Haley Christie collects dishes from a booth Monday while Paula Tourtelotte stacks items behind the counter at Dave’s Diner in Gardiner. Christie, who has served seven years at the restaurant owned by Tourtelotte’s family, said it was a relief to see old customers after an eight-week hiatus due the COVID-19 shutdown order prohibiting inside dining. Tourtelotte said demand for booths was steady on the first day of the statewide reopening. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

GARDINER — Dave Tourtelotte, owner of Dave’s Diner on Brunswick Avenue in Gardiner, said it’s going to be a long time before things are back to normal at his restaurant, but was hopeful for the future.

“We’ve never seen anything like this (pandemic) and people don’t know how to deal with it,’ he said. “I think we’ll be OK.”

Dave’s Diner, like many other restaurants in central Maine, opened on Monday to the delight of some would-be diners. However, Geoff Houghton, owner of Hallowell’s Liberal Cup, said his restaurant’s reopening was “very underwhelming.”

Tourtelotte said he had to remove some booths and bar seating from his restaurant, but dine-in traffic has been outpacing takeout orders since opening back up. He said older diner customers “didn’t take to it well” when the restaurant only did takeout because they didn’t believe the virus to be a concern.

“Our younger customers … would still come and get their takeout,” Tourtelotte said. “Some of the older ones, they’re all back now and they’re right beside themselves.”

Before opening on Monday, Dave’s Diner offered a full takeout menu and also delivered more than 1,200 meals to those who did not want to leave their homes.

People sit outside of Blind Pig Tavern eating lunch Thursday at tables in Johnson Hall Mini Park in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Houghton said Thursday that his restaurant has seen very little business — takeout or dine-in — since reopening on Monday. He said his restaurant was overstaffed on Monday in anticipation of dine-in customers and takeout orders, especially with the restaurant’s new outdoor seating opening for the first time.

“We doubled our staffing in anticipation of (increased business),” Houghton said. “It was a gorgeous day, we opened our deck and no one came in.”

He chalked up the lull to people being reluctant to immediately return to restaurants and added that many people could have been deterred from ordering takeout from a busy restaurant. Anecdotally, Houghton said, he hasn’t seen many people going into nearby restaurants either.

“The first time in 20 years, I didn’t have a single customer in the restaurant at 4 o’clock, yet I had 15 staff members on,” he said. “That’s not a good cash flow situation here.”

Houghton said he was “shocked and scared” at the level of business and said it may not be sustainable if customer counts remain low. He said some staff may get reduced hours in the meantime.

“We can’t blame the weather right now; it’s perfect,” Houghton said. “We’re starting to shave back some staff, but you do need a certain baseline of staff (to operate).”

Tobias Parkhurst, part of the ownership for Augusta’s State Lunch and Cushnoc Brewing Co., said customers have been understanding of the new restrictions placed on restaurants.

“I think, especially with the holiday weekend coming, it’s going to pick up steam,” he said.

Despite a healthy level of business, Parkhurst said he was worried about lost revenue from limiting tables inside of both restaurants. But, he said, the level of business may be the same if there were no restrictions, because some people may not be comfortable coming to restaurants.

“I don’t think anybody could say they’re not worried about lost revenue,” Parkhurst said. “At this point, if you’ve made it this far, you’ve got a better chance of survival than you did a month ago. We can maintain at this level and we’re grateful to have made it this far.”

Parkhurst said State Lunch is continuing to offer takeout all day, while Cushnoc is offering takeout and delivery until 3 p.m. He said Cushnoc’s takeout and delivery orders have dropped slightly with the timing change, and perhaps also because more restaurants are opening back up.

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