This is the first of five parts in our series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Portland’s restaurants.

In mid-March 2020, the staff at Becky’s Diner in Portland feverishly prepared for St. Patrick’s Day, an extraordinarily busy time at the waterfront restaurant when everyone wants corned beef and cabbage.

But then the coronavirus came to town. Zack Rand, who manages the diner and is the son of its founder, Becky Rand, vividly recalls how quickly everything changed. They briefly considered going to takeout only, but the staff was worried about catching the virus, so they closed completely until May 1. After six weeks of lost revenue, they opened up for takeout with a limited crew. Sales that month were down 80 percent, while the costs of running the business during a pandemic rose, and Rand grappled with obtaining the restaurant’s first Paycheck Protection Program loan at a time when “they were moving the goal posts constantly.”

“I don’t have any hair,” he joked, “but I started pulling out all the hair I don’t have.”

There were times that first couple of months that Rand confessed to family his concern that the diner might not survive. He credits his mother, who started the business to support her six kids and had to “scratch and claw” her way to success, with keeping him calm.

The next few months were a roller coaster, but Becky’s is still here and celebrated its 30th anniversary March 13. It’s an example of the resilience of the Portland restaurant community, where so many places have struggled during the pandemic but are hanging on.

Frank Davis of Raymond eats breakfast this month at Becky’s Diner in Portland. To meet the state’s COVID-19 spacing rules, the diner put plexiglass dividers between booths and closed the stools at the counter. The pandemic has hit the iconic diner hard, but unlike some other well-known city restaurants, it is still in business. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Over the summer, Portland lost restaurants like the critically acclaimed Drifters Wife, the tiny modern Italian bistro Piccolo, and the all-local Vinland that were among those responsible for its national reputation as a culinary destination. The devastating early predictions of closures – that 85 percent of independent restaurants nationwide might not survive until the end of 2020 – seemed to be playing out. Then government aid began to flow, putting out immediate financial fires, saving jobs and giving restaurants breathing room. Portland appears to be faring better than bigger restaurant cities like New York and Portland, Oregon, where an estimated one in six and one in seven restaurants, respectively – including national chain restaurants – had closed by the end of 2020. By comparison, a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram survey of the more than 300 independent restaurants and cafes in Portland with on-premise dining shows that about 1 in 14 have permanently shuttered.

Portland restaurants by operating status

Search by takeout only, outdoor dining only, indoor dining, temporarily closed or permanently closed.

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There’s no one reason for the better-than-expected performance. Many Portland restaurateurs say they probably would not have made it this far without financial support from grants and loans. In addition to receiving PPP loans, Portland restaurants and other food and beverage establishments were given the vast majority of the 229 Maine Tourism, Hospitality and Retail Recovery grants – collectively worth about $7.9 million – awarded in the city. Still to come: $28.6 billion in grants for the nation’s independent restaurants and bars from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, signed by President Biden in March.

But they also point to the flexibility of independent ownership, experience gained through years of forging through the always lean Maine winters, tourism from pandemic-weary neighboring states, and the support of the local community, from loyal diners to city government and even fellow restaurateurs.

“It shows what a foodie community this is, because a lot of our customers are just so loyal,” said Dave Mallari, owner of The Sinful Kitchen, where regulars have ordered their huevos rancheros and stuffed French toast to go. “That’s what’s helping a lot of us survive.”

But it hasn’t been easy. Independence may mean being able to pivot quickly, but it also comes with scary-looking bottom lines. In April 2020, restaurant sales in Portland plummeted by 74 percent over April 2019, and were still down 37 percent in the normally booming month of August; in December, the most recent data available, that gap increased to 44 percent. Many restaurants have reported anecdotally that year-over-year sales dropped 50-60 percent or more in 2020.

LOSING SALES, CUTTING STAFF

Paige Gould, a co-owner of small plates restaurant Central Provisions and Italian-inspired neighborhood spot Tipo, said sales this winter were down 67 percent across both businesses. A combined staff of 52 had shrunk to 14.

“If it wasn’t for the PPP loan, we would not be in as good a position as we are right now,” she said. “I’m not saying we’re in a great position, but we’re fine. We’re not going anywhere.”

PPP loans to Portland food and beverage businesses

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Restaurant Address Loan Amount

Survival strategies have ranged from cutting business hours and laying off staff to dramatically altering menus. Cathy Rasco, owner of the 25-year-old Arabica Coffee Co. on Free Street, has made her business as small as possible, which meant closing its Commercial Street location and letting go most of her baristas and other employees. “It feels like starting over again,” she said.

She estimates her $1 million-a-year coffee company is down 80 percent and has slashed her staff from 26 to three. But Rasco is confident her “super streamlined and simple” business will survive. She’s focusing on growing wholesale and direct-to-consumer online sales.

“I’m really determined,” she said, “and I look forward to having my space filled with people again.”

Dave and Weslie Evans, co-owners of The Great Lost Bear on Forest Avenue, lived off savings to keep longtime employees and stay open until spring. They cut the staff in half, but Dave Evans credits a PPP loan of $408,100 for saving many key jobs. They reduced their business hours and made a deal with the bank to pay only the interest on their mortgage for now. To customers’ dismay, the restaurant’s long, quirky menu is much shorter.

But now there is takeout, an option the owners have long resisted because of its impact on an already busy kitchen. Now, he said, takeout sometimes brings in more money than the dining room, creating “a huge new revenue source for us.”

“It’s been challenging keeping our heads above the water,” he said, “but the heads are above the water.”

