Jake and Raquel Stevens spent almost two years testing pop-ups, writing business plans, scouting spaces and generally “agonizing over every detail” for the restaurant they’ve been planning together pretty much since they met – all while working full time, him in the kitchen at Eventide, her waiting tables at Drifters Wife.

On March 12, their hard work paid off. The couple opened Leeward, a 55-seat restaurant in Portland they’d built from the ground up. For three days, she was general manager and in charge of the wine program while he ran the kitchen, cooking rustic Italian dishes from beautiful Maine ingredients. But on March 14, with the coronavirus bearing down on Maine, they made a “very painful” decision, Raquel Stevens said: They closed Leeward.

“We had been in a constant state of forward momentum for a year before we opened,” she said, “and then it came to a screeching halt.”

Risky business

For several weeks now, the coronavirus pandemic has pummeled dining rooms in Maine and around the country – with no end yet in sight. And while some restaurants have been able to turn to curbside takeout, many have closed for the interim. “The uncertainty of it is agonizing,” Raquel Stevens said. In an interview with the New York Times in late March, internationally known chef/restaurateur David Chang predicted that small independently owned restaurants, exactly the sort that make Portland such an exciting restaurant city, will have “a morbidly high death rate.”

Perhaps none are more at risk than the newcomers. And perhaps none are more determined to beat the odds.

In the best of times, opening a restaurant is a risky venture, an emotional roller coaster, by all accounts. The average median cost to open is $375,000, according to Toast, a restaurant technology company, though the range is wide. And during their first year, 17 percent of independently owned restaurants fail, a 2014 study by two University of California economists found.

To get their places open, these (often young) food entrepreneurs take out bank loans, dip into their savings and supply considerable sweat equity. At the start, they need to buy equipment, furniture and dishware; purchase requisite permits and licenses; pay for renovations to kitchens and dining rooms; invest thousands in opening food and drink inventory; and pay rent and utilities on spaces that aren’t yet earning a red cent. “They really need to hit the ground running and make some cash,” explained Greg Dugal, director of government affairs at HospitalityMaine, a nonprofit trade group. “They may have stretched their dollars as thin as they possibly could because they knew next week they were going to open.”

For Yazmin Saraya and her husband, Kyle Robinson, next week never came. They began developing Chez Rosa more than a year ago, continuing to work at Five Fifty-Five in Portland for much of that time, she as pastry chef and later general manager, he as chef de cuisine. “We’d work 50 or 60 hours a week at Five Fifty-Five and then get up at 6 a.m. to meet with bankers before starting work,” Saraya said. “Sometimes we would come back from Five Fifty-Five and keep working on the project. We worked every single day for the entire year.”

They found their dream spot in Kennebunkport in the old Bandaloop space, signed a lease, and in mid-February left Five Fifty-Five for the final pre-opening push. In that last intense month, they put finishing touches on the space, hired staff and refined the menu of classic French comfort dishes. In mid-March, Saraya drove to Boston to fetch her mother, who’d flown in from her home in Mexico to help with the work, stress and celebration of opening. Opening night – Thursday, April 2 – drew tantalizingly near. “We were right on track,” Saraya said.

That date has come and gone. The 68-seat Chez Rosa, it goes without saying, is not open. Saraya’s mom remains in Maine, more than 2,000 miles from home, caught up in the sweep of shelter-in-place orders. “We are not going to put her on a plane now,” Saraya said firmly.

Do the math

Chef and restaurateur Chris Wilcox squeezed in 10 nights before the pandemic shut down Judy Gibson in the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland. He watched his customers grow increasingly cautious and his business slow, then made the difficult decision to close. “It costs way more money to have everyone there and not be busy,” he said. “We can’t have nobody walk through the door every day.”

