MEREDITH, NH. — Meredith, New Hampshire is a New England treasure and tourist destination. To restaurant owner Sim Willey, it’s home.
“Relaxation, tradition and peace and serenity up here,” said Willey of what the town gives to him and all who visit.
The clear lake, beautiful trees and colonial architecture are why families have long vacationed here and why many families chose this town to build their own American dream.
“Hart's Turkey Farm was started by my grandfather in 1954,” said Willey. “He came out of New York City to be a farmer in New Hampshire.”
But the farming business didn’t take off for Grandpa Hart, so he started a restaurant: Hart’s Turkey Farm.
“I’m the third-generation owner,” said Willey. “My son is also a co-manager here, so I now have the fourth generation in here.”
From homemade desserts to catered events with hundreds of guests, Hart’s Turkey Farm made a holiday meal an everyday tradition until last March.
“On the sixteenth, I employed almost two hundred people, full and part-time,” said Willey. “On the seventeenth, I was down to, I held on to eight employees.”
In an instant, Willey watched his life’s work nearly slip away.
“Like that, I'm right back down here,” he said. “It's very humbling, and, you know, now, I'm doing dishes. I'm doing anything I can to survive.”
His employees are in survival mode, too.
“It’s something you see in a movie where it's like a ghost town, where everyone’s just standing around waiting for someone to show up,” said the restaurant’s bartender and server Cody Bryant.
Across town, Charles Clark runs Castle in the Clouds, a popular museum and wedding venue overlooking the lake. Ninety percent of his events were canceled last year, so they shut down completely for the winter.
“It made more financial sense and more safety sense to stay closed,” said Clark. “So, it's been quite a long time, since October of last year, that we've had any visitors."
Hotels and home rentals fared far better than restaurants and attractions in and around the lake.
“It was actually the best season that we had last year,” said Chrissy Labrie, general manager for the Lakes Region home rental company Natural Retreats.
Labrie anticipates this summer to be even better.
“We have calls every day of people looking for places here. We are almost at full capacity for the summer already," Labrie said.
Amy Landers, executive director of the Lakes Region Tourism Association, says the restaurants and attractions had a harder time last year because of capacity limits, but hotels saw lots of visitors and longer visits from families than usual.
“We were hit hard, obviously, like everyone else last spring,” said Landers.
However, she says once the governor allowed hotels and rentals to open up, the demand exploded.
“July, August, and even all the way through the fall were very, very strong and continued to be strong later in the season than we’ve ever seen through November, December, and right on," she said.
But this summer, there is hope for more than just the hotels in this lakeside community.
“The tourism industry seems like it's poised for a rebound,” said Clark.
Hotels are already booking up.
“We are projected to have sold-out weekends from June through September,” said Laura Leslie of Mill Falls at the Lake, a group of hotels around Lake Winnipesaukee.
Weddings are back on.
“Weddings for all of 2021 are basically sold out,” said Clark.
And for business owners in this tourist town, it seems the outlook to the summer is giving them another chance to survive.
“Last year, we lost everything,” said Willey. “This year, you know, on the books, we're overbooked, and we're extremely excited about it.”
Willey just hopes he won’t have to serve the summer rush on a skeleton crew.
“Now, all of a sudden, we're in a severe labor shortage and so I am a little concerned about how we all are going to survive that piece of it because so many people have not come back to work yet,” said Willey.
So, each day, Willey works to recruit a new team to handle the crowds, eager that they’ll see this tourist town and this business for what it truly is.
“At the end of the day, it's my heart and soul,” he said.