Paul Michaud of Auburn talks to his wife, Ashley, while dining outside at Sonder & Dram in Lewiston on Friday night as server Melanie Roy heads to another table of patrons with menus. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — While other restaurants had already made the difficult decision to pack up patio furniture and tables for outdoor dining, Sonder & Dram leaned into it, and got a little lucky.

On the establishment’s Facebook page last week, they were hoping to entice customers to take advantage of the unseasonably warm temperatures forecast.

“In November how often is it 60 (degrees) in Maine? Exactly… Almost never,” the post read, referring to the weather outlook for the coming weekend. “The patio will be open so join in the fun.”

With winter on the doorstep, restaurant owners are assessing the best course of action for their business, but largely told the Sun Journal they are taking it “day by day.”

On Tuesday, the Lewiston City Council is expected to extend a previously-approved ordinance that expanded outdoor dining capabilities on public rights of way, but it’s unclear how many restaurants are planning to take advantage as temperatures drop.

Most owners said they are trying to make the numbers work, especially as COVID-19 cases are rising in the state, which has meant the return of stricter public health guidelines.

Kathy Lebel, owner of The Station Grill on Lincoln Street, which is still relatively new, said they already took down their small patio space when the cold weather arrived. She said even if they wanted to, they simply don’t have the funds to set up outdoor dining for colder weather, utilizing heat lamps and fire pits like many establishments have.

“There are no clear answers,” she said Thursday.

She said since the building has a small footprint, the maximum seating capacity is around 30. Like many restaurants, The Station has been offering online ordering and takeout, which Lebel said has been “somewhat helpful.” But, she said if takeout becomes a more primary source of business, that leaves her servers out of more shifts.

Since they’re a new restaurant, Lebel said feedback so far has been positive, but that her other business, Schemengee’s Bar & Grille, has been supporting The Station financially.

“Customers have said, ‘I really hope you can make it.’ Well, so do I,” she said.

At Sonder & Dram on Ash Street, co-owner Peter Flanders said Thursday that restaurants need to be able to pivot and accept change.

Since the start of the pandemic, the small speakeasy-style bar and restaurant has been quick to adapt to shifting guidelines. During the summer they pushed their patio, takeout and to-go cocktails. Now, it has rolled out three-course prix fixe dinner nights with advance reservations. They also have a separate takeout menu and a patio they plan to bolster with a fire pit and heat lamps.

Flanders said they’ll offer the patio service as long as temperatures are above 20 degrees.

“There will always be some hardy Mainers ready to brave the cold and enjoy the outdoors with a cocktail, beer, or hot toddy,” he said.

Sonder & Dram was also recently added to the CarHop takeout delivery service.

“Survival for restaurants right now depends on all these layers and more,” Flanders said.

Not far away, at Cowbell Grill & Tap on Lisbon Street, owner Alex Markakis is banking on takeout and their larger indoor footprint being able to carry the business through winter.

Due to their location, he said the restaurant really hasn’t been able to set up a reliable patio, even with the city relaxing its ordinance on sidewalks. He also said he’s not sure customers would be willing to eat outdoors in 40-degree weather.

“We live in Maine, it gets cold quick,” he said. “We’re doing our best, you know, and it changes day by day.”

Markakis said due to the size of their restaurant space, they’ve been able to accommodate a good number of tables, and have expanded dining into an adjacent function room in order to maintain more distance.

“We’re lucky in a way that we have such a big indoor space to be able to space it out properly and be within the regulations,” he said.

Other questions remain for restaurant owners too, like how a strengthened mask mandate will impact business, and what other limits could be imposed with coronavirus cases surging.

Markakis said he believes what Gov. Janet Mills decides to implement for regulations this winter “will make or break” a lot of restaurants. As for Cowbell, he said, “I’m very confident we’re looking good for the near future.”

“We never know what’s going to happen,” Lebel said.

When the state shifted indoor capacity limits to 50 people, Lebel said that cut into profits at Schemengee’s, where the bar, restaurant and pool hall normally has a 249 capacity.

“The rent isn’t going down,” she said, adding that she hopes there will be more economic relief legislation in Maine.

Calls to the owners of DaVinci’s and Fish Bones, other popular dining locations in Lewiston, were not returned. However, on social media this week, DaVinci’s announced the cancellation of its trivia nights.

“As everyone knows, DaVinci’s has made it our mission to keep our guests safe and healthy. To do this, we have to occasionally make some sacrifices,” the post said.

Across the river in Auburn, Gritty’s owner Richard Pfeffer said the business is “weighing all of our options and considering our best route for best serving our customers and community,” after the 50-person capacity was set. The restaurant, located along the Androscoggin River, has been taking advantage of its location with outdoor dining.

But, Pfeffer said, “while outdoor seating has been good for us throughout the summer and fall, we are already experiencing fewer customers that are interested in being seated outside. We will continue to study our options regarding outside seating, and we will continue to explore the best ways to serve our customers, while providing as safe and friendly a Gritty’s environment as possible.”

Lewiston City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil said the city’s initial ordinance amendment, which relaxed permit fees and rules on utilizing public rights of way, expired on Nov. 1. That’s why the council is expected to act to extend it Tuesday, this time to coincide with Mills’ state of emergency order.

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