When Rachel Jackson reopened The Farmington D’s dine-in service with lobster rolls, chicken tenders and stacks of blueberry pancakes on June 3, with half of her chairs cleared out, she didn’t expect much of a crowd.

“I cracked numbers: We did a little less than the year before, maybe $300 less, the first day we were open,” said Jackson, who owns the Franklin County diner. “I thought, ‘Probably they’re just supporting us and so the next week is going to be slow’ — it has not happened.”

Much to her delight, and relief.

Androscoggin County was greenlit to open dining rooms June 17. Peter Flanders isn’t doing that just yet.

Sonder & Dram on Ash Street in Lewiston is celebrating its second anniversary this week.

“I must admit, we would rather be having some sort of blowout celebration,” said Flanders, one of its five owners. “We’ll settle for some friends on the patio.”

After shuttering at the start of the pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills allowed Maine’s 12 most rural counties to reopen dine-in service on May 18. Penobscot joined June 1. The last three could reopen June 17, all with a host of COVID-19 precautions.

Maine has roughly 4,500 licensed restaurants and food establishments.

“I think everybody is dipping their toe into the water,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of HospitalityMaine, an industry advocacy group. “I think a lot of customers are eager to come back, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

But the challenges are many.

Maine’s approach to quarantining visitors remains problematic, he said. “It’s mission critical to get visitors here. You can serve local customers in the off-season, it keeps you going, but people make their money in the summer.”

Hewins is hearing from places having issues finding staff — nationally, unemployment hit 75% for restaurant workers this spring, and some aren’t coming back.

Others are so small, after removing a few tables for new social distancing guidelines, “they don’t have enough business to support the kitchen staff,” he said.

The Sun Journal talked to 10 restauranteurs who say they’ve wrestled with a slow start or customers upset with new rules, who have been pleasantly surprised by the turnout or who have opted not to open yet, and why.

‘A FINE BALANCE’

Alex Markakis, owner of Cowbell Grill and Tap in Lewiston opened the restaurant in January. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

For Alex Markakis, owner of Cowbell Grill & Tap on Lisbon Street, the governor’s announcement that restaurants in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties could reopen for dine-in service was “like Christmas.”

Cowbell has three locations, all in the three counties impacted by the prolonged restrictions. The newest location, in Scarborough, opened just two weeks prior to the state shutdown.

The Lewiston location reopened to dine-in service Wednesday.

“We were prepared,” he said. “Now we wait and see. I don’t think anyone’s too sure about how it’s going to transpire with customers, whether they’ll be comfortable coming in to sit inside.”

Markakis said the Lewiston location is the only one that doesn’t normally have significant patio seating, however, Cowbell worked with the city to install outdoor seating on the Lisbon Street sidewalk. He said outdoor dining, curbside pickup and third-party delivery services have helped the restaurant “tremendously.”

Michael Dostie, president of the Downtown Lewiston Association, who has been working with the city and business owners on pandemic-related relief programs, said there’s been a mix of reactions from restaurants regarding a full reopening.

Some owners or managers are being cautious, not knowing what to expect for customers who may be reluctant to eat indoors. Some are continuing a focus on outdoor dining and takeout, especially as the summer weather kicks in.

“It’s a fine balance restaurants have to manage — order too much food and you’ve spent more of your limited capital than needed and you’re throwing a lot of that into the trash,” he said. “Or, you order too little and risk alienating some of the few patrons you get and they may choose not to return.”

‘WE’LL GROW WITH IT’

Linda and Jimmy Simones, owners of Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston, have used the past few months to do some renovations. They’re also about to try their hand at outdoor dining.

The pair posted a short video to social media this week announcing the restaurant would reopen Friday, June 19, with Jimmy Simones saying the restaurant will offer outdoor dining as well as limited indoor service.

One thing they didn’t foresee in reopening: a meat shortage. Jimmy Simones said due to COVID-19, they’ve had a hard time finding hot dogs. Some of their go-t0 vendors were out.

“We’re going to see what life is like in the new times here,” Linda Simones said in the video.

“We’re excited and looking forward to seeing our old customers and new,” Jimmy Simones said. “We’ve spruced up the place, changed the color scheme. We’re ready for our customers.”

Due to the restaurant’s small footprint, they will barely be able to serve a dozen customers inside, but they’re both hoping the combination of outdoor seating and summer weather will be enough to bring in loyal customers.

“This is a start. We’ll grow with it,” Linda Simones said Thursday. “We’re just excited to open back up.”

