his shirt, but a lot of people think he’s a hero nonetheless. During the worst of the pandemic this past year, Kaylon Sweet, owner/chef of Osteria Poggio restaurant in Center Harbor, provided meals, free meals, to thousands of people who were having a tough time.
After the pandemic shut down his restaurant, he used his kitchen and his suppliers (“I told them, if you’re throwing stuff out, I can use it”) to begin the effort that would create 9,000 meals. And it didn’t stop there. Among other things, he formed partnerships to raise money for organizations that feed the hungry. More outreach efforts, like a community kitchen, are planned.
As Sweet says, “A restaurant can be more than a restaurant. I know if you put good out in the world, it comes back to you.” And, he adds, “It’s not just me.” He credits all those who are helping him in the work.
Some of the high praise from the community:
“It is people like Kaylon that truly make the world a better place,” writes Sara.
Courtney writes: “They’re always looking for ways to give back to the community, even after all of the hardships the restaurant industry faced this past year.”
Going the Extra Mile
Granite Staters take pride in preserving the past, but even so, many historic buildings are deemed too troublesome (and expensive) to save. In 2013, with only $5,000 to his name, Rudy Rosalez took over operations at The Woodbound Inn in Rindge. Originally built in 1819, the charming and rustic spot was struggling financially when Rosalez stepped in. By 2019, the inn and its restaurant, The Grove, were enjoying new life, and Rosalez was able to purchase the entire property. Then came COVID-19. Take-out alone wouldn’t cut it, so Rosalez and his staff turned the beautiful grounds and an old golf course into a magical outdoor dining experience with lights, music and excellent food — and it was a hit. Outdoor dining was so popular, in fact, that Rosalez was able to reopen the Hometown Diner and rehire about 90% of the staff. Why go the extra step beyond the inn? “Closed businesses equal closed towns,” says Rosalez.
Alan Natkiel goes above and beyond for his guests at Georgia’s Northside in Concord, and his community-centered service goes well beyond the walls of his restaurant. “From donating turkeys to bringing free meals to hospital staff during the COVID surge, the team at Georgia’s Northside have exemplified ‘doing it right’ while doing incredible, people-first business throughout the pandemic,” says Mark Hoban. “Alan and Nate have worked tirelessly to keep the community and their employees safe, fed and sane. They are an absolute boon and deserve every ounce of recognition they get,” he adds.
“Alan went above and beyond to offer excellent, unique eats for takeout, keeping staff and customers safe,” says Jana Ford. “He also started selling masks and sanitizer at cost because the prices were so high elsewhere, and he wanted to provide that service to the community. To promote a safe Halloween, he offered bags of candy and treats with every order! A great community leader.”
Social media helped Natkiel get the word out during the pandemic, and he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon. “We’ve always used social media to market our menu, but since the start of the pandemic, we’ve increasingly used it as a way for us to boost community spirit,” he says. “Even though it seems like things may start returning to normal soon, I have every intention of continuing to run a restaurant that is a community hub.”
Food with a Powerful Purpose
The team at Laney & Lu in Exeter believes that food serves a greater purpose than filling our stomachs — that it has the power to build connection and create a sense of community. They lived out this mission over the past year with their “Help Others” movement to provide nutrient-dense and energizing meals to support and nourish those who need it most. “During the pandemic, Laney & Lu proudly leaned boldly on our mission and values to serve our community,” says owner Jennifer Desrosiers. “Our initiative not only provided more than 4,000 free meals to first responders, healthcare workers and those in need, it also gave our team powerful purpose during an incredibly uncertain time and positively impacted our more than two dozen local farmers and merchants.” As stressful, unpredictable and unprecedented as this year has been, the smiles and tears of joy on tired, worn-out faces as they receive their meals kept Desrosiers and her team going. “What I will remember most are the air high fives amidst the team as we sent off meals to local hospitals, and the fear and exhaustion on the faces of nurses melting into joy as I unloaded boxes of meals to them.” The gratitude and energy behind the movement is a present reminder that a deeper level of joy, love, support, kindness and connection is the new normal.
Breakfast for Good Neighbors
When the pandemic shut everything down, owner Josh Mitchell from Luchador Tacos in North Conway saw it as an invitation to spread joy to other local businesses with one message — We are all in this together.
“We decided to deliver breakfast burritos to fellow locally owned businesses each Friday morning with this motto written on the bag,” says Mitchell. “It was a way for us to show them the same sense of unity and support that they showed us when we first opened. We saw them as extended family who were going through the same struggles we were. We are so lucky to be surrounded by such a great community as North Conway.”
