As maple syrup making goes on, sugar shacks adjust to pandemic rules 

  • Holt gets ready to open his family-style breakfast shack as the sap begins to run this week. COVID-19 regulations have changed the requirements around seating as well as condiments and utensils. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Holt, owner of Steve’s Sugar Shack, and his daughter Stephanie, move tables as they get ready to open the family style breakfast shack under the Covid-19 restrictions. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Julie, Steve and their daughter Stephanie Holt, owner of Steve’s Sugar Shack in Westhampton, move and measure the family style tables in the breakfast shack to met Covid-19 requirements. The sap should start running this week and the sugar shack will open March 6. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Holt, owner of Steve’s Sugar Shack, and his daughter Stephanie, move tables as they get ready to open the family style breakfast shack with the Covid-19 regulations. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Stephanie Holt and her father Steve Holt , owner of Steve’s Sugar Shack in Westhampton, move chairs and tables in the family style breakfast shack to adjust for the new Covid-19 regulations. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steve Holt, owner of Steve’s Sugar Shack in Westhampton, measures the family-style tables to make sure they meet the COVID-19 requirements before opening March 6. Behind him is his daughter Stephanie Holt. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2021 7:28:00 PM

WESTHAMPTON — As February nears its end, sugar shacks in Massachusetts are reaching their most important part of the year: the four- to six-week period where below-freezing temperatures at night and daytime temperatures in the 40s allow sugarmakers to harvest the sap needed to make maple syrup.

In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted most aspects of everyday life, the natural process that facilitates sugarmaking remains unaffected. But even so, sugarmakers — especially those who usually host sit-down dining at their sugar shacks — are anticipating a quieter season due to social distancing and public health regulations.

For Steve Holt, owner of Steve’s Sugar Shack in Westhampton, the pandemic has forced “the opposite of what my intent with the sugarhouse was,” he said.

“My intent was to bring people together to eat at the old family-style tables, to sit together and chat,” Holt continued. “But now with COVID, I have to do the opposite.”

The shack will open on March 6 with modifications to its usual setup. In past years, patrons would flock to the restaurant’s 10-foot-long tables to sit among each other and enjoy pancakes and French toast slathered in the shack’s signature homemade syrup. This year, some of the long tables remain set up, but spaced at least 6 feet apart and unable to accommodate the typical 10 people they’re designed for. Under state guidelines, dine-in restaurants can seat up to 40% of their usual capacity, and the size of a party seated at one table maxes out at six people.

For Steve’s Sugar Shack, that means seating 20 to 30 people at once, which Holt said will bring the restaurant’s daily traffic down from 200 to 300 customers per day to 120. All customers must make advance reservations before coming to the shack.

These numbers won’t turn the profit the sugar shack hopes for, Holt said. But ultimately, he felt he needed to open for the season.

“I wanted to open even if it’s not financially wise, because I think people really enjoy coming to the sugarhouse in the spring,” said Holt, who has run the sugaring operation for 22 years in Westhampton. The opening of sugarhouses each year stirs excitement that spring is around the corner, he added, and “I wanted to still give that feeling to as many people as I could.”

Julie Holt, a hostess at the sugar shack and Steve’s wife, also felt that the restaurant needed to open for its loyal customers.

“We’re taking every precaution to keep people safe,” she said, “and there are a lot of people just waiting for us to open our doors so they came come back, because it’s like they’re all family.”

In addition to the difficulties lower seating capacities pose to all restaurants, sugarhouses last year were just getting into the thick of their seasons when the pandemic struck in the U.S., leading to the state’s shutdown order in mid-March.

For many sugar shacks, sit-down dining is only offered during the relatively short sugar season. In the case of Steve’s and some other local sugar shacks, dining is only available on weekends. This year, Steve’s has also limited its dine-in availability to just the four weekends of March, rather than the seven weekends that stretch between late February and early to mid-April.

While sugar season may allow just a handful of days of sit-down dining even during typical years, sugarhouses value this period immensely, both for financial and sentimental reasons.

Not opening

In Worthington, The Red Bucket Sugar Shack family made the difficult decision to remain closed for this season, said owner LeAnn Mason. After 42 years in business, this year’s pause will be poignant for staff and patrons, she noted.

“We’ve watched families grow up,” Mason said. “We’ve watched families bring their second families, third families … That’s going to be the most difficult part — not seeing all these wonderful people that come and see us every year, as well as the new people who come to see us, too.”

But due to health and safety concerns — particularly as new strains of COVID-19 circulate — and difficulties posed by the state’s regulations, opening “just didn’t feel right to us at the time,” Mason said.

While The Red Bucket will remain closed this year, the staff looks forward to reopening for the 2022 season, Mason said. Until then, she encourages customers to show their support in spirit and continue to visit local sugar shacks that did choose to open this year.

In addition to Steve’s Sugar Shack, another sugarhouse that chose to open in a limited capacity this year was the North Hadley Sugar Shack, which began serving dine-in patrons in mid-February and is open daily. Co-owner and manager Shelly Boisvert said she hopes to remain open for in-person dining through April, as in typical years, though the shack has yet to finalize an end date due to the somewhat unpredictable nature of how long sugar season will last.

“After 26 years of doing this and being shut down early last year, we have adjusted very well,” Boisvert said, “and we’re just hoping that people realize we are here, we’re safely serving and we’re going to run our sugaring season.”

State regulations have cut the restaurant’s usual capacity from 80 to 32, and the sugar shack has also added outdoor seating on its front porch with pellet stoves nearby for warmth.

Boisvert acknowledged that some people are not comfortable with sit-down dining at the moment, but said that there are other ways to support local sugarhouses. North Hadley is offering to-go breakfast bundles, while Steve’s also has to-go options. North Hadley runs its market year-round, and Steve’s sells its maple syrup directly to customers throughout the year.

Patrons can also still watch the boiling process at North Hadley, though from a distance, and observe sugarmakers tap trees behind the shack.

“It’s a big time for us,” Boisvert said, “and we’re hoping that our local community realizes that small businesses like ours need the support.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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