Some businesses in the Winthrop and Belgrade lakes regions are reporting strong summer seasons, attributing their success to swift adaptation and supportive communities.

The story is a bit different for some lodging businesses, which struggled with restrictions in May but have recovered from a difficult start to summer.

John Rice, owner of Castle Island Camps in Belgrade, said his lodging business, which prepares meals for guests who stay in 12 cabins, was shut down for all of May due to pandemic-related restrictions ordered by Gov. Janet Mills.

After being allowed to reopen, Rice said some of his regular customers and others were not comfortable traveling, and 75% of reservations for September were canceled.

Customers gather Sunday to pick pumpkins at a patch at Applewald Farm in Litchfield. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“We’re not supported by Mainers,” he said.

Rice said the severe decrease in guests would have hurt his business badly in its first couple of years, but Castle Island, now in its 19th year, was able to survive. Guests were assigned tables for meals through their stay, and no other groups were allowed to use those tables.

Rice said he also discouraged short-term stays and forwarded those travelers to other businesses in town, such as The Village Inn & Tavern.

A number of customers have booked three or four weeks at Castle Island, mostly to help the business stay afloat. He said the business usually has 22 to 24 guests on average, but that number is down to 18.

“Right now, we have one couple that has spent four weeks with us to support us,” he said. “It’s not normal for them to do this.”

In Litchfield, April Roy, owner of Birches Lakeside Campground, said May was also a difficult month for her business. She said some essential workers were allowed into the campground that month, but, in general, it was “terrible.”

Cynthia Fair, left, greets masked guests Sunday at Applewald Farm in Litchfield. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Roy said many events, including live bands and bingo, had to be canceled this year.

She also said she boosted staffing this summer to keep up with cleaning and trash removal. Hiring was complicated, however, because some employees opted not to return to work because they felt uncomfortable being on the job during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As restrictions loosened in June, Roy said, many Mainers made trips from the Portland area to stay at the campground. In July, vacationers from out of state began arriving.

Roy said most weekends are fully booked until Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend, which begins Saturday, Oct. 12.

“They know it’s going to be a long winter, I think,” Roy said.  “People were just so happy to be out and enjoying the outdoors.”

At The Village Inn & Tavern, owner Kate Beales said the summer season really got started about the Fourth of July, by when customers started to get over their concerns about renting rooms.

She said the restaurant offered take-out, curbside and dockside pickup and outdoor dining, which was affected in part by fewer people coming to Belgrade because some summer camps remained closed.

Beales said her staff was reduced by half but lauded her employees’ initiative and innovation through the pandemic. She called the year a “maintenance year” in which no money was made but bills are able to be paid.

“We had a strong-enough season that we can close and we will be here next year,” she said. “We’re so blessed because it was looking so dire.”

Beales said The Village Inn’s restaurant will be open through November, and then close for the season a bit earlier than usual.

Beales said she was worried about restaurants that are not seasonal. She feared it might be an “ugly” future for those businesses.

“All of our favorite little places are these tiny little restaurants, it’s not going to be pretty in the fall and in the winter,” she said. “Nobody is going to want to sit outside under a couple of heat lamps in December.”

Also in Belgrade Lakes, Bob Gardner, owner of Great Pond Marina, said his business did not open in May or June, but recovered much of the lost revenue, especially at the end of August and in September.

Gardner said his showroom and boat rental operations were conducted fully outdoors this year.

In July, he said, his docks ended up full and he had a waiting list for boat rentals, which is uncommon for his business. He said the increase in business directly correlated to travelers renting camps or coming their camps for the season.

“Normally, we lose the families going back by mid-August,” he said. “With the pandemic, they weren’t going back to soccer camp or football practice so they were staying here. We basically gained about three weeks of the season on the back end.”

FARMS, BREWERIES, BAKERIES SPURRED BY COMMUNITY SUPPORT

In Litchfield, Applewald Farm owner Cynthia Fair said business has been “unbelievably busy” during the pandemic. She attributed the bump in business to nearby residents who are shopping locally and who are making day trips to the farm.

Fair said a Facebook post about free food offered from the farm received 80,000 impressions, which increased awareness of the farm. She said that increased awareness, coupled with local travel, have aided the farm store.

“We’ve been catapulted to another level,” she said. “I think people are looking for small places, and they don’t want to have to wait in line to get to the store.”

Some amenities at the farm, including the children’s play area and a corn maze, were canceled this year, but a pumpkin patch was added as an alternative to apple picking.

Fair said more people have been willing to travel a little farther from home to visit the farm for entertainment.

“People want to go for a drive and go someplace, so we’re becoming a destination,” she said. “People have been driving an hour to get here and have been so happy.”

Fair said she did not know what to expect with the new apple picking season, but it has been busy early. She said she has nearly doubled the size of her store staff to assist with apple picking and other duties.

A a short drive from Applewald, a number of people were taking advantage of the sunshine Sunday to enjoy a beer in the outdoor seating area of Monmouth’s Grateful Grain Brewing Co.

Co-owner Trevor Knell brews beer Sunday at the Grateful Grain Brewing Co. in Monmouth. Knell said demand remains strong for the brewery’s products during the COVID-19 pandemic. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Co-owner Tom Langlois said the brewery was staying afloat through the pandemic by selling cans from a to-go window because outdoor seating was in place until this month.

“Summer is usually very good when we have the tasting room open,” he said. “This year, we did cans and it was just as busy. Last week, we opened (the outdoor seating area) and it was busy all day. Our local people have been good, but we have a good strong fanbase in Lewiston. It worked out.”

The company was using a mobile canner prior to February when it bought a small, manual canning machine. That purchase proved essential when the pandemic hit in March.

“It all worked out,” Langlois said, adding the brewery has produced about 20,000 cans since March. “If we didn’t have a canner, we wouldn’t have brewed and just shut down until everything ended.

“Definitely, the margin is way down from selling cans and kegs from selling pours yourself. Cans are probably close to breaking even.”

In Kents Hill, The Apple Shed Bakery had a long line of people waiting Sunday for apple cider donuts and other baked goods. Just past the store, families with children and dogs were preparing to pick their own apples at Kents Hill Orchard.

Orchard owner John Harker said the apple orchard was not open during the summer, but the Apple Shed was “surprisingly” busy over the summer.

“They had a pretty constant flow of folks, both in state and out of state,” he said.

Harker said the orchard has seen more customers who live locally than those from other states. He said more people have traveled to the orchard from Portland, which is unusual.

“I’m only making an assumption that people want to take advantage of what Maine has to offer,” he said. “The ‘staycation’ kind of thing.”

Harker said the apple orchard is experiencing a positive trend during the pandemic. He said more people are getting outside and families are often coming to the orchard during the week, rather than just on weekends.

“I look at it as a positive, at least for agriculture and my orchard,” he said. “I don’t think people want to be wearing masks, but they’re starting to become accustomed to it.”

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