The feeling is mutual. “The team at Luchador Tacos has gone above and beyond multiple times for supporting local business in our community,” says Four Your Paws Only manager Sarah Davis. “We were surprised that we were chosen to receive free burritos from them. The staff certainly enjoyed them, as most of us are regulars dining with our next-door neighbors.”
“It was a sweet surprise when they called us and said they wanted to treat our staff to breakfast,” says Big Dave’s Bagel owner Dave Hausman. “Since we are always serving our breakfast to others, it was nice to have breakfast served to us.”
There are a number of other stories from businesses with the same message: Luchador Tacos shared more than just breakfast burritos — they shared their love for food with friends and kept joy on the menu during a time when those receiving it needed it the most.
ABOVE AND BEYOND ALL-STARS: SHOPS AND SERVICES
Opening its doors way back in 1972, the Toadstool Bookshop has served a whole generation of book buyers. But, never, in all that time, has it faced anything as challenging as the pandemic. In March of this past year, all three of its locations, in Peterborough, Nashua and Keene, were closed down.
Facing an uncertain future, the family business had to lay off just about everyone. Soon, though, the phones were ringing off the hook, as they used to say, with customers ordering books to be delivered curbside. Online sales soared as well. The community support that Willard Williams and his family had built over the years paid off. “They wanted us to survive,” he says.
In mid-June last year, they were able to reopen, though social distancing was required and the comfy chairs that encouraged people to linger were gone. “That was our whole concept,” Williams says. “We want them to linger.”
But still they came. He’s grateful, he says, that people understand the importance of a local bookstore, not just to patrons but to the sense of community.
In January, the Toadstool Bookshop was named Retailer of the Year by the NH Retail Association for meeting the highest standards of excellence, and they did it during a difficult year. But Williams feels obliged to share the award. As he says, “Any retail store that’s still around is equally deserving.”
Just because her doors were closed for the last year didn’t mean that Meagan Sbat couldn’t keep working out and checking in with her clients. “Meagan and her crew of trainers have consistently gone above and beyond this past year. She cares for all her family of clients and reached out to us consistently this year making sure we are OK, and provided us with positive messages and quality training to help keep us healthy,” says Jean Picard. “I needed to have Get Fit NH, especially this year, to help with my physical and mental health. Meagan has been a lifesaver always, but especially this year when our lives have been turned upside down.”
As soon as gyms closed, says Lisa Baron, Sbat immediately turned to the web. “She never missed a beat,” says Baron. “As soon as gyms were allowed to be open, she was careful about social distancing and sanitizing and, when the location proved too small to accommodate all her clients, she rented a much larger facility and improved the distant requirements and so much more. Meagan cares so much about her clients, you know it is her life passion!”
Just as Sbat has been a rock for her clients, she insists that they supported her right back. “I can’t even put into words how grateful I am to serve the Get Fit NH community,” she says. “They have been my rock through COVID, and have given me a reason to fight for them because they continued to show up every single day.”
The Party Will Go On
Among the many tragedies caused by the pandemic are the innumerable missed events — birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays, and all the things big and small that bring us together. Even though gatherings were on hold, Victoria Maccini, owner of Party Through Life, created a way to help people keep celebrating life’s special moments with that familiar party staple — balloons.
But these aren’t just a bunch tied to a mailbox — these are works of art. But why balloons? Because, says Maccini, like the pop of a champagne cork, they’re shorthand for celebration. “You just know something fun is going to start when you see balloons,” she says.
“My family gave me a surprise birthday and the decorations were done so beautifully by Victoria,” says Sandra Pinelle. “She captured my love of sunflowers so perfectly! It brightened an otherwise horrid, isolated COVID birthday. The decorations were wonderful! I was also able to keep them up to cheer me through the weeks following my actual birthday. Words cannot express my thanks.”
Maccini also constructed a colorful explosion of balloons at her home to cheer up the neighbors, and donated displays to graduating seniors. “She didn’t even know the kids, she just saw the high school pride signs in the yard and showed up with beautiful displays,” says Brenda Prusak. “I know it made those poor kids feel better knowing their efforts were still celebrated. It was such a kind gesture.”
Make sure to follow her on Instagram at @party_through_life to see her latest creations.
ABOVE AND BEYOND ALL-STARS: ARTS AND CULTURE
Laugh it Up, Pay it Forward
Timberlane Regional High School’s Milkmen Improv Troupe is used to dealing with the unexpected — just not pandemic-level unexpected, maybe. Still, led by coach and teacher Michael Castano, 10 students — and four members of an in-house band, Udder Chaos — kept the laughs, and fundraising, coming through the entire lockdown.
