GARDINER — When Bill Rosser opened the Table Bar earlier this month, the wine shop and bar on Water Street in downtown Gardiner joined the ranks of restaurants, tasting rooms and food trucks gearing up for the summer season and beyond.

The unofficial start of summer this weekend and what many hope are the later phases of the COVID-19 pandemic are setting the stage for Maine residents and visitors to enjoy a more normal summer season for the first time in three years.

In central Maine, customers are likely to have expanding slates of options from which to choose as the restaurant sector continues to evolve.

Some restaurants, including Two Maine Guys at 164 Main St. in Richmond, are expanding. The eatery, which opened in April 2020, a month after the global pandemic was declared, is opening a second location on Mt. Vernon Avenue in Augusta, at the site of the former Sandy Point Seafood.

In Gardiner, The Blind Pig Tavern is expanding its footprint at 266 Water St. to add a function space after buying the building from its prior owners.

And others, like the HydeOut at the Wharf, have relocated. The iconic Hallowell bar has moved upriver to 77 Water St. in downtown Augusta.


During the pandemic, a number of establishments closed for a variety of reasons, including staffing challenges. They include Jokers & Rogues Brewing, a craft brewery and tasting room in Gardiner that is slated to open later this month under new ownership on Maine Avenue in Farmingdale.

The Countryside Diner on Eastern Avenue in Augusta, the successor to Rebecca’s Place, is another.

After more than 40 years in business, Rebecca’s Place closed in January when owner Nancy Berg could not find enough employees to keep it running.

Cathy Lucas is now making plans to open the diner by July.

“We’re not changing the layout much, but everything will be updated,” Lucas said last week.

The work is happening while Lucas works to secure a liquor license, schedule inspections, finalize the menu of home-cooked comfort food and get the bakery running.


Central Maine residents have embraced a variety of restaurant options, as have visitors to Maine. Those options range from formal dining to food trucks that draw customers wherever they park.

This summer’s food trucks and carts are expected to serve a wide array of offerings, from state staples, including potatoes, to international fare.

The mobile operations — some new and some either expanding their area or staking out a single location — include Bao & Beyond, with steamed buns and Asian fusion offerings; Shawarma Express, with Middle Eastern food; Kabayan Philippine Food, with a menu of Filipino dishes; Morning Moose Coffee & Donuts; and The Gourmet Potato, with all things potato.

This year, Aaron Koss of Backyard Dogs and Catering of Gardiner said he plans to fire up his hot dog cart in June and bring it to Gardiner, Augusta and Woodbury Pond in Litchfield. He also plans to expand this year into Lewiston, including at baseball fields.

Matt Lewis, chief executive officer of Hospitality Maine, a nonprofit trade group that represents the interests of the state’s hospitality industry, including restaurants, said industry officials are anticipating a strong summer season.

Lewis’ assessment reflects some of the projections of the National Restaurant Association. In its State of the Restaurant Industry report issued earlier this year, the association projects restaurant sales could rebound this year to $898 billion, surpassing the pre-pandemic level of $864 billion.


The increased sales would help fuel an industry that has been reshaped by the pandemic and its lingering impact on a variety of factors, including staffing. Restaurants have shifted to offering more outdoor dining and to-go meals and cocktails. The report also notes some menu offerings have been changed or limited due to supply chain issues, shortages and higher prices.

Those trends are being played out on a smaller scale in Maine.

Melanie Baillargeon orders lunch for herself and her son Friday at The Gourmet Potato food truck on State Street in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Lewis said as a tourism destination, Maine continued to draw visitors during the pandemic, and is likely to draw even more this year, thanks in part to the reopening of the United States-Canadian border and despite higher fuel prices.

But even as restaurants — new, established and mobile — roll out the welcome mat, they face some challenges as the pandemic hangs on.

One of those challenges is staffing.

“We heard time and time again last year that businesses with 25 full-time staff were down to 17 or 18,” Lewis said. “But I think this year, by now, businesses have figured out how to operate with less full-time staff.”


The new normal will be businesses learning how to run successfully with fewer workers.

Owner Margo Burnett drops baskets of fries into oil Friday in The Gourmet Potato food truck on State Street in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

In Winthrop, Melissa Goucher and her three partners are gearing up to open the Tavern on the Hill 305 by the end of June, provided they can secure approvals for the liquor license and pass inspections.

The Tavern on the Hill 305 would join the White Duck Brew Pub, which opened earlier this year at 2527 Route 202, as Winthrop’s newest restaurants.

Goucher, who opened Melissa’s Pub & Grill at 675 Main St. in Lewiston, had her eye on the space at 357 Main St. It had been home to Peppers Garden & Grill, but was snatched up by D.O.N. Soul Food Kitchen.

When the space opened up again, Goucher and Bruce Libby, Erin Dunning and James Corgan made their move.

“We’re all from Winthrop, and we’re all for the community of Winthrop,” Goucher said. “We’re pretty excited to bring something that’s pretty affordable for people, with a hometown vibe.”


Goucher said staffing is a chronic concern, but she expects she and her partners will not have a problem.

“We have a lot of feedback from people in the community, and a lot of interest to work there,” she said. “I think we’ll be OK.”

Kitchen staff is harder to find than front-of-house staff, such as waiters and bartenders.

At The Whiskey Kitchen at 228 Water St. in Augusta, Ryan Sutherburg said the restaurant is not having staffing problems.

The establishment, formerly The Raging Bull Saloon, changed its focus, management and name earlier this year, with a new menu, including more than 60 whiskeys, scotches and bourbons, and extended hours.

Sutherburg said the operation, which is now open for lunch and more days during the week, has a more family-friendly atmosphere, with certain events and offerings built around children.


Bottles of wine for sale Saturday in the wine shop side of the Table Bar in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Even with these changes, he said staffing is not an issue at The Whiskey Kitchen.

“We try not to overstaff,” he said. “What we do instead is myself or my wife will put in some of the hours, so my staff isn’t splitting tips seven different ways. I’ll just do the work. I won’t take tips, and they’ll make more money.”

Sutherburg’s staff makes more money, and that gets around within the industry. As a result, he said, The Whiskey Kitchen now has a waiting list for staff.

Another challenge is supply issues or interruptions, which Lewis of Hospitality Maine said are expected to persist this summer.

“We have to highlight the resilience of Maine and the hospitality industry, and how many businesses have found a way to claw back,” Lewis said.” It’s very impressive.”

Part of that resilience is the optimism that underlies opening a new business.


For Rosser of the Table Bar, Gardiner has been a sort of mythical place for decades.

Growing up outside of Baltimore, he said he struck up a lifelong friendship with a kid who had moved with his family to Maryland from Gardiner, and learned all about it. When vacationing in Maine, he would stop in Gardiner. And eight years ago, his mother-in-law — not knowing his history with the area — moved there.

“As soon as that happened,” Rosser said, “it became sort of a foregone conclusion that I would come to Gardiner.”

When he did, he brought the experience he gained in the wine industry — first in New York and later San Francisco — to central Maine, where with his wife, Morgan Peirce, and childhood friend, Zach Lyons, he has opened the wine bar.

The original plan had been for a wine shop, but then Rosser discovered he could have both a retail and an off-premises liquor license in Maine, so customers can buy wine to take home or have a glass of wine with the variety of meats, cheeses and other food he offers.

“The idea is that it’s very much not a normal wine bar feeling,” he said. “It’s much more approachable and casual than a snooty wine bar.”

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