After running Rebecca’s Place for more than 40 years, owner Nancy Berg decided to close her restaurant last weekend. Berg talks Wednesday about plans to sell equipment and take home photos that line the walls at the restaurant on Route 17 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — When Nancy Berg walked into Rebecca’s Place on Saturday morning, she decided right then she’d had enough.

“I came in to work one day and said basically, I can’t deal with this any more; I’m done,” Berg said Wednesday.

That day was Saturday.

Nearly 11 months into the global COVID-19 pandemic and with infections still spreading across Maine, Berg said she’s been unable to hire enough staff to keep her restaurant going.

Berg, who will turn 78 in May, had been working 12- to 14-hour days for months, and her limited staff of six or seven had been splitting shifts to cover serving breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Augusta institution on Eastern Avenue. She has operated the restaurant for more than four decades.

“They’re tired, too,” she said.

Since March when the pandemic was declared, Maine’s restaurant industry has been rocked by short-term closures, limits on the number of people allowed inside their buildings, limits on out-of-state visitors during the busy summer season and, in some cases, curfews that require those with bars to close at 9 p.m.

Berg’s is not the only restaurant to announce a closure. Across the region, restaurants of all kinds have shut their doors, and some may never reopen, said Steve Hewins, executive director of Hospitality Maine. Hospitality Maine is a nonprofit trade group that represents the interests of the hospitality industry, which includes restaurants.

And some, Hewins said, are hibernating and waiting for better conditions in the spring, when the vaccinations now underway will have reached a larger share of the state’s population. They have been able to do that because of the federal Paycheck Protection Program and state economic recovery programs, including a $53 million grant program pulled together by the Department of Economic and Community Development at the end of 2020 designed to spend down the remainder of federal funds that had to be spent by Dec. 31.

“These were the Hospitality Tourism and retail recovery grants,” Hewins said. “This was $53 million that went specifically to restaurants, hotels and small retail stores.”

With these closures, either temporary or permanent, there are 28,000 unemployed hospitality sector workers right now, just a little over one-third of the pre-pandemic workforce. Even so, Berg was not able to draw enough workers to fill out her staff and keep going.

Hewins said many people are afraid to go back to work right now and are instead getting by on extended unemployment benefits until conditions change.

After running Rebecca’s Place for more than 40 years, owner Nancy Berg decided last weekend to close her restaurant. The restaurant is located on Route 17 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Now, Berg is spending her time clearing out the building at 434 Eastern Ave., donating food to the soup kitchen and working with suppliers to return unopened items. A couple of people are interested in some of the equipment. As soon as she’s done, she’ll list the building, which has an apartment on the upper floor, for sale.

“I loved my customers. I loved being with my people. I loved that my husband was able to be such a good cook and give us such good food that people truly enjoyed,” Berg said. “It was so nice to be here. I did not for one minute hate to come to work. I loved to come to work, and everybody knows it.”

The restaurant’s location on a busy route that connects Augusta to Maine’s coast brought a lot of visibility to Rebecca’s Place, including veterans and their families who traveled to the VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus campus, which is only about two miles away.

People came for the homemade comfort food on the menu. The top attractions were her husband’s fish chowder and the prime rib on weekends.

Five years ago, Berg’s husband Leo died. At that time, she said, he had wanted her to close the restaurant but she chose to keep it open. And she was able to keep it going until the pandemic.

“I always felt as long as I felt good and things were going well, I was going to be in the restaurant,” Berg said. “But with this COVID hit and all this stuff, all of a sudden you can’t get help to work. I don’t want to keep busting my butt.”

She said she’s not given any thought to retirement, but knows she will be able to spend more time with her family. In the meantime, the work of closing down and clearing out continues even as people continue to stop by and call.

“We have people that come to the door and read the sign, and just stand there and look,” Berg said.

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