From fine dining to streetside eats, central Maine’s seasonal food establishments are looking ahead to a better summer this year than last.

Coronavirus pandemic-induced changes occurred in all industries, and seasonal dining establishments opening for the first time since last fall are finding new rhythms in preparation for what they hope is a fruitful season after a down year.

“It’s kind of like the entrepreneurial Olympics; everyone’s doing these tweaks to try and make it work,” Village Inn and Tavern owner Kate Beals said. “There were so many good lessons and we worked so hard.”

Nikos Kavanya sits with a glass of red wine Wednesday as she waits for dessert at the Village Inn and Tavern in Belgrade. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

For some local food establishments, the season lasts but a few months. Others stick around from early spring late into the fall. These seasonal spots do not open during the winter, the most recent of which was particularly unkind to restaurants due to the pandemic.

Between the summer residents of the Belgrade Lakes Region, China Lake and other visitors around the region, a handful of businesses succeed annually as seasonal food establishments. Experiences during the pandemic varied widely based on the type of business.

Businesses with simple takeout windows barely missed a beat, while restaurants focused on full-service made more involved pivots. Seasonal food establishments do have an inherent advantage in the region’s summer population boom. Belgrade, for example, normally doubles its 3,200 people over the summer and other area towns see increases thanks to their lakeside locations.

More and more people are getting vaccinated as well, as state and federal officials relax measures from the past year intended to hamper the spread of COVID-19.

“This is going to be a good season,” said Lori Yotides, owner of the Spiro and Company food truck, a gourmet concession in Belgrade Lakes Village. “I think everyone wants to get back to a little bit of normalcy.”

Meanwhile, the state is loosening its pandemic rules for restaurants and others. Outdoor gatherings are currently allowed to operate at 75% capacity and after Monday, May 24, the limits will be removed with 100% capacity allowed. Capacity is currently capped at 50% for indoor public settings and had been slated to go up to 75% on May 24, but Gov. Janet Mills announced this past week those will go to 100% capacity allowed as well.

The state is keeping in place the physical distancing requirements for bars, restaurants and other indoor, public settings where most people just remove masks in order to eat or drink.

SOCIALLY-DISTANCED BUSINESS 

Set to open H.J. BLAKE’S food truck for its seventh season next month, Holly Blake knows her specialty seafood, burger and hot dog business has it better than most when it comes to the pandemic.

“I’m thankful that it’s a takeout business with natural social distancing,” Blake said. “I have lots of outdoor seating in a country environment.”

Food trucks have social distancing down to a science. In fact, save for a line, it’s almost impossible not to be at a distance. Area food trucks reported strong 2020s and look to build off a longer season in 2021.

Right off Interstate 95 on Kennedy Memorial Drive in Oakland, Sheba’s Wicked Kitchen opened in mid-April this year, the same as 2020. Owner Sheila Iveson thought about not even opening last year after losing multiple Colby College catering events.

“I was extremely busy, but I was also facing so many challenges with help,” Iveson said. “The second biggest challenge was product supply, price increases.”

Although her profit margins were lower than years past, Iveson chalks up 2020 as a success. Sheba’s was one of the few spots open last spring because of its takeout-only nature. Some people asked Iveson to pay them under the table while they received unemployment, which she declined to do.

Margins are down for a bit so far, but increased tourism bodes well.

“The true test for me is after Memorial Day,” Iveson said.

Spinning its Greek eats, the Spiro and Company food truck has multi-day stops planned at Pleau’s Market in Winslow and Main Street in Belgrade all summer.

In business since 2008 doing catering and private parties and with her food truck since 2014, Yotides said summer 2020 was “fantastic.”

“It was probably one of the best summers I’ve ever had and I was only open half the time,” said Yotides, who opened for just six weeks last summer. “I think we’re on track for another great summer.”

With pandemic restriction changes, some businesses who succeeded did incur additional expenses. Blake hired an additional employee for all open hours to keep the area sanitized.

Overall, they did well last summer. Well enough that Blake retired ahead of this school year from 35 years in special education and is focusing entirely on her seasonal food business and remains cautiously optimistic about this summer.

“In my mind, the world is in the same situation as last summer but more people are vaccinated, so hopefully more people go out,” Blake said.

PIVOTS TO LAST

A Belgrade staple in the heart of its downtown strip, Day’s Store sells it all. From sandwiches, pizza and baked goods to fishing bait and throw pillows, myriad customers flow in the store during a regular summer day.

