Outdoor dining begins Monday at Petite Jacqueline on Milk Street. Staff photo by Jill Brady Buy this Photo

Restaurateurs who were frustrated and disheartened when the state announced last week that it was delaying the start of indoor dining in three Maine counties are nevertheless preparing to open their patios and sidewalks for the start of outdoor dining Monday.

Not every restaurant with outdoor dining in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties plans to open right away. Some are waiting until later in the week, while others have made plans to open in mid- to late June. And many are coming up with creative ideas for how to serve more customers outdoors.

But restaurant owners say that while outdoor dining may help shore up their bottom lines, it’s not what’s going to save their businesses in the long run.

“The big question is how long do you do this?” said Michelle Corry, owner of Petite Jacqueline in Portland’s Old Port, which plans to start outdoor service Monday. “For us, we can withstand a lot if we break even, but we can’t be losing money for months and months and months.”

Jay Villani, the restaurateur behind Local 188, Salvage BBQ and Black Cow, all in Portland, says outdoor dining may help to build public confidence, but “it’s not a cure-all, that’s for sure.”

“No number of outdoor tables is going to make up for people sitting inside or at a bar,” he said, noting that restaurants make most of their money from alcohol sales. “Outdoor dining is going to be weather-dependent. You get a cold rainy weekend, there go your margins for the pay period. That’s just the reality of it.”

A SAFER SETTING

Even some of the restaurateurs who were upset by the cancellation of indoor dining had been planning to start with outdoor dining anyway because they believe both their customers and staff will feel safer from the coronavirus eating outside.

“Everything I read indicates that being outdoors is an order of magnitude safer than being indoors,” said David Turin, owner of David’s in Monument Square in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland, “and the most likely place to spread the infection is in prolonged indoor contact, which describes a restaurant pretty well.”

Near the pick up window at Petite Jacqueline’s on Milk Street, Hali Chesher, left, hands an order of take-out to Jo Shelton of Yarmouth Saturday. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Turin has applied for an outdoor dining permit for David’s, where he already has a few tables covered by a retractable awning that extends 10 feet. His sidewalk tables extend nine feet from the restaurant, and he has applied for seating that would push that out to 22 feet.

As of Friday, according to city of Portland records, 35 bars, restaurants, breweries and coffee shops had temporary outdoor dining licenses approved, a category that includes both sidewalk dining and parklets – raised dining areas in on-street parking spots adjacent to a business. That number is expected to grow, said Jessica Grondin, communications director for the city. Two restaurants, Tomaso’s Canteen on Hampshire Street and Bird & Co. on Deering Avenue, have been given two parklets each – the limit imposed by the city.

Restaurants that plan on launching outdoor dining in Portland the week of June 1 include DiMillo’s on the Water; Roma and the Brahmhall Pub, which share a patio; Pizzarino; Tomaso’s Canteen; Ishi Ishi; and J’s Oyster, which is expanding its waterfront patio seating.

Waterfront restaurants such as DiMillo’s, J’s Oyster, Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, Luke’s Lobster on Portland Pier, all in Portland, North 43 Bistro in South Portland, and Sea Glass in Cape Elizabeth seem to have an advantage because they are already set up for outdoor dining with gorgeous water views – just what people crave during short New England summers.

DiMillo’s will launch its outdoor dining Tuesday, Steve DiMillo said, with tables set up on the pier. The following Tuesday, the restaurant’s decks will be open.

Luke’s Lobster will add picnic tables to its lobster buying station and open its upstairs and downstairs porches, which means it will have up to 90 socially distanced seats, according to co-owner Ben Conniff.

“I think when you’re out in the open air and you’re not confined, that’s more than just a feeling but in actuality, that does make it safer than if you’re in an enclosed space,” Conniff said. “My feeling is people will feel a little more comfortable sitting outside for the first phase” of reopening.

CREATIVE SPACES

Sea Glass, the restaurant at the Inn By the Sea, will be more than doubling its outdoor capacity when it opens to outdoor dining Monday with a total of 70 outdoor seats. The inn already has a deck that holds 15 to 20 seats – though much less than that after social distancing – but plans to spread tables out onto its expansive lawn, where diners will be able to enjoy a new summer menu with an ocean view. It is also adding Adirondack chairs where guests can sit with a lobster roll and a cocktail, no table needed.

Some restaurants, such as Petite Jacqueline, have been able to take advantage of street closures approved by the city to help businesses affected by the pandemic. The restaurant sits on the corner of Market and Milk streets, and Milk is one of the Portland streets that has been closed to traffic.

Corry had planned to open the restaurant to both indoor and outdoor dining Monday, but was one of the restaurateurs blindsided by the state’s last-minute change of plans. The Milk Street closure will help, allowing Corry to more than double the usual patio space, from three to six tables. The bistro is adding some high-top tables for self-serve takeout at a new takeout window on the Milk Street side, with a menu of more casual street fare, including pastries, coffee and ice cream.

