CAPE ELIZABETH — If you had been charged with designing a restaurant to survive the coronavirus pandemic, you might have come up with The Well at Jordan’s Farm.

It’s small, seating 60 diners at most in an evening. It’s almost entirely out-of-doors. Customers at The Well, set in a field of radiant flowers near the junction of Wells Road and Spurwink Avenue in Cape Elizabeth, eat at spaciously separated picnic tables or in their own private gazebos, outfitted with undulating slab tables, Bluetooth speakers, soft lighting and rustic charm to spare. Its season runs from June to October, so chef/owner Jason Williams needn’t brood over the looming winter, worrying whether diners will feel safe enough to return to indoor eating or if there’s a better than even chance he could go bust.

The food is local, with vegetables coming just steps away from Jordan’s Farm and other Cape Elizabeth farms, and meat supplied by farms scattered around southern Maine. That farm-to-table ethos has been a draw from the start, but in 2020, with national food supply chains disrupted and sometimes unsafe, diners’ enthusiasm for local food has deepened.

There is just a single seating at The Well every evening; no tables are turned. That means no hopeful diners stand around crowding the place waiting for a table to become available and increasing 6-foot separation anxiety. At the same time, no reserved diners stress over who preceded them at the table and whether those guests were, God forbid, infected with the highly contagious virus. Moreover, except for drinks, dinners at The Well are mostly prepaid; no cash or credit cards need exchange hands, hence less anxiety that the virus could stealthily spread by surface transmission. To get to the bathroom, customers walk, without a COVID care in the world, in the fresh open air to a stand-alone building some 50 feet from the fire-pit.

“This place has always been about space and the tranquil dining experience,” Williams said in a phone interview, words that sound like a mantra for what wary fine-dining restaurant-goers in a pandemic era seek.

The website of The Well, now in its 11th season, is serene, with photos of lambent gazebos under dusky rose skies, a red tractor parked on yellow grass, a smiling Williams in his immaculate trailer kitchen. Designed long before any of us ever dreamed of washing our hands obsessively or sporting masks each time we ventured out, the home page makes not a single mention of the coronavirus. The second line of text reads: “We are lucky to be situated on Jordan’s Farm, which is a working farm on 122 acres of land.”

In 2020, that is not the restaurant’s only piece of luck.

Chef/owner Jason Williams at his restaurant The Well. Note his houndstooth checked mask, the classic pattern for chefs’ pants. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

THE LEAD-UP

Reservations for The Well opened March 1. Year after year, the small place – four gazebos, three picnic tables, and an attractive enclosed porch/bar – sells out every summer, and this year was shaping up to be the same, with reservations coming in at a steady clip early in the month. But as the virus rapidly advanced on Maine, and Gov. Janet Mills ordered restaurants and bars around the state to close, reservations slowed to a trickle.

Williams had been monitoring the situation from afar for about a month by then. Winters, he works as a private chef for Burton Snowboards, traveling around the country. In Colorado for the Burton U.S. Open, he’d listened attentively as members of the globe-trotting team, including athletes from all over the world, talked about the virus.

Already on the flight back to Maine from Vail in early March, wheels turned in his head. A few seats ahead of him, he watched a passenger press the call button to get the attention of a flight attendant. A light bulb went off: Among the few changes Williams has made at The Well in response to the pandemic are the saucer-sized red flashers he has installed on the gazebo doors. Servers — five to seven people work front-of-house each summer — needn’t enter the gazebos continually to check whether diners need more wine or dropped a spoon. When customers want service, they can simply press the flasher. (Especially cautious diners can also ask servers to leave their food orders outside the gazebo doors; 5 percent of them have done so this summer, Williams said.)

But Williams worried whether The Well could even open for the season. His pig purchase, for one, was on his mind. Based on sales from his 2019 season, he’d ordered pigs for the next summer from Breezy Hill farm in South Berwick. He planned to use the meat in dishes like his crowd-pleasing pork ricotta meatballs with fresh tomato puree, arugula, picholine onions and shaved Parmesan.

“I have always been a whole animal butcher,” Williams said. “Breezy Hill, he knows what I am looking for by the end of the previous season, so he can purchase accordingly and raise accordingly. Which was great, but also scary because I didn’t know if I was going to open or I’m going to be stuck with seven pigs.”

But even as he fretted, he held onto the thought that his restaurant was strangely well-suited to meet a pandemic. In May, as restaurants elsewhere in the state began to reopen, Williams reduced his customer numbers. Normally the small gazebos seat up to six; he dropped the limit to two. He reduced capacity on the larger gazebos, as well, from the usual 12 to eight. “I was trying to see what would happen,” he said.

What happened was, reservations took an uptick, and soon The Well was booked solid for June. On June 1 restaurants in Cumberland County were allowed to open for outdoor dining. On June 2, right on schedule, just as in an ordinary summer but in this most unordinary of summers, The Well at Jordan’s Farm opened. One month later, with the exception of the enclosed porch (its customer numbers remain halved), even the customer counts were back to normal.

Server Logan Marshall talks with Michael and Courtney Leary, left, and Taylor McFarlane and Philip Owen at the start of their dinner at The Well. Courtney Leary said her feeling of safety is “90 percent” of the reason she and her husband chose to eat there. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

IN THE  FIELD

Normalcy is exactly what strikes you when you eat at The Well this summer, and it hits you with an ache. Remember when our biggest worry when dining out was the size of the bill? The white noise at The Well on an early September evening was the hum of happy diners and the tinkle of dishware. At least three parties were celebrating birthdays; in one gazebo, guests wore jaunty birthday hats. Reservations for groups of customers had been spaced out, so that parties arrived individually, never running into one another before they settled into their tables. Casually elegant meals, items like pan-roasted monk fish with golden beets, cipollini onions, Swiss chard, farro and lemon butter, materialized from the kitchen with no disposable dishware, utensils or condiments in sight.