“I love how the unifying factor of laughter can overcome our day-to-day trivialities,” Castano says. “We can find a level of catharsis through our comedy.”
Staying focused also allowed the group to continue to donate proceeds to nonprofits — something at the core of its mission. Recent beneficiaries have included Project Hope and the Exeter Field Hockey Memorial Scholarship.
“It goes hand in hand with what we’re doing — putting the team before your individual performance,” Castano says. “The kids are doing something truly altruistic. They may never interact with or meet with these people or their families; they’re just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Revamped Drive In
“When we were forced to close, there was a lot of talk about drive-in movies being the only potential form of entertainment available last summer,” says Scott Hayward of Tupelo Music Hall in Derry. “After surveying our property, it became clear that we could host drive-in shows. We quickly rebranded the venue as the Tupelo Drive-In Experience and opened on May 16 with new logos, a new schedule of events and COVID show policies. It was a daunting task but everybody worked together to make it happen, including the Town of Derry. We would never have been able to accomplish this without the help of our fantastic employees. We ended up hosting 115 events last year at the new drive-in.”
The experience gained local and national attention with sold-out events, a write-up in the Washington Post, and even a brief mention in Rolling Stone magazine. As the summer went on, Hayward and his team were able to see the impact their shows were having on their community and why they needed to continue.
“We were able to help a handful of nonprofits salvage their fundraisers, hosted graduations, held recitals, and made it so artists were able to make enough money to pay their mortgage for another month,” says Hayward. “People were afraid and hurting last year. It was nice to provide a musical outlet for people in such a chaotic world. Watching people dance in their parking spaces or just sit in the warm sun and enjoy the music really showcased the simple healing power of music.”
For over a decade, Building on Hope has organized massive community efforts to provide local nonprofits with critical physical updates to their buildings. These huge undertakings, which take months to plan, typically take place over two intense weeks during the summer “Extreme Home Makeover”-style. Volunteers from all backgrounds — contractors, painters, plumbers, interior designers, artists and many, many more — donate their time and expertise to bring new life to places such as Girls Inc. in Manchester, the Crisis Center of Central NH in Concord, the Manchester Police Athletic League and more. In total, more than 2,000 people and companies were involved over the years, and an estimated $6.2 million was raised in donated labor and materials. This year, though, co-chairs Jonathan Halle and Karen Van Der Beken — along with the committee members and volunteers — faced their biggest challenge yet: a pandemic.
In December 2020, Building on Hope finished the makeover of the Nashua Police Athletic League’s (Nashua PAL) 100-year-old facility, months after the initially planned two-week build. Due to safety concerns and restrictions, tasks that were usually accomplished concurrently with a swarm of volunteers had to be done one by one. It was a long, difficult process. But no one gave up.
Nashua PAL is a safe haven for local youth, where about 600 at-risk kids from the ages of 7 to 18 can find support, help with school work, mentoring, access to athletics and more. No one involved wanted to leave them without the space they promised. Today, from the exterior murals created by Positive Street Art to the brand-new Creative Learning Center, the once-shabby building was transformed into a welcoming home.
“At every turn, it exceeds all our expectations,” Shaun Nelson, executive director of Nashua PAL, recently told our sister publication New Hampshire Home Magazine. “I see the building as a tool for our organization to use to access, strengthen and educate our young community members. We’ve been doing this for a lot of years … and did a good job before, but with this new building, now we can do it even better. In every room you can feel love. … We’re going to change kids’ lives in this building.” You can read more about Building on Hope and the Nashua PAL project in Karen A. Jamrog’s recent story at nhhomemagazine.com.
And the Beat Goes On
As March 2020 turned into April, children’s music educator Mr. Aaron (aka Aaron Jones of Rattlebox Studio in Concord) realized staying home was the new normal. He took his regular in-person classes for kids ages 1 to 6 online, hoping to create some semblance of normalcy. “Not only is it a good educational experience for the kids to keep interacting and singing — and experiencing all those things that are good about music — it was also a really positive family experience,” says Jones. “It’s something for kids to do and look forward to, a chance to see a familiar face, and maybe it lets parents have a nap.”
Parents agreed, and dozens wrote in to share their appreciation for Jones’ efforts.
“As soon as the pandemic hit,” says Aimee Tucker, “he amped up his livestreams to allow those of us struggling to work from home with toddlers a much-needed mutual break. He works so hard and brings so much joy — I am eternally grateful to him for giving us that musical lifeline. Especially in the earliest days of lockdown.”
