Ginger Cote in a booth at Big Babe’s Tavern in South Portland. Photo by Aimsel Ponti

SOUTH PORTLAND — “It’s been devastating.” That’s how Craig Dilger, owner of Foulmouthed Brewing in South Portland, described the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on local restaurants. This week, Gov. Janet Mills issued new orders allowing restaurants in Cumberland, York and Sagadahoc counties to once again offer indoor dine-in seating, but since local restaurants haven’t been allowed to do so since March, the damage may already be done.

In South Portland, owners of local eateries are worried about the future. Ginger Cote, the owner of Big Babe’s Tavern, has spoken with many other restaurateurs and said the situation is “really bad, like a lot of us are looking at bankruptcy, bad.”

Bill Dunnigan, co-owner of Cia Cafe, said he’s feeling it, too. Sales are down 50% and he thinks he is one of the luckier owners. Even with dining rooms open, Dunnigan said, social distancing rules are still in effect, which means most restaurants will have tables so spread out that they will only operate at 40% capacity.

“Nobody’s going to survive that in the winter,” he said.

Dilger said he’s been fortunate in that his brewery still distributes beer to retail outlets, which has helped, but when the closure orders first came he had to lay off his entire staff. He has since begun hiring staff back, but he’s barely got half of them working now and he doesn’t know how many more he will be able to rehire.

“I don’t see ourselves adding 100% of our staff over the winter,” he said.

The larger picture for the state is not any better, according to Steve Hewins, CEO of HospitalityMaine, a nonprofit hospitality industry trade group. Statewide, he said, Maine Revenue Services, a branch of the state Department of Administrative and Financial Services, estimates that less than a month after the pandemic broke in April 2020 lodging revenues were down 82% compared to April 2019. It’s a clear sign of the lack of tourists, a key source of income for any restaurant in the state.

“We know that the data is going to look worse in May and worse in June,” Hewins said.

Exactly how bad the situation will get before the economy improves is unclear, but Hewins noted data from the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a legislative lobbying group formed by restaurant workers and owners in the wake of the pandemic, estimates 25% of the nation’s restaurants will go out of business.

“We have no reason to believe that Maine is going to be any different from those national statistics,” Hewins said.

Hewins said the one glimmer of hope lies in innovation. Since the pandemic broke out, restaurants have adopted a number of new efforts to stay afloat, including curbside takeout service, outdoor seating – sometimes even in parking lots – and in selling supplemental products, such as Foulmouthed Brewing’s beer.

“I think the restaurant model itself is going to change,” he said.

For many restaurants, Hewins said, these new ideas might have been unheard of by the restaurant owners a year ago, and that’s the point: The pandemic has forced owners into an outside-the-box mentality that will certainly save some. In fact, he said, it’s likely that some owners may keep some of these innovations, such as takeout meals, long after the economic crisis passes.

“A lot of restaurants have re-tooled their takeout menus to be more family friendly,” he said.

Dilger, who’s gearing up for the brewery’s fourth anniversary the weekend of June 27, said he has clearance to have seating in the parking lot, but he remains worried for the industry as a whole.

“Outdoor seating and 40-50% capacity isn’t going to save a number of restaurants,” he said.

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