Natalie “Figgy” DiBenedetto announced over the weekend that she is closing her fried chicken takeout business, Figgy’s Takeout and Catering, at 722B Congress St. on Portland’s West End, after six years.

Customers pick up take-out orders at Figgy’s on Portland’s West End. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Her reasons for moving on are, she said, “like a little recipe for exiting.” Take a dash of pandemic and add a divorce, a heaping portion of financial losses, and a pinch of exhaustion thanks to 60-hour work weeks and a herniated disc that throws her back out. Mix it all up and DiBenedetto has had her fill of the restaurant industry, at least for now.

DiBenedetto, a former winner of “Chopped” on the Food Network and single mother of a 15-year-old, got divorced just before the 2020 pandemic shutdown, which she says was “a major stressor.” Business was great during the pandemic, when everyone was looking for good takeout options, but it didn’t last.

“We were gangbusters last year,” she said. “We would take orders up until 4 or 5 and then just take the phone off the hook. It was amazing. But even then, the profit margins are just not what they used to be. I needed to charge more.”

When other restaurants started reopening this spring, her profits plummeted as diners ran back to their old favorites, “and it was our turn to be forgotten. We’re basically experiencing pandemic numbers now. People came to us for the last 18 months, and now that indoor seating in all these big places are back open – and I totally expected it, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad – we are down about 60 percent right now.”

DiBenedetto wasn’t affected by the city’s hazard pay ordinance, she said, because she already paid her staff “well over $20 an hour.” (She said one employee is already entertaining other offers or may be the new tenant when Figgy’s closes, another plans to take time off, and a third expects an easy job search given that restaurant workers are in high demand.) But the issue helped her see the writing on the wall – the restaurant industry is undergoing a major transformation that she believes is much needed, but it is one her health and her bank account can no longer afford.

“It just kind of got me thinking, why am I beating myself up this much at almost 50, and not making any money?” she said.

DiBenedetto also is facing increased costs – chicken prices are higher than ever – and a lot more competition from other places making stellar fried chicken and chicken sandwiches.

“The thing that sealed the deal is the real estate market right now,” she said. DiBenedetto owns the property that houses both her business and Yordprom Coffee. As of Monday, she didn’t have a buyer, but in her negotiations, “I’m trying to work out the best deal for my tenant,” she said. (Tom Yordprom said he is not yet ready to comment.)

She hasn’t yet set a firm closing date for Figgy’s, but expects to have a limited menu for the next two weeks. So what’s next? “I’d love to do some mini-consulting,” she said. “That’s the dream of every chef, but I don’t want anything permanent for quite a while. My three-year plan is probably to get out of Portland and move up the coast.”

Her more immediate plans, still tentative, involve buying a van and taking her son on a long road trip.

Welcome back, Elda

Elda, chef Bowman Brown’s fine dining restaurant in Biddeford, has reopened, and July dates are mostly sold out. (You can get added to a wait list.) There is no bar seating for now because of staffing shortages. Brown is offering a single tasting menu each night from 5:15-9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays for $90-$100.

Elda, which used to be located at 140 Main St., has moved to the second floor of an old mill building at 14 Main St. There is no wheelchair access, but customers who cannot climb the stairs can enjoy the Elda tasting menu in Brown’s first floor cafe, Jackrabbit.

And the winner is…

Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co. and Stonewall Kitchen were big winners in this year’s sofi awards, given annually by the Specialty Food Association.

Hancock Gourmet Lobster, based in Topsham, won Product of the Year for its Maine Shore Dinner for 2, which is described as “a Maine lobster bake without any of the work.” The dinner includes lobster tails, mussels, shrimp, sea scallops and corn, and the foil package it comes in can be cooked on the grill or in the oven. The dinner also won gold in the Entrees, Lunch, Dinner category. Hancock’s mini lobster grilled cheeses won a silver award.

Stonewall Kitchen in York won a gold award in the Condiments, Dressings, & Marinades category for its Everything Aioli, and another gold for its Tillen Farms Kitchen Pearl Cherries in the Fruits & Vegetables category. The company won a silver award for its Napa Valley Naturals Rosé Wine Vinegar in the Oils & Vinegars category.