Alexandra Stewart agrees. “For those of us with young kids working from home with no childcare or school, Mr. Aaron helped give some enrichment, connection and structure to those days,” she says. “It felt like a lifeline. He created community when we couldn’t be together.”
When the pandemic hit last spring, food pantries and other organizations that supply food had trouble keeping their shelves stocked. Demand was high, and getting higher as each week went by. The New Hampshire Food Bank, which supplies a network of more than 400 organizations around the state, was hard-pressed to meet the demand.
Then came Project CommUNITY: NH Together From Home, an on-air fundraiser that, in April, collected a whopping $1.8 million to buy food for distribution by the Food Bank. The fundraiser was a joint effort of WMUR-TV and iHeartRadio, with on-air personalities Erin Fehlau, Sean McDonald and Greg Kretschmar hosting it.
Behind the scenes, spearheading the effort, were Kretschmar and Alisha McDevitt, WMUR news director. They organized the hourlong special, managing a mass of volunteers and star-studded support that included Adam Sandler, Seth Meyers, Ken Burns, Recycled Percussion, Matt Bonner and many others. “People really came together,” McDevitt says. “It was a team effort.”
The end result: More than 3,650,000 meals provided to those in need. Eileen Groll Liponis, executive director of the Food Bank, says, “Little did we realize how amazing this special event would be. [It] was beyond our wildest dreams.”
When most people were struggling with the decision about which puzzle to tackle next or which TV show to binge last year, Mike Chadinha and Seth McNally at Northlands (formerly Drive-In Live) began plotting a summer of live music at the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey. The venue began producing shows in July, and the season included artists like Guster, Blue Oyster Cult and the Allman Betts Band. Patrons would park in a staggered formation, sit in lawn chairs just to the left of their vehicles, and allow live music to wash over them under the stars — at the time, a very rare and welcome opportunity. Now, with a new season and a new procedure planned, (concertgoers will occupy 10-by-10 pods) comes a new name: Northlands. With Badfish, Indigo Girls and Dino Jr. already swinging through the Swanzey venue this year, expect to see the Marshall Tucker Band, Umphreys McGee and America, among others — keeping a welcome sense that things are getting better.
ABOVE AND BEYOND ALL-STARS: FUN AND ADVENTURE
How often do you get to see comedians who perform at sophisticated venues in New York City performing on a front porch in New Hampshire?
Answer: Never. Unless, that is, it’s in the middle of a pandemic.
Case in point: Last spring, comedians Connor Kwiecien and Trevor Glassman, both 20-something New Hampshire natives, left New York to wait out the pandemic at home. Not long after their arrival, they created Curbside Comedy, performing on front porches, lawns, parking lots, wherever people could set up socially distanced chairs.
Though it’s hard to know if people in masks are laughing, their goal was to add some funny to a situation that decidedly was not, and do what they love at the same time. Another goal — to raise money for Comedy Gives Back, which helps out struggling comedians, and Direct Relief, which helps people recover from disasters.
To date, they’ve done more than 40 pop-up shows and donated $6,000 of the proceeds. And they’re still at it, even expanding to all of New England with plans to go nationwide. Proving that adversity can create opportunity, Glassman says, “We’ve found a whole new area of comedy. We’re bringing comedy to the people.”
Lavender Fields of Joy
Owners Missy and Mike Biagiotti of Lavender Fields at Pumpkin Blossom Farm in Warner always knew their farm was a special place, but their experience over the last year solidified that they weren’t the only ones who noticed its magic. “With so much uncertainty and stress caused by COVID, our lavender field provided a place for guests to take a deep breath and find a retreat from day-to-day stress,” says Missy. “Nature provides its own healing, and we provided a place for people to enjoy it.” Throughout the year, Missy and Mike were able to host a wedding for a couple impacted by the pandemic, offer after-hours visits for immunocompromised guests, host retreats for teachers and mental health counselors, and provide lavender bunches to nursing homes as a way to bring the outdoors inside. Their generosity did not go unnoticed. “Lavender Fields at Pumpkin Blossom Farm and its owners have been a tremendous help to its local community, and really to the entire state during this trying time in our country,” says Tracey Schneider. “Even though they are a new business and struggling to stay afloat, they have opened their farm and hearts to many in need, like hosting healthcare workers at the farm and making special arrangements to pamper cancer patients. They go above and beyond to share their slice of heaven with as many people as possible.” For Missy and Mike, their mission is simple — serve the community. “We are fortunate stewards of this place for solace, and we are happy to share it with others,” says Missy. “We are one family welcoming other families to share in our home, our harvest, and our love of lavender.”