Restaurant at Keene airport to close after dispute over lease

Mia Summerson, The Keene Sentinel, N.H.
·4 min read

Feb. 23—The Flight Deck has announced it will close its doors at Dillant-Hopkins Airport in North Swanzey after declining to renew its lease for the space, due to a disagreement over the terms. The airport is owned by the city of Keene, which was unsuccessful in its efforts to negotiate an agreement Tuesday.

Owner Tracy Gunn announced on Facebook earlier this month that the restaurant's last day would be March 14, with her current five-year lease set to expire in April. She said the city presented new terms for her lease that would have required her to be open six days a week, two shifts each day, rather than allowing her to determine when the restaurant would operate. It also would have required the airport to approve any scheduling changes.

These were not terms Gunn was willing to accept.

"It's not up to them to decide when it's profitable for me to be open," she said. "And I certainly would not give away my rights to decide my business options."

Gunn spoke with city staff Tuesday afternoon in an effort to work out the disagreement, but she said they were unwilling to remove the scheduling clause.

The Flight Deck opened in the spring of 2016, filling a space at the airport Gunn said had been vacant for three years. The restaurant focused mainly on breakfast and lunch, according to Gunn, who said it was key in generating new traffic to the airport, which hadn't been much of a destination in recent decades.

Gunn said that while she's received offers to bring her business to other airports, she's not in a hurry to open a new restaurant. She said she has a life in Keene — where she lives and owns Life is Sweet in Central Square — and is not looking to leave the area.

Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the addition of the scheduling requirement was meant to enhance predictability for those who use the airport.

"Unfortunately, before COVID the restaurant was only open 20 [hours] a week and hours were adjusted many times," Dragon told The Sentinel in an email Monday. "This made it difficult for visitors flying in or driving over to know what to expect. At that time, Tracy had indicated that labor, between her restaurants, was at least part of the issue."

She confirmed that Tuesday's meeting was unsuccessful, but said there was still an opportunity to negotiate the language in the lease to something Gunn is more comfortable with. But Gunn said it's the entire concept of a scheduling requirement — not the language of it — that she is opposed to.

Gunn also owned Willie Mac's on Winchester Street in Keene, which she had opened in 2018 but closed in September, citing challenges related to the pandemic. She also operated a Life is Sweet location in Brattleboro, which closed in October.

Right now, Gunn said, The Flight Deck is open five days a week, with two shifts each day, except for Saturday, which has three. She said she normally has a staff of about 15 people, but has lost a few employees she hasn't replaced due to a lack of business and uncertainty about the restaurant's future. She said about 10 people are currently on the payroll.

The pandemic has made it harder to stick to regular hours, Gunn said, and many of her orders have been for take-out, especially now that the weather is cold and the restaurant's large outdoor seating space is out of use. She said it's not always easy to find new employees in the Keene area.

"If I only have one cook, and she's cooking five days a week, that gives her two days off. I think that's reasonable," Gunn said. "So then you need to have other cooks. If you're gonna be open six days, you have to have other staff."

Dragon said in her email that the city was hoping to extend the restaurant's current lease for six months. She said the idea was to give The Flight Deck a chance to see if business bounces back as more and more people are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Dragon also acknowledged the impact the restaurant has had on the airport. She said The Flight Deck brought life and vitality back to a space that had been empty for so long.

"[Tracy] is a successful ambitious business owner who exudes an entrepreneurial spirit," Dragon said in her email Monday. "Over the last few years I have seen her expand her business ventures both here in Keene and beyond. I am appreciative of all her work here in the city in general and specifically at the airport to date."

The city has received multiple inquiries from restaurant owners who are interested in the space, according to Dragon, who said the request-for-proposals process to find a new tenant will begin soon.

Mia Summerson can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or msummerson@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiaSummerson