“Are you sitting down?” the state liquor inspector asked Lyle Aker, who owns the new Broken Arrow restaurant in Portland with his wife, Holly. Aker sat down. “Before I grant you your license, shake your head,” the inspector went on during a mid-October phone call. Aker complied. “Do you hear anything?” “Maybe,” Aker answered doubtfully. “It’s the rocks in your head for opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic.”

Broken Arrow, which serves a “refined regional menu” of locally sourced foods, according to its website, was scheduled to open on Congress Street in late March. We all know what happened to restaurants and bars in March. Instead, the Akers waited six months, stopping all work, then ramping back up and ultimately opening their restaurant in modified form, with ticketed prix-fixe meals, in late October. “It’s a crazy thing to do right now,” Aker conceded, laughing as he recounted his conversation with the inspector.

Along with gyms, airlines and movie theaters, restaurants just might win the prize for Business Least Likely to Succeed During the Pandemic. But a number of chefs and proprietors around the state have been willing to take that risk and open new restaurants regardless. (Portland alone has issued 44 food service licenses since March, though many are for more pandemic-friendly businesses like markets and food trucks.) Many, like the Akers, say they were already in so deep – plans made, leases and loans secured, construction begun (or nearly finished), equipment bought, in some cases staff hired and trained – that it wasn’t possible, emotionally or financially, to stop.

“I was in the middle of the construction. What was I going to do?” asked Sante Calandri, who opened Ports of Italy in Rockport in early September (he has a restaurant with the same name in Boothbay Harbor). “I have to go through. You are dancing, you have to continue to dance.”

Husband and wife team Kyle Robinson and Yazmin Saraya at Chez Rosa in Kennebunkport in April. “The way I see it, we are all going through difficult times, restaurant or not,” Saraya said in a recent interview. “You give up or you keep moving forward.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

HAVE YOU GOT WHAT IT TAKES?

These restaurateurs cite personality traits like flexibility, resilience, grit, optimism and a sense of humor as key to opening in these profoundly challenging times. They also credit reasonable landlords; strong relationships with purveyors; kind neighbors; and supportive staff, families, customers, and state and local officials. Did we mention hard work? Very, very hard work.

“Mountains of money would be helpful,” Aker added, only half joking.

Yazmin Saraya and her husband, Kyle Robinson, had planned to open Chez Rosa, a French bistro, in Kennebunkport in early April. The pandemic delayed their launch until late May, and like several other restaurateurs interviewed for this story, they confined themselves to takeout at first – a tough call.

“That’s a difficult way for a restaurant to debut itself, putting food in a box for somebody to take to their house, holding for God knows how long, then maybe reheat it,” Robinson, the chef, explained. “But we just weren’t sure when people would be allowed in. We got to the point where we were just very anxious. One way or another, it had to happen.”

It didn’t go well. Few people knew Chez Rosa even existed. The couple underestimated the time it would take to build up a takeout business. “Some days we wanted to pull our hair out,” Saraya said.

They were saved by kind neighbors, “angels,” Saraya calls them, the owners of the adjacent Abacus Gallery, who one day knocked on the door, introduced themselves and asked, would you like to use our courtyard? Would they ever! In June, Chez Rosa opened for sit-down service in that courtyard. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t even be here,” Saraya said, adding, however, that Chez Rosa remains in “survival mode.”

Randy and Ally Forrester have also relied on takeout, although “fortunately, we had a product that people were very used to eating out of a box,” Ally Forrester said. The couple had closed their fine-dining Italian Osteria Radici in New Jersey to move to Portland last November with plans to open a more casual spot, Radici pizzeria. They envisioned a neighborhood place, the dining room and bar packed with friends and families “making memories,” she said, while enjoying Radici’s painstakingly made pizza. Their restaurant plans called for up to 10 employees; their personal plans called for better work-life balance, giving the couple more time to spend with their 4-year-old daughter.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. So far, Radici is takeout only, and the Forresters, like some other restaurateurs interviewed for this story, are doing everything themselves – the dishes included. “It’s eerily similar to Osteria Radici a lot of the times,” Randy Forrester said. “We wanted to come here and grow the business slowly and responsibly but where we weren’t the people doing every single task. But it’s turned out we are the people doing every single task – again.”

Raquel Stevens, who operates the new Leeward in Portland with her husband, Jake, said it’s as though they’ve opened three new restaurants in six months, at first offering takeout meal kits to home cooks, then switching to sit-down, full-service meals on the patio, and recently shifting to indoor dining room service. Each new iteration of Leeward, which serves sophisticated Italian cuisine, has required labor-intensive changes in logistics, floor plans and customer ordering systems. “Both Jake and I have acquired a considerable amount of new gray hair,” she wrote in an email. “But we’re hanging in there.”

Paige McGuinness, a server at Broken Arrow, delivers oysters. Owners of restaurants that opened mid-pandemic depended on their staffs. “They pushed through this with us,” Yazmin Saraya of Chez Rosa said in a characteristic comment. “They were warriors.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

MOUNTAINS OF MONEY

Opening expenses for restaurants are always high, composed, in part, of three months’ rent upfront or down payments and closing costs, loans (sometimes personally guaranteed by proprietors), remodeling, furniture, equipment, training, and food and alcohol inventory — and don’t forget the cost of licenses – both city and state – to sell that booze ($410 to $2,774 annually in Portland, another $100 to $2,200 for the state, depending on such factors as the type of alcohol for sale, type of establishment, percentage of food sales, and hours).

Restaurateurs are understandably reluctant to give out detailed budget figures, but several talked guardedly about some of their costs. At Via Vecchia in Portland’s Old Port, for instance, the space was gutted; a “total buildout,” including bathrooms, plumbing, lighting, new compressors for the walk-in refrigerators, and an eye-catching quartz bar, cost in the “ballpark” of $800,000, said owner Joshua Miranda.

At Radici, the Forresters spent less than $40,000 to open their pizzeria and have postponed the purchase of many items, since for now their dining room is closed. Their biggest single-ticket item was a Baker’s Pride oven, around $10,000, plus more to ship it from Texas – “That is the heartbeat of the restaurant,” Randy Forrester said. At Leeward, the walk-in refrigerator cost $13,000, the kitchen hood another $6,000, a figure that doesn’t include the cost of custom ductwork, installation, and venting through the two-story building.

But while opening expenses are high at small, independent restaurants, even in the best of times, profit margins are notoriously slim. In these worst of times, they are often nonexistent. Ditto salaries for proprietors.

“I’m not getting paid,” said Miranda, who had planned to open Via Vecchia, a small plates Italian restaurant, on St. Patrick’s Day; the restaurant opened in late June. “I don’t see myself getting paid until next year. I am covering my bills, payroll and rent. This week anyway.”

In July, business at Chez Rosa was down 70 percent from projections in the normally busy summer tourist town of Kennebunkport, Saraya said. The restaurant’s earnings first go to pay the staff, then other business expenses. Anything that remains goes toward the mortgage on Saraya’s and Robinson’s home. “Luckily, we own a restaurant so don’t have to worry about groceries,” Robinson said. When the couple tried to refinance their home to take advantage of record low interest rates, “because we are not receiving a paycheck nobody would even talk to us,” he said.

At Radici, the Forresters say they are earning just 20 percent of what they’d projected, and neither has been able to draw a salary. The uncertainty about the pandemic amplifies the anxiety, for them, for everybody. “We don’t know how long this will go on,” Ally Forrester said. “We have to just float. If this business can survive this, we’ll play catch-up later.”

Most new restaurants in Maine did not qualify for pandemic government relief programs, especially those that required that they show tax and payroll histories. In at least one case, that of Leeward, which opened on March 12 for just three days before the pandemic shut it down, the Stevenses returned a loan. “We ended up getting a small amount from PPP (the federal Payroll Protection Program), but didn’t know how it would work out regarding loan forgiveness,” Raquel Stevens said, “so we returned it. We were in enough debt.” Leeward did qualify for an Employee Retention (tax) Credit, which she described as “helpful.”

“We’ve been able to squeak by.”