‘HOPEFUL AND OPTIMISTIC’

Peter Flanders, at Sonder & Dram on Ash Street, said this week that they are continuing to focus on outdoor dining and takeout. Due to the size of the business, a speakeasy-style bar and restaurant, they only have a limited amount of indoor seating available.

Sidewalk seating outside Sonder & Dram in Lewiston. Submitted photo

Sonder & Dram worked with the city when strict guidelines were still in place to set up outdoor seating along Pine Street.

“The weather is nice, so we can easily encourage this for now,” he said regarding outdoor service. “We are especially grateful for the support of Lewiston city staff, without which we would not be able to be back in operation.”

The bar has also benefited from some unique offerings and social media from its staff, like colorful to-go cocktails in plastic containers with names like, “Mexican princess” and “Metropolis.”

Flanders said this week marks the second anniversary for the business, and the celebration will look a little different.

“It has been a long three months, and we do expect challenges to persist into the future,” he said. “We remain hopeful and optimistic.”

WAITING FOR JULY 1

After two months of takeout, doing all the cooking himself, Shaun Riggs is almost ready to welcome customers back inside The Dugout Bar and Grill in Farmington.

“It certainly wasn’t profitable,” Riggs said. “It was to stay in people’s minds, ‘We’re still here and we will be here,’ sort of thing, keeping me busy, getting me out of the house.”

Owner Shaun Riggs says he’ll be ready to fully reopen The Dugout Bar and Grill in Farmington on July 1. Submitted photo

He’s picked July 1 to bring back his staff of 14.

“A few weeks ago, the front of the house service staff was a little leery of not wanting to get sick, not wanting to be a carrier, too,” Riggs said.

Initially, state restrictions also looked next to impossible.

“Our space is fairly small in size, and to abide by the letter of the rules would not have been worth it,” Riggs said. “My line to people who ask why we waited to open was, ‘Well, for three months, I’ve been losing money slowly. We could open and I could lose money quickly.'”

Riggs, who has owned the Dugout for 10 years, said peers are telling him business is good. He’s pulled tables out of booths for social distancing. Staff is feeling ready.

“I expect it to be pretty darn normal when we do open,” he said. With some exceptions. “Folks who come in together can sit together, but you just can’t come sidle up next to your buddy at the bar who you didn’t come in with.”

‘HUMBLING EXPERIENCE’

Mary Beane and her husband, Don, opened Salt and Pepper and Sugar Too Restaurant in Wilton just under a year ago after years in the industry.

The past few months, they’ve had to get creative, and quickly, offering takeout, highlighting catering, adding boxed meals to go — the camp box feeds four to six people for nearly a week — and creating outdoor space.

“We probably wouldn’t have done it on the fly like we did, because we had to do something to increase our dining capacity,” Beane said. “It’s very breezy, people have really loved eating outside. My dad came and helped, and a couple of our dishwashers were really eager to get working and they came over and helped us out. It was like a big, team push to get it done.”

Grilled eggplant bruschetta with balsamic drizzle at Salt and Pepper and Sugar Too Restaurant in Wilton. Submitted photo

They restarted dine-in service just over a week ago with a shortened schedule.

“Staffing has been the biggest issue for us to reopening,” she said. “We can’t really expand our hours until we get the staff trained, so that’s where we’re at now. We had to bring in four new servers right away just to be able to reopen.”

Customers have hung with them throughout.

“They love being able to go out again is what we’ve been hearing,” she said. “We really have to credit our regulars and the community at large has just been so very generous with our servers, with us, and it’s been really quite a humbling experience.”

‘THANK YOU FOR BEING OPEN’

At the Farmington D, Rachel Jackson has been struck by how comfortable people have felt eating indoors again. They’re filling up her dining room, down to 50 chairs from 100, and enjoying new outdoor seating to lounge afterward.

“I think we thought it would be for people who are nervous about eating in, but we haven’t really bumped into that,” she said.

But they haven’t been, to a person, complaint-free.

Rachel Jackson, owner of the Farmington D diner, shapes some fresh rolls for baking in the diner’s kitchen on Thursday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We do have to take phone numbers and people’s names” — under new state rules, so any outbreaks are easier to trace — “people are kind of on edge, they’re not real happy about that, some people,” Jackson said. “I don’t want my waitstaff to get in a battle. If they don’t give their name, then we can’t (serve them). We’ve had a couple people huff out and leave.”

Thankfully, that’s been balanced out.

“‘We are so glad to be able to be here, thank you for being open,’ people are very grateful,” she said. “I think they’re just so happy to maybe have some normalcy again to sit down and eat.”