Yes, the hostess and servers were masked. Yes, a bottle of sanitizer stood discreetly on every table near the flowers from Fleur de lis in South Portland. Also, the gazebos are pressure-washed “all the time,” Williams said. But on a working farm, where dust and dirt get kicked up all the time, too, that’s not unusual.

Courtney Leary of South Portland dined with her husband and another couple in the gazebo at the top of the flower field. The Well’s setup was, she said, “90 percent of the reason why we chose this. It’s a beautiful space and the only place that we really feel safe.”

She and her husband have an 8-month-old. They also have an “amazing” nanny, who is 70 and has diabetes, “so we definitely want to make sure we are safe. We need that child care to work. Coming here we know that we can find amazing-quality food with a very safe environment.”

It was Leary’s second meal of the summer at The Well, and she was booked for a third the following week.

“It’s such a hyper-local space,” added her friend Taylor McFarlane of Cape Elizabeth. “Not only do you have your own space but the way Jason sources the food – it’s not coming from other places where more people are touching it. You really get to pare down the contact it comes into before it gets to the table, which is the epitome of farm to table.”

McFarlane added that she liked being able to socialize with friends without having to strategize about everyone’s comfort level. She’d recently gone to a brewery in Portland with friends. It was outside, good as far as it went. But it was crowded. “The people we went with were, ‘Sorry.’ ”

Jamie Carroll picks flowers at Jordan’s Farm before sitting down for her birthday dinner at The Well. It was her first time dining there. Her husband, Brian Carroll, said they are mostly eating outdoors these days, “being mindful.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In another gazebo, Peter and Vicki Sullivan of Portland enjoyed “dinner with Gram.” “Gram,” 88, was safely dining out with her children and grandchildren, a group of nine. Other places they considered, Vicki Sullivan said, topped the number of diners at a single table at eight. “Definitely that we are outside dining and just family makes it a perfect way to end the season,” said Portland resident Julie Volger, Vicki’s sister.

Both Williams and hostess Claire Merrill, smartly outfitted for a restaurant on a farm in muck boots and a puffed-sleeve, ruched-bodice dress, said they’ve heard from many customers over the course of the summer that they feel safe at The Well. “As far as dining out (during a pandemic) goes,” Merrill said, “this is the best it gets.”

DON’T CHANGE A THING

A set table inside one of the dining gazebos at The Well awaits diners. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In COVID times, in the midst of a pandemic that is decimating the restaurant industry across the country, “pivot” is the word of the hour. For Williams? Not so much. There are those flasher lights. The staff is sanitizing more. “It’s extra work, but not impossible, and better practices come out of it,” he said. Cooks’ prep schedules have been spaced out to avoid crowding in the kitchen. The Well is offering takeout for the first time, though pre-pandemic, Williams had been mulling over something of that sort. During a lengthy conversation, he cited the reduction in the number of diners in the enclosed porch as “the one thing that had to change.”

“I’m super lucky,” he said. “Super grateful.”

Two other changes this summer, happy changes, came from the customer side of things. For one, Mainers returned to The Well. Typically, the place is filled with visitors to the state, New Yorkers and Bostonians who’ve read about it. It can be hard for locals to secure a table.

Moreover, “it’s a different vibe this summer,” Williams said. “People were taking it for granted, the whole restaurant experience, getting really nitpicky, I think people are now a little more in tune with what matters: a safe environment to enjoy people’s company. Good food and good drink obviously help.”

Diners eat at well-spaced picnic tables at The Well. The restaurant has been booked solid all summer. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

SERENDIPITY

Williams did not spend exhausting, frustrating hours of his spring or summer applying for a federal Paycheck Protection Program emergency loan or a Maine Economic Recovery Grant. He didn’t need them. He was doing OK. Tally up its accidental advantages, and The Well did well this summer, its gazebos and picnic tables sold out a month in advance from June through early October.

He also credits several changes he made just last summer, that one seating per night. “I felt like I was always rushing people. I wanted to do away with that.” He ended a nine-year BYOB run, too, which let him both cut off immoderate drinkers and make money on alcohol sales. “Before it felt like chaos. It didn’t feel like the farm I fell in love with.” Finally, he initiated that pre-payment system, selling tickets for dinner in effect, which reduced the number of no shows, in turn improving his bottom line.

One expense has gone up this summer – food costs, “especially the local stuff, but I’m all for that,” he said. “If the farmers are getting more for the product, that’s kind of the point.”

Even the “awesome weather” seemed to be on his side. “That has been such a blessing for the whole restaurant industry,” Williams said. (In uncooperative weather, the gazebo shades come down to shield diners from rain, and the picnic tables are moved into the greenhouse.)

“We lucked out pretty big,” he said. “Everything worked out. Smooth sailing. Everybody stayed safe and healthy so far, knock on wood.”

He worried he would come across as gloating. He wanted to be very clear that he is not. “Oh my God, I feel so lucky. I just am watching all my friends suffer.”

A global pandemic, it goes without saying, wasn’t on Williams’ mind when he designed The Well more than a decade ago. “If I had had $2 million in my back pocket, maybe I would have built a perfect restaurant with perfect lighting and perfect dishware,” he said. “I didn’t have that. I took the grassroots approach. I stuck to the basics of a beautiful area, freshness and location, location, location.

“I wouldn’t change a thing now,” he reflected. “I was able to take baby steps. I was able to have each season, then reflect and make the right change. If I had it dialed in in the beginning, I would have missed the mark.”

It takes skill, hard work and probably luck to run a successful restaurant. In the disastrous pandemic summer of 2020, Williams hit the bull’s-eye.


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