Time to graze

The second Summer Sampler at Fork Food Lab in Portland is scheduled for July 21 and will feature about 15 food vendors. A $10 ticket buys a sample from each vendor as well as a tote bag and a beer, wine or seltzer. The first sampler drew about 200 people. For tickets, go to forkfoodlab.com, click on “A Taste of Fork,” then click on the events tab.

The new lobster pizza at Monte’s Fine Foods. Photo courtesy of Monte’s Fine Foods

Lobster roll, watch your back

These days the cost of a lobster roll will make your eyes roll. So if you have a hankering for lobster and more than one mouth to feed, check out the new lobster pizza at Monte’s Fine Foods at 788 Washington Ave. in Portland.

“We’re doing our seasonal menu, and we wanted to do something quintessentially Maine,” said Steve Quattrucci, owner of Monte’s.

You’d think lobster pizza would be more common on Maine menus, given the popularity of lobster mac-and-cheese, but it only appears occasionally and usually not for long. With a little searching, I found a lobster pizza made with tarragon-sherry ricotta, mozzarella, scallions, lobster and lemon aioli for $43 at Cornerstone Artisanal Pizza in Ogunquit. Allison’s Restaurant in Kennebunkport has a lobster pizza topped with chunks of lobster, pancetta, and a fontina gruyere cheese sauce for $28.

Monte’s version, which has been selling out most days, “is as much about the pizza as the lobster,” Quattrucci said. The Monte’s pie costs $27 and is topped with two ounces of lobster meat, provolone, corn, red potato, butter, fontina, lemon and chives.

A wild (blueberry) weekend

More than 55 Maine restaurants, breweries and other businesses will take part in the first Wild Maine Blueberry weekend by showcasing wild blueberries on their menus.

The event, slated for Aug. 7 and 8, was created by the Wild Maine Blueberry Commission to raise the profile of Maine’s most delicious fruit (in my opinion, written with blueberry-stained fingers). Participating southern Maine businesses include Smiling Hill Farm in Westbrook (they had me at blueberry cheesecake ice cream); Mabel’s Lobster Claw in Kennebunkport (blueberry bread); Two Fat Cats Bakery in Portland (blueberry scones); Eighteen Twenty Wines in Portland (rhubarb wine made with blueberries, and blueberry pies from Chaval); Bissell Bros. Brewing in Portland (Raked, a Saison made with wild blueberries); and Urban Farm Fermentory in Portland (wild blueberry kombucha).

For a complete list of foods, beverages and farm tours, go to wildblueberryweekend.com.

Raise a glass

If you find yourself out celebrating summer – and the end of pandemic restrictions – at the Black Point Inn in Scarborough, Migis Lodge on Sebago Lake, or Higgins Beach in Scarborough, order a Shipyard beer, a glass of Fess Parker wine, or a cocktail made with Ice-Pik Vodka and $1 of your purchase will go to the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine.

The Migis Hotel Group, Shipyard Brewing Co., Fess Parker Winery and Ice Pik Vodka have held a “Raise Your Glass” campaign annually since 2015, with a different beneficiary each year. This year’s goal is to raise at least $5,000 for the food bank.

MOFGA store opens for the season

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has reopened its Freeport storefront, and it will now be a permanent presence in the town. The Maine Organic Marketplace, at 55 Main St., sells teas, maple products, fruit preserves, salsa, granola, and other food-related items, as well as other merchandise. Store hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Our idea of Shangri La

On Aug. 14, Threshers Brewing Co. in Searsmont plans to release Shangri La La, a German-style kölsch named after one of the most popular songs by the indie band SeepeopleS. The release will be celebrated with a concert and party at the brewery from 7-10 p.m. Camping will be permitted. The event costs $10. For more information, go to threshersbrewingco.com.

The new Joey Chestnut bobblehead. Photo courtesy of National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

Hot dog! A Joey Chestnut bobblehead

If the mere thought of eating 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes in makes your head bobble, you’re not alone.

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum (yes, I am as surprised as you are that such a thing exists) in Milwaukee just unveiled a bobblehead honoring competitive-eating champion Joey Chestnut, the 14-time winner of the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Chestnut, 37, won this year’s contest on July 4, breaking his own world record by a single hot dog.

The bobbleheads cost $30 plus $8 shipping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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