THE OUTLIERS

But not every new restaurant that has opened in Maine mid-pandemic did so because its owners had reached the planning point of no return. Some saw a pandemic and smelled opportunity. For Britt Langford and her husband, Leo Zhang, that opportunity smelled like rice bowls, noodles and Chinese-inspired sandwiches.

The couple met in Beijing, where Langford ran a bakery and Zhang supervised swanky hotel bars. They moved to Portland three years ago – Langford grew up in Falmouth – and have been working at local restaurants ever since while mulling over ideas for their own place.

“The pandemic kind of pushed us,” Langford said. “If it hadn’t happened, I’m not sure we would have done it so fast.”

They found the perfect space in the perfect neighborhood – the old Lolita building on Munjoy Hill in Portland. They felt their concept – healthful, affordable, Chinese-ish takeout (for now) food – suited the pandemic perfectly. “I would love to lend some support to people during this time, and this is the best way we know how,” Langford said. The couple hopes to have Jing Yan restaurant open by the end of November.

Are they anxious to open in such deeply anxious times? A survey from the National Restaurant Association released in mid-September looked at nearly 100,000 restaurants nationwide and reported that the pandemic has closed nearly one in six, either permanently or long-term. “Of course,” Langford replied. “We’re human. We just saw an opportunity. And if we can survive during this time, we can survive at any time.”

Farther north, Jordan Benissan has both shuttered his Mé Lon Togo restaurant and opened a new one since last spring. He said his landlord in Waterville served him with an eviction notice when the pandemic caused him to fall behind on his rent. He reluctantly announced on social media that he would be closing Mé Lon Togo for good; he was devastated to lose the chance to introduce Mainers to the food of his native Togo.

But he, too, had a secret angel, several of them: A blogger who knew of the place through Benissan’s Instagram account (now melontogocamden), got in touch and offered to help. He connected Benissan with Peter and Orenda Hale (who closed their own restaurant in Portland, Drifters Wife, in July because of the coronavirus). The Hales, who have a strong following on social media, started a GoFundMe campaign for Benissan, especially disturbed by his plight at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. In just a couple of weeks, it raised $16,000, enabling him to open a new version of his restaurant in Camden at the end of July.

“It seems like a ship running away to the wrong direction and something happens and the ocean just calm down and the ship survive,” Benissan said.

Said a still concerned Orenda Hale, “Now, months later and still without government help, I hope it’s enough, enough to last through the winter.”

Owner Josh Miranda (center) and two employees work out the layout of the outdoor dining plan in front of Via Vecchia in June. “Opening a restaurant of 120 seats is very daunting,” Miranda said. “And to do it in the middle of a pandemic? It’s frightening. But I’m confident. I believe in the team. I believe in the product. I believe in the brand. We’re just going to hold on to next April. Somehow, someway, once we get through this, I believe that next summer is going to be exciting for the city of Portland and for everybody.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

OPTIMISM (WHAT’S THE ALTERNATIVE?)

Despite all, it is remarkable how many times the restaurateurs interviewed for this story mentioned feeling lucky.

There was the long, lucky run of sunny weather this summer, bad news for farmers, but a godsend for restaurants, many of which were operating entirely outdoors. Maine’s low coronavirus count (at least until recently) has been another piece of luck. At Chez Rosa, Saraya felt lucky that business did not “tank” as she had expected after Columbus Day.

Some, like Joshua Miranda at Via Vecchia, have found comfort in company. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself with the whole world in the pandemic,” he said. “I am not the only industry affected. I am not the only restaurant affected.”

At Radici, the Forresters thank their lucky stars that pre-pandemic they’d switched their focus away from fine dining. Moreover, they’re relieved “there are not employees relying on us,” Ally Forrester said. “That can be one of the most stressful things, when you are making decisions that affect other people’s families.”

And at Leeward, during a long, frank interview in which Raquel Stevens touched on rollercoaster rides and the “rabbit hole” of deep anxiety, still, she said, “I still feel very grateful that we’ve been able to do this. As fraught as it is, it still feels like an immense privilege. This is something we’ve been thinking about and dreaming about for a really long time. There are lots of people who have long-held dreams that don’t get to attain them. I feel privileged to do it. And also privileged to do it here.”

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