EXETER – Rob Ficara stood in the beer garden of Shooters Pub Wednesday morning and pointed at the two skylights to mark where his adjoining home separates from his business.
“That’s my home up there,” said Ficara. “I’ve been here 34 years so when I say our customers are our company, I mean it because they’re actually coming into my house.”
Ficara, the owner of Shooters Pub and the Exeter Bowling Lanes, has been taking advantage of the mandated shutdown period due to the coronavirus pandemic to perform a number of renovations to his business on Columbus Avenue. He’s been keeping the community updated on the progress in weekly video Facebook posts.
He said he’s appreciated the positive feedback from the community itching to return to bowl a couple of frames or grab a pint.
Ficara said the improvements include striping out the carpet inside the pub and putting a concrete stain on the floor, a large banana leaf-style ceiling fan in the darts room and the addition of more seating. In the bowling alley, he’s repainted the birthday party room and refinished the approach, the seating area where bowlers wait their turn.
“We’re trying to reinvent Shooters so there’s more seating, we’ll have to take out one pool table but we still have two. We’ll have a more open entrance to the bar, which flows right out to the beer garden,” Ficara said. “A lot of the refinish work on the bowling lanes is what we would normally do in the summer.”
Like all businesses forced to close or, like restaurants, decide to continue offering takeout and delivery orders, Shooters was no exception. Ficara said he and his team of five full-time employees made the hard decision to temporarily stop food service and focus on the renovation. However, he said Shooters would start offering takeout orders beginning Monday and available on weekdays.
For 23 years Shooters has thrown a free corned beef and veggies breakfast for the community to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Ficara said, which attracts approximately 130 people every year. This year, the breakfast was scheduled to take place March 15. Ficara said he was going to charge $5 this time and donate all the proceeds to Exeter’s End 68 Hours of Hunger program but he was forced to call the event off to promote safe social distancing.
In total, Ficara said in the weeks prior to Gov. Chris Sununu ordering the closure of all dining establishments except for takeout and delivery March 16, he was forced to cancel seven St. Patrick’s Day events at Shooters. He was also forced to cancel a spring pro bowling league event, which brings 60 bowlers from across New England to Exeter for a seven-hour tournament.
“I supported the shutdown, it had to be done,” Ficara said. “Massachusetts had already shut down and there were going to be a number of people coming across the border to celebrate St. Paddy’s Day and it could’ve made for a dangerous situation.”
However, with no revenue coming in, Ficara said he has no way to pay his employees and he was forced to lay off his part-time staff, but not before the high school students he employs cleaned his retro seats in the bowling alley. He said the employees remaining are working for free.
“I look at the situation like the airline philosophy, when in emergencies you have to put your oxygen mask on before you help the person next to you,” Ficara said. “We’re a family here, we check on each other, we make sure everyone has food. It’s like when you buy a house and you ask your buddies to help paint, so you buy the pizza and beer.”
Ficara said as hard as it’s been to close Shooters to the community, he thought the one silver lining was he is able to give his business some TLC. He said the commitment of his staff is a major reason why he is personally keeping his spirits high.
“I’m a firm believer in looking at the glass half full, so if I’m able to help the staff have a sense of purpose during this time, I want to be here for them,” Ficara said. “I can’t pay them, so I have a lot of pizza and beer to buy for people, and they know I’ll make good on all that when I’m able to.”
Rachell West, one of the Shooters and Exeter Bowling Lanes team members, said she wanted to continue to work through the shutdown because each day that passes means the bowling alley is one day closer to re-opening.
“Shooters is part of the community,” West said. “We’re just focused on getting ready to re-open and welcome everyone back.”
Ficara is a board member of the Community Children’s Fund, Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce and Exeter Area Charitable Foundation, and hosts numerous fundraisers at Shooters. He said the hardest part of not having Shooters open is the feeling of isolation.
Ficara joked with his team that they now long for the days of getting agitated trying to navigate a packed bar to serve a large pizza into the birthday party room.
“We all feel like there’s something more we could be doing out in the community, but we can’t because we’re not supposed to leave our homes,” he said. “We don’t take our commitment to the community lightly. They’ve always been supportive of us, and we’re excited about being able to open again after this period of self-improvement.”