Other restaurants are also getting creative. Ada’s on Congress Street never had a lot of indoor seating to begin with – just 14 seats at three tables and a counter – since it was set up as more of a pasta bar than a dine-in restaurant. Owner Jenn Rockwell has teamed up with Sagamore Hill, a bar on Park Street, to offer outdoor dinner service – dinner from Ada’s, and cocktails from Sagamore Hill. (Sagamore Hill’s restaurant and lounge license allows it to be open now, and it has been serving takeout cocktails, including a Quarantine Punch and a Cabin Fever Punch.)  The dinner service will start in the next week or so, Rockwell said, and brunch will begin June 7.

Rockwell said she’s also hoping to put in some garden seating behind Ada’s.

“We’re constantly trying to think of fun ideas,” she said.

Villani tentatively plans to open Salvage BBQ to outdoor dining on June 16, the date he had planned to open all his restaurants to indoor dining. (Salvage plans to reopen June 9 for takeout after being closed for two weeks because an employee tested positive for COVID-19.) Villani said he will erect a 20-by-100-foot, open-air tent in a leased streetside parking lot adjacent to the restaurant. He expects to be able to fit 11 to 13 tables under the tent. Salvage has a window that looks out over the parking lot, and Villani plans to construct a pass-through window there for serving food.

Down in Kennebunkport, the Nonantum Resort will be setting up private cabanas under tents overlooking a lighthouse and the Kennebunk River, just 300 to 400 yards upriver from the ocean. The cabanas, which look like something you’d see at a wedding reception, will serve food from the inn’s fine dining restaurant, 95 Ocean, and limit seating to eight diners per table. Eventually, the inn plans to install an outdoor kitchen there.

“It’s something we’ve been wanting to do anyway, so this is a good way to test the waters a little bit,” said Rob Labelle, the resort’s director of marketing.

The Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport is adding private cabana dining outside, with a limit of eight diners to a table. Photo courtesy of Nonantum Resort

TOURIST, SMALL SPOTS SUFFER

Restaurants in resort towns are having a particularly tough time because of the 14-day quarantine the state requires for tourists entering Maine.

Clark Frasier, co-owner of MC Perkins Cove, has a deck with a roll-out roof and a stunning view of the Atlantic that he plans to open Tuesday, but even that is just not enough when Ogunquit looks like a ghost town, he said. “Quite frankly,” he said, “no one’s here.”
Frasier said on a typical Memorial Day weekend the restaurant might bring in $50,000 in revenue. This year, it brought in $500. Frasier noted that his restaurants survived the aftermath of the 1990s recession, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the 2008 Great Recession, “but this one? Pretty scary.”

“What’s really paramount, I think, for people to understand is that if we don’t end the quarantine at some reasonable period, hopefully in the next couple of weeks, I think we’re in for a really serious problem in our resort areas,” Frasier said.

Frasier said he is a supporter of Gov. Janet Mills and understands that protecting public health comes first – “I’m not one of those people who think forget it, it’s some sort of left-wing hoax” – but he wonders why tourists who may have been carefully isolating themselves in Massachusetts pose more of a problem than Mainers who may not have been social distancing or paying attention to any safety protocols. He is searching for “some middle ground in which we can do this reasonably.”

“I understand the governor’s issues, and God knows we don’t want what’s happening in Missouri and so on, but within reason and with safety precautions, unless we have this lifted by the time (Paycheck Protection Program) loans end for most businesses at the end of June, I predict a really dire financial situation for most. Most businesses are not going to be able to survive this.”

Smaller restaurants with little access to outdoor dining are also suffering.

Matt Ginn, chef at Evo in Portland, is trying to get by with a staff of seven; he has laid off two-thirds of his staff, and when the restaurant’s PPP loan comes to an end, there may have to be more cutbacks. He has been doing curbside takeout, but says that is “not sustainable.” He says he was “totally blindsided” by the news that indoor dining would not be allowed June 1.

Ginn said Evo usually has two four-top tables outside in summer, and he was hoping Fore Street would be one of the streets shut down by the city, but it wasn’t because other businesses need access to the Fore Street parking garage. He’s hoping to be able to add a couple more outdoor tables this summer, but that’s “like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole,” he said. “Eight or 10 seats isn’t going to save Evo and save staff and save payroll.”

So Ginn has moved forward with a project he began last year – a food trailer “seafood shack” called Evo X – that he says will be a cross between Eventide and The Lobster Shack at Two Lights. The trailer, which should be open in two to three weeks, will be parked at the Fore Points Marina near the walking path by the Narrow Gauge Railroad on Portland’s East End. It will have counter service, a full-service bar, and all outdoor seating – a few picnic tables spaced out 10 to 12 feet. The menu will include fish chowder, lobster, fried clams, burgers, hot dogs, french fries, and a few of Evo’s customer favorites, such as chickpea fries.

“I’ve been supportive of a lot of what Gov. Mills has done,” Ginn said, “but I really hope someone can shake some sense into her about the really terrifying, bleak outlook that restaurants in Cumberland County and York County face right now. There will be a lot more closures.”

Villani agrees.

“I hate to be doom and gloom about it, but I don’t think it’s going to be the vibrant food city that we once were, moving forward,” Villani said. “There are going to be some casualties.”

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