Chris Wilcox, seen working in 2015 at the now-closed Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick, had just opened Judy Gibson when the coronavirus hit Maine. “I worked way too hard to be able get to the point of opening,” he said. “We will open again. There is no doubt in my mind. We were open for 10 days. I am not done yet.” Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

For Wilcox, like Stevens and Saraya, opening Judy Gibson was the culmination of years: 17 years learning the business from the ground up in restaurant kitchens, filling notebooks with ideas for the day he’d finally get to run his own place. He left his job as chef de cuisine at Eventide in Portland a year before opening, a move he now calls naive, as he’s been without a salary for all that time. Minus the wiring and plumbing, he and his father-in-law built the space themselves.

But Wilcox said that his wife and partner, Meghan Wilcox, was managing the budget for the casual 30-seat restaurant so well, they were right “where we needed to be.” The couple’s idea was to create a welcoming neighborhood place with really good food that didn’t cost an arm and a leg, the sort of place that thrived on regulars. Now, Wilcox simultaneously worries that vision is in jeopardy and is determined to stay true to it.

“It’s not like we are going to be in the poorhouse, but it’s scary because we don’t know what the new business is going to have to be in terms of paying off the debt,” he said. “Every month, we owe the bank X amount of dollars. So we have a break-even number each month that gets factored into how much we charge for food and drinks. Our break-even number is higher now.”

The best-laid plans

New owners have other challenges, too. They are not employees, so they are probably not eligible for unemployment. The places that did manage to open pre-coronavirus spent on perishable food inventory, which has since been given away to staff and to local food banks. “You count all of that as a loss and move on,” Wilcox said. For businesses with no track records, getting additional bank loans can be tricky. And brand new restaurants had no time to build customer loyalty, which means that the creative approaches established restaurants are trying to stay afloat – virtual tip jars, recipe sales, gift certificates in anticipation of that day when restaurants can reopen – could fizzle for them.

“People don’t know us yet. They don’t know anything about us,” Saraya said. “What do they have to support? As welcoming as Kennebunkport has been – it’s been awesome – but we are not part of the community yet. We have everything to prove to them still, and we just can’t open the doors.”

Chad Conley outside Rose Foods before it opened in 2017. The timing to open Ramona, his newest place, was less fortuitous. “There is heartbreak when our opening day came and went and we weren’t able to open the way we wanted to,” he said. 

These newly minted restaurateurs say they are obsessively researching government relief programs designed to help small businesses out of this deep hole. But the ink is not yet dry on the regulations and government staffs so overwhelmed that answers are elusive.

“I’m sitting here trying to wrap my head around the new payroll protection act,” Chad Conley said one morning last week. He has a total of 29 employees at Rose Foods in Portland, which he owns, and the Palace Diner in Biddeford and the just-about-to-open Ramona in Portland, both of which he co-owns. Ramona, a Philadelphia-style hoagie shop, was set to open on March 25; no one was on payroll yet. But without a payroll history dating to at least to mid-February and tax returns from last year, new restaurants operate in a gray area and may not be eligible for the program; Ramona is not, Conley said.

Beyond these nuts and bolts hardships for very new restaurants lies an intangible, Conley said: buzz. “There is this X factor when you open a restaurant,” he said. “You have an opportunity to build momentum, to capture customers, to show off to the world who you are.” Restaurants that opened briefly and then had to shut abruptly, he said, “are losing that chance.”

Failure is not an option

It’s a cliche that restaurants are born from passion; if you didn’t love the business, you wouldn’t be crazy enough to pour your heart, soul and cash into running one. That sentiment, combined with evident grit, may be why all of these restaurateurs found a silver lining to the pandemic. The delay has given them time to iron out the hundreds of details that go into an opening. Their families are supportive. Maine’s restaurant community is supportive. Their staff is awesome. Fingers crossed, they still have their health. Asked if they believed they would be able to open on the far side of this national crisis, all said some variation of this:

“At this point, there is no going back for us,” Saraya said. “We already gambled everything for it. It’s the project of a lifetime. No matter what happens, we are going to make it work. “

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