With partially assembled Oak Boxes on the counter, Chef Elisha Irland preps mushroom that will be smoked along brisket for weekend takeout dinners Thursday at The Oak Table and Bar in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Inside the Oak Table & Bar in Augusta, Elisha Irland was spending Thursday afternoon doing something new.

‘We’re doing date night boxes,” the owner of the chef’s table restaurant said.

The goal is to provide customers with an experience — not quite the same as they would get with conversation and information about the food in the restaurant, but still more than they would get with a simple takeout dinner.

Irland will able to continue offering food in part through a relief fund set up help businesses in the downtown districts of Augusta and Gardiner.

“This approach to community one-ness and supporting each other and shopping local and buying local is what makes the Augusta area great,” Irland said.

Last month, most business activity in Augusta, Gardiner and communities across the state and nation, dropped off as government and public health officials imposed restrictions on public gatherings and face-to-face interactions to slow the spread of coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, the potentially deadly respiratory disease. As of Thursday, 27 people in Maine have died from coronavirus infection, and hundreds more have been sickened.

The Kennebec Valley Downtown Relief Fund, a joint project of the Augusta Downtown Alliance and Gardiner Main Street — both certified Main Street programs,  is awarding up to $3,000 per applicant to help pay business-related expenses like payroll, utilities, rent, mortgage, insurance and materials needed to make their products to eligible businesses in the areas they serve.

“We wanted to get the money out as quickly as possible,” Melissa Lindley, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, said.

“We know that help is on the way,” Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said Thursday, referring to federal business relief programs like the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. “But this is faster.”

Chef Elisha Irland’s The Oak Box, which includes mushrooms from the Maine Mushroom Company, seen Thursday at The Oak Table and Bar in Augusta. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan Buy this Photo

Irland knows that firsthand. While he had not yet received his grant from the relief fund, he’s likely to get it long before any federal funds arrive. He’s been working with the U.S. Small Business Administration to secure an Economic Injury Disaster Loan for weeks, but the process is complicated and time-consuming with elements that seem to change regularly.

With their clear and simple goal, both downtown development organizations were able to move money within their own budgets to establish the fund with $9,000, then reached out to outside organizations for additional help.

Within a few days, the fund had reached $44,000 with contributions from the Gardiner Board of Trade, the Augusta Board of Trade, Team EJP, Gardiner Federal Credit Union, Kennebec Savings Bank, Central Maine Power and KV Federal Credit Union.

Hall said the response to the program has been overwhelming. The initial social media posting drew a half-dozen applications in short order. On Monday, the organizations met to review applications and on Tuesday, they were able to make notifications to 11 businesses and hand out $28,500.

While the application deadline has been set for April 30, Lindley said as long as money is available to distribute, they will continue to take applications and make funding decisions.

Lindley and Hall are working to secure additional funding to be able to help more businesses, and they have set up an online donation link, donorbox.org/kennebec-valley-downtown-relief-fund. The Maine Downtown Center, a program of the Maine Development Foundation, is acting as the fiscal agent.

In addition, Team EJP, which is based in Gardiner, has put up $5,000 to match donations on a a dollar-for-dollar basis.

“It is incredible to see two small non-profit Main Street organizations, who work tirelessly to revitalize their downtowns, pool their resources and their fundraising to come together to help small downtown businesses, ” Anne Ball, director of the Maine Downtown Center, said in a news release. “The Augusta Downtown Alliance and Gardiner Main Street should be commended along with the other sponsors of the KVDRF.”

Irland acknowledged that the challenge for new restaurants like The Oak Table, and its neighbor State Lunch, to change course so dramatically is especially great while preserving their brand and identity.

“It’s a very difficult transition and requires a lot of creativity to do what we do here and shift that over to takeout, as far as guests’ perception of value and the temperature of the food for it to be up to our standards,” he said. “It’s been challenging for us to continue to business and stay on brand.”

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