HALLOWELL — Alexander Hamilton Jones turns 3 on Sunday and celebrating his birthday during a pandemic is proving to be a challenge.

“We didn’t feel comfortable taking him anywhere for his birthday inside, since he’s under 5 and unvaccinated,” Katy Jones, his mother, said Friday.

So, on the sunny last day of 2021, the Jones family — Alex, Katy and father David — headed to Maine Local Market on Water Street.

On Friday, Maine Local Market lit its first Winter Fire of the season, in fire pits set up along the western  bank of the Kennebec River behind the restaurant and specialty grocer at 136 Water St.

“We figured this would be a great option,” Katy Jones said. “He loves marshmallows and hot chocolate, which were on the menu. And this is a great place for him to play while we eat and have a nice birthday adventure.”

“It’s a little sunshine in the winter, and you get to watch the animals go by,” David Jones said as a lone male mallard paddled by.

Six fire pits, crafted by Mainely Handrails and bearing the Maine Local Market logo, are spread out along the riverbank among tables and chairs and are available by reservation on weekends through the winter.

“There is really nothing more social than a fire,” Maine Local Market co-owner Tom Janenda said. “This is something that people can feel safe about.”

Patrons gather around fire pits Friday as they take in the view along the banks of the Kennebec River behind the Maine Local Market in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

When the business opened on April 3, owners Janenda and Monica Castellanos thought the COVID-19 pandemic would be winding down in 2021, but that hasn’t been the case. And it was time for the partners to reassess what they are doing, particularly Castellanos who has been undergoing treatment for cancer.

“We actually opened for dinner for about four or five weeks for vaccinated only, and it was successful,” Janenda said. “But we’re not comfortable, and our customers are really not comfortable anymore.”

So their decision to lease the land between Front Street and the river is now giving them options for their business as the  number of COVID-19 infections are spiking in Maine and are expected to remain elevated into 2022.

The restaurant is transitioning to a takeout menu, with ready-to-go options and a new menu that will debut next week. And for those who still want to eat out, they are welcome to eat outside among the firepits on weekends.

Mainely Handrails in Fairfield made the metal fire pits that were lit for the first time Friday along the banks of the Kennebec River behind the Maine Local Market in Hallowell. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We’re planning to have some sort of Saturday morning activities for kids this winter, too,” Janenda said.

Castellanos, who formerly worked for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, has a longstanding relationship with the Kennebec, dating back to her childhood in Gardiner when her mother warned her to stay away from the river.

And from the vantage point of her business, she can watch a juvenile bald eagle ply the stretch of the river her business overlooks.

“The thing about fire is that it’s a little like the ocean,” Castellanos said. “It works in any scenario. It works in sadness, it works in happiness, it works in celebration. It gives you time to reflect, so I guess it makes sense that we’re having fire pits on New Year’s Eve.”

The fires echo what other businesses have been doing over the course of the pandemic — offering outdoor fire pits for customers to sit around. In Gardiner, Bateau Brewing has fire pits outside and Lintonia Bar & Grill in Litchfield installed a fire pit outside last winter to give customers a warm place to wait for tables inside.

“We’re very excited to share this space with people,” Janenda said. “We’re very grateful as people who started this business in a crazy time that people have been so supportive.”

Katy Jones said her birthday is at the end of March, and returning to the fire pits at Maine Local Market is something she is considering, depending on the weather.

“You never know; sometimes there’ll be snow,” she said. “Sometimes there won’t.”


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