She’s loved catching up with older regulars, whom she’d worried about, joking that she’s had to remind herself not to give any hugs. Not yet.

“People have just been good to us,” Jackson said. “I keep saying to staff, ‘Hang in there, we’re trying to figure this out, it’s all good.’ We are down a little bit (for the year) but not a huge, huge amount. One day last week, we actually did more than before. It’s unpredictable — I thought we’d just hang out doing nothing and that has not been the case.”

FEELING ‘VERY FORTUNATE’

Longfellow’s Restaurant in Kingfield, with entrees like grilled swordfish and three cheese haddock on its menu, opened for dine-in service in mid-May with a chalk sign near its front door, “Stay wicked fah apaht.”

Melissa Doucette and her husband, Chris, took over the restaurant in 2013. Chris’ father started it in 1980. Big 40th anniversary plans for this year are likely on hold.

A social distancing reminder near the front door at Longfellow’s Restaurant in Kingfield. Submitted photo

“It’s very fortunate that we were able to open back up,” said Melissa Doucette. “I know in southern Maine, they haven’t been able to (until Wednesday). I’m sure that was really hard for them. It’s been good so far. I think we’re going to have a good summer if it continues the way it’s going.”

They’ve opened Wednesday to Sunday, a shorter week than normal, and she’s being strategic about the smaller menu, “so we don’t have to purchase quite as much stuff.”

She’s seen some summer visitors and lots of locals.

“We’re fortunate, because we have a banquet room upstairs, so we rejiggered that for dining as well,” Doucette said. They also set up a patio area out front in the parking lot. “So we haven’t really lost any tables, it’s kind of more spread out.”

LIMITED SEATING, BUT ‘VERY, VERY FULL’

Gemma Rogers, a server at Honey Badger Bar and Grill in Oxford, said the restaurant reopened to indoor dining May 18, but is operating at only 35% of capacity due to the governor’s restrictions.

The staff had to remove eight tables from the dining room to allow for social distancing between customers.

The logo for Honey Badger Bar & Grill in Oxford. Submitted photo

The bar has limited seating since many of the stools were removed for the same reason, she said.

With the limited seating, “we have been very, very full,” she said.

All staff wear face masks and gloves and encourage customers to wear face masks when not seated, she said.

“We sanitize everything,” she said, according to recommendations by the governor’s office and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Demand for takeout service has gone up as some customers still aren’t comfortable yet with the idea of dining in, she said.

FEELING THE ‘AWESOME’

Erik Flye, general manager at Norway Brewing Company, said the restaurant hasn’t reopened its indoor dining area, but has offered takeout and to-go beer since March 18 when they had to close their doors to customers.

They reopened for outdoor dining the first week of June, seating about 50 people on the patio, which includes about 10 bar seats, he said.

That’s roughly half of the restaurant’s normal full capacity.

Norway Brewing Company’s outdoor dining patio. Submitted photo

He said the staff has looked at indoor seating possibilities.

“We wanted to take that checklist very seriously,” Flye said.

The indoor tap room was “not set up where we could responsibly follow those rules,” he said, but business has been “awesome.”

“I think people were just so excited to get out of the house,” he said.

Although the restaurant is open only four days a week, rather than the normal six, sales during half the week have surpassed sales for those same days last year during normal operation, despite the restricted capacity.

“That’s mostly because the community has been awesome for us from the beginning,” he said.

He hopes to have the restaurant return to full staff and six-days-a-week operation, possibly in July.

“But we definitely want to make sure that everything is safe first before we try anything more than what we’re doing right now,” he said.

SLOW REOPENING

Maurice Restaurant Francais in South Paris is open Thursday through Saturday night for dinner, having reopened in May after the indoor dining restriction was lifted in Oxford County.

In July, owner Corey Sumner said he’s planning to add Wednesday dinner.

“I just haven’t been seeing traffic here or in town that is going warrant me reopening more than that,” he said.

He has 10 tables in the dining room, half the number he had before.

Business has been slow, he said.

Sumner hasn’t reopened for indoor dining at lunchtime yet because, “I just can’t turn even close to a profit on half of the amount of tables I would normally have.”

Maurice is offering takeout lunches Thursday through Saturday, though.

Restrictions on out-of state residents coming to Maine and on lodgings hasn’t helped, he said, noting his restaurant is normally frequented by nearby campground visitors.

The restaurant’s catering business dried up as weddings were canceled due to the pandemic, he said.

But he said he’s hoping business will pick up as he plans soon to offer outdoor dining through the summer under a tent he recently ordered.

He said he’s hoping that will create enough demand for him to start offering sit-down lunch again.

 

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