As indoor dining opens up in southern Maine counties on Wednesday, regulars return to Brunswick Diner. From left, Dallas Staples, Luke Thiboutot and Jeff Desrosiers. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Dallas Staples had been coming to the Brunswick Diner almost every morning for 40 years until the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Maine restaurants in mid-March. When the diner was allowed to start serving inside again Wednesday, he was outside at 6:45 a.m. waiting for the door to open.

“I’m a creature of habit,” he said.

Staples stood with fellow morning regular Luke Thiboutot, and they soon were joined by Jeff Desrosiers and Dion Linkel. As soon as the Pleasant Street diner opened at 7 a.m., the foursome was back in their booth – the last to left when you walk in the door and one of four the small diner can seat while maintaining proper distancing. The counter that spans the length of the restaurant is still off-limits to customers, though the staff made an exception for Linkel.

Most restaurants in southern Maine haven’t opened their dining rooms yet, saying they need more time to prepare and hire staff than the two days they have had since Gov. Janet Mills announced that restaurants in Cumberland, York and Androscoggin counties could join the rest of the state in serving diners indoors. At other restaurants that did open to indoor dining Wednesday – when the sun was shining and temperatures were in the 70s – customers were opting to sit outside.

The Freeport location of Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub opened for indoor seating at 11 a.m. Wednesday, but as of 2 p.m., all the lunch customers had chosen to sit outside, general manager Robert Hoye said.

“That said, it’s absolutely beautiful outside,” he said. “We might anticipate a few inside tonight.”

Customers waiting outside for Pizza Villa to open at 4 p.m. Wednesday all planned to sit in the Portland pizza restaurant and pub’s new outdoor dining area.

“We would go inside. I’m not against it. It’s just such a nice day,” said Chad Brewster.

Margaret Murphy, who has worked as a server at the Brunswick Diner for 24 years, takes orders from regular customers Jeff Desrosiers, far left, and Dallas Staples on Wednesday morning. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Jane Davis, who has owned the Brunswick Diner since 1998, had mixed feelings about opening inside Wednesday.

“It’s not ideal to get two days’ warning. We have seen some erratic decision-making from politicians, which can be really frustrating as an owner,” Davis said. “But it’s great to have our regulars in here again because they’re like family. Outside, you just don’t get the same feeling.”

As a result of COVID-19, the diner closed on March 16, then started offering takeout in late May and outdoor dining as of June 2, expanding its patio seating in order to increase business. The pandemic also forced Davis to reduce the number of employees from 12 to seven, as well as bring in her daughter, Cassidy King.

“I haven’t worked here since I was 19,” King said. “We’ve just been scrambling to keep things going since we closed. It’s huge to be open again.”

Davis said she needed somebody who she knew would keep the business’ best interests in mind and would make sure customers and staff were safe. “I couldn’t bring back all the employees. (The diner) has to be managed differently, and we just had to be the most flexible,” Davis said.

Margaret Murphy, a server at the Brunswick Diner, prepares to deliver food to a table on Wednesday morning. She brought coffee to the regulars as soon as they arrived. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On Wednesday morning, King was accompanied by a waitress of 24 years Margaret Murphy and cook Stacey Fabro. The diner has noticeable changes: Hand sanitizer is available inside and outside, and customers are only seated at about half of the available booths.

“We’re working twice as hard for half as many people. The staff has to learn a completely new way of doing things that have been muscle memory for over 25 years,” King said. “The positive is just that we’re still here, and hopefully customers will be more loyal than ever.”

Still, some things remain the same. Murphy brought coffee to the regulars as soon as they arrived, and both employees and customers were excited and ready to regain some sense of normalcy.

“It’s like a family here. Everybody knows each other. I don’t have a phone number I like to give out, but people know they can get in touch with me here,” said Linkel, who has been coming to the diner since 1976. “It feels good to be back.”

Staff Writer Emma Sorkin can be reached at: [email protected]

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