Paula Nason rings up an order Tuesday at Day’s Store in Belgrade. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

So if anyone’s got a pulse on the region’s commerce, it’s store co-owner Diane Oliver. She and her daughter, store manager Melissa Furbush, said sales were down last summer but not as much as initially expected. Day’s Store pivoted to provide expanded grocery offerings, including produce, meats, seafood and specialty food items. Patrons would call and do full grocery orders, which helped sustain the business.

“People chose to stay here in their cottages and also chose to shop local,” Oliver said.

The pandemic “allowed us to become more specialty driven, which we were going to do anyways,” Furbush added. “So it got us ahead.”

Expanded offerings at Day’s Store are here to stay, as is its curbside station. Open April-December, the store is one of the seasonal businesses that stays open the longest. With capacity limits for summer 2021 at 50 up from 20 last year, they expect even more of an uptick in business.

Day’s Store is among the variety of businesses with both sit-down and takeout elements that made lasting pivots a summer ago.

John Shilkin pays for his boat fuel and a shirt Tuesday at Day’s Store in Belgrade. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Pete’s Pig Catering & Barbecue, which moved three years ago from Belgrade to Water Street in Waterville, is set to open May 18 through October. Owners Barbara and Pete Clark struggled last summer as most of its catering business dried up. Catering accounts for 75% of the business in most years, with dine-in and carryout service making up the difference. As catering orders get back to normal levels, the Clarks plan on emphasizing its carryout options more this year.

“It’s exposure, so if they know about it, it ties into the catering,” Barbara Clark said. “We’re hoping our catering will keep us going.”

At Courtney’s Hot Dogs in Winslow, owner Scott Dorval cut inside seating at his business in half, from eight tables to four, last summer and that change remains today. Last year, Courtney’s opened five weeks later than usual, “but had a record-breaking year.” This year the business opened for its 24th season on time on May 4, but it’s still all about getting customers in and out quicker. Most patrons eat in their cars anyways, which is a COVID-times savior.

“Just being in the open air, we didn’t have to make too many changes,” Dorval said. “We had to change the route of people in line which is great now and we probably won’t ever change it (back).”

FULL-SERVICE SPOTS 

The Nineteen 16 Restaurant, located at the Waterville Country Club, and The Village Inn and Tavern continue to rely on outdoor seating even as more indoor opportunity opens up.

For 25 years prior to 2020, the Waterville Country Club leased out the food and beverage operations. Last year marked the first time in decades that the club ran its own dining.

“We made that decision pre-pandemic, which really was probably pretty beneficial for us,” Waterville Country Club General Manager Nick Pelotte said. “Had we continued to lease out our food and beverage operation, I think there was a real possibility that a tenant would not have been able to operate based on everything going on.”

Because of the mandated restaurant closures last year, the Village Inn and Tavern provided takeout only out for the first two months of its season. It began seating patrons on Memorial Day Weekend outdoors with an expanded seating area.

As a result of the pandemic, it operated with a smaller and rotating menu. Customers were receptive to it and it’s here to stay. More weddings, events and twice-weekly live music is back.

The Nineteen 16 Restaurant, opened to its members and the public April 9. The full-service restaurant is operating the same way as it did last year, and will stay open until golf is done being played, around Veteran’s Day in November. The restaurant serves seven days a week from 11 a.m. through dinner each night.

“We’re just hoping that more and more people are going to continue to feel comfortable which is going to create more traffic, but we are going to do it all safely” Pelotte said. “It shouldn’t be a whole lot different for us, but the major difference is using everything that we learned last year to better provide for our members, their guests and the public.”

Josh McMahon serves some macaroni and cheese Wednesday at the Village Inn and Tavern in Belgrade. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Entering its 100th season, The Village Inn and Tavern’s eight-room inn itself has never been busier. The restaurant portion of the business is open five nights a week to the public with outdoor seating soon to come.

The restaurant generally goes to seven nights a week during the summer and will soon, but they’re having trouble finding enough staff, an issue businesses are experiencing nationwide.

Nonetheless, Beals looks forward to a resilient year kicked off by a successful April.

“As far as we can tell, it’s going to be a huge summer. Everybody wants to be outside, dine out,” Beals said. “We’re all bracing for a really strong tourist season.”

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