DERRY — It's been Gina Hannon's dream to have a quaint, friendly spot for the community gather to enjoy conversation and coffee.
And that's what she has been serving up at Casa Java since 2017.
The rustic, intimate Birch Street business joins others in the area facing challenging times, with a pandemic putting a pinch on the way business is handled and that includes a year full of closures, less business, and unknown feelings of what lies ahead.
Casa Java is among a long list of Derry restaurants, breweries and wineries participating in Derry's first ever Restaurant Month all through February, an inaugural program to help spring some support behind the community's eateries.
Hosted by Derry Economic Development, the effort gives restaurants a chance to offer what they do best — whether it's sit-in service, delivery or take-out — as a way to keep those businesses vital and alive during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
According to Derry Economic Development Director Beverly Donovan, people can frequent their favorite restaurant listed on an official entry form, then get a stamp upon completion of a $10 minimum purchase, whether an in-person dining experience, take-out, gift card purchases, delivery or buying merchandise.
When six locations are visited and stamped, it's a win and a completed form can be turned in to Derry Economic Development at Derry's municipal center, or emailed to be eligible to win prizes. Customers can also present receipts of their purchases.
For Hannon, surviving through the pandemic has been challenging, but she credits her staff for helping keep customers safe. Right now the small cafe keeps tables socially distanced and customers can also call ahead to place their orders for pickup.
"It's been tough," Hannon said, adding the support of the community and various programs at the state and federal level helped a lot.
"It's the reason we are here if not for these," she said.
Donovan said although this is the time of year when restaurants normally see a slow trend, right after the holidays, the pandemic put added stress on many businesses.
For longtime business owner Lisa DeSisto, her flagship Rig A' Tony's in downtown Derry not only suffered coronavirus challenges, but also the hardships faced after a fire gutted the West Broadway building last May. DeSisto's South Avenue marketplace business remains open and she plans a new location in Windham later this year.
"It's been a challenging year," she said, "but I took the time to figure out what to do next."
DeSisto is grateful for her successful Italian take-out service and catering that has kept her going.
Some restaurants were supported through programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, loan incentives and the state's Main Street Relief Fund.
The town supported its businesses last summer, creating a new article within the town's rules to allow local restaurants to offer outdoor seating areas within the public right of way (sidewalks).
Several restaurants took advantage of that opportunity, including Cask and Vine and MaryAnn's on Broadway, and Amphora at Hood Commons.
As the weather got colder, other spots came up with ideas to keep patrons safe and warm, including Fody's Tavern that installed several outdoor garden-style domes for customers to enjoy.
The Tupelo Music Hall also obtained permission last year for outdoor dining in a specifically constructed tent area at the property at 10A St. The music venue hosted a successful outdoor drive-in music series last year and plans to do it again this summer.
Donovan said when she speaks to restaurant owners, they say there are still many challenges due to the ongoing pandemic, including limited in-person dining numbers and a shortfall in business overall.
"Overall, the sense in town is everybody is holding their own," Donovan said. "But some are doing better than others. We thought February, Valentine's Day, we'd show them a little love."
Derry's Restaurant Month runs through Feb. 28, is free to join, and anyone can participate. The form can be found at derrynh.org. Restaurants will also have available forms.