Great Lost Bear owner Dave Evans looks out the porthole window on March 18, 2020, as Andy Pillsbury, assistant bar manager, tapes a sign to the door announcing that the popular Forest Avenue restaurant was temporarily closing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Will Pratt, co-owner of Tandem Coffee and Bakery on Congress Street, knew 2020 sales had slumped during the pandemic, but he wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he rifled through the numbers over the phone and did a quick calculation. “Yikes,” he said, when he saw the bakery’s business was down 40 percent last year. “Jeez.”

The coffee roastery next to Tandem’s cafe on Anderson Street  fared better – down 11 percent – thanks to escalating website sales, “which really carried the company from March to July,” Pratt said. In its eight years in business, the company never before had a decline in sales.

The pandemic forced the bakery to embrace efficiencies, such as staying open only when it’s busy – meaning the morning and early afternoon hours – instead of serving customers until 6 p.m. Pratt switched employees to one shift, and now the business closes at 1 p.m. Despite the struggles, Pratt remains optimistic.

“We’re pretty scrappy,” he said. “There’s nothing I could foresee that could make us shutter forever.”

SPACE CONSTRAINTS

The style and size of restaurants have factored into how well they’ve fared during the pandemic. More casual places, or ones that were prepared to offer takeout, seem to have done better than restaurants with small dining rooms where social distancing is difficult.

Yemane Tsegai enters the dining room with a plate of food at Red Sea in Portland on April 6. The family was visiting relatives in Eritrea when everything shut down last spring, and couldn’t get home for three months. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Red Sea, a six-table restaurant on Washington Avenue that serves Eritrean and Ethiopian food, has had more challenges than most, but not having to pay employees has helped. It’s a family operation. Yemane Tsegai manages the front of the house; his wife, Akbret Batha, cooks the food; occasionally, their daughter helps out. Since opening in 2014, sales have increased every year. Now, any money the restaurant brings in is helping them to “just survive,” said Tsegai, who also works as a Lyft driver. “Whatever we make, it isn’t enough, but it’s OK.”

The family was visiting relatives in Eritrea in East Africa when everything shut down last spring. Stuck there for three months, they eventually got on a special chartered flight back to the United States through the American Embassy and arrived in Portland June 13. The family quarantined for 14 days and reopened Red Sea in time for July tourist traffic.

The restaurant received a Maine Tourism, Hospitality and Retail Recovery grant of $3,015, which has helped, but this year, they’re facing another hurdle. In January, the family of three received the bill for their flight back from Africa: $2,200 per person.

Akbret Batha makes injera (flatbread) at Red Sea. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The reality of the pandemic didn’t hit Elaine Alden, co-owner of Izakaya Minato on Washington Avenue, until the day last spring when she started cleaning out the refrigerator and giving food to staff, uncertain how long the shutdown would last and what the future might hold for her employees. Then the bills started rolling in. Profits came to a sudden halt, but Alden and her husband, chef Thomas Takashi Cooke, still had to pay for rent, insurance, rental equipment, the point-of-sale payment system, utilities and food from purveyors.

The Japanese restaurant, which serves shared plates, is too small for customers to dine indoors comfortably during a pandemic, Alden said. With social distancing, they might be able to have three or four tables, which hardly seemed worth it. Plus, Alden worried about her staff. Diners could eat without masks for an hour, but her staff was there for eight. It didn’t feel safe. So Alden and Cooke started offering a limited amount of sandwiches for pre-sale to bring in income.

Before the pandemic, the couple had discouraged takeout orders, because it would strain the kitchen staff and they didn’t feel the style of food traveled well. Soon, the restaurant rebranded as Minato Express and added bento boxes, “which are meant to travel and are a very big part of Japanese food culture,” Alden said, along with omakase-style options to go. Some diners were disappointed that they couldn’t get their old favorites, like the uni spoon or the mochi bacon, but Alden did not want to compromise quality.

Elaine Alden, co-owner of Izakaya Minato on Washington Avenue. Too small to allow indoor dining during the pandemic, the Japanese restaurant put five tables outside last summer and relied more heavily on takeout business to stay afloat. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Come summer, they set up five tables outside, despite Washington Avenue being a “uniquely unfriendly spot for outdoor dining,” Alden said. In previous years, on a busy summer night, 150 diners would come through the door, she said; last summer, although demand remained high, they served about 40 guests per night outside, along with takeout.

“The thing with takeout is that people don’t get alcohol as much,” Alden said, even with the new law allowing the sale of cocktails to go. “The per-check average is significantly less than dining in because of the drinks.”

Over winter, outdoor seating decreased to two tables. Alden says she was surprised by how much people used them, considering that, though they came with heaters, there was no protection from the bitter wind. She believes many of those diners live in the neighborhood.

They say financial aid has been “a huge lifeline,” helping avoid layoffs and making winter less scary. Alden says she is eager for a return to normal, but that “will take a while. Our approach is we’ve just got to get through this.”

Like Izakaya Minato, Central Provisions, in the heart of the Old Port, is small – significantly smaller than its sister restaurant, Tipo, located in a residential area on Ocean Avenue. Its identity also centers on the concept of shareable plates, not the most popular style of dining during a pandemic.

Gould and her husband, chef Chris Gould, did their best to make indoor dining safe. They spaced tables. They installed UV lights in the HVAC system to help kill the virus, and a light on the outside of the bathroom that would turn on if someone was inside, to prevent a line from forming. But after a month, with COVID numbers still going up, they didn’t feel right about staying open and switched to takeout only in November.

“I would say Tipo was a little easier because pizza and pasta lends itself to to-go,” Gould said, whereas the dishes on Central Provisions’ menu “are more fragile and don’t travel well. Only occasionally, if a guest begged, did we do something to go.”

When it got warm enough to serve outside, the restaurateurs faced a problem: The only place where they could set up tables was a hill on Dana Street, where cobblestones would be treacherous to staff. They made it work.

“We had picnic tables built with two legs that were longer in order to make the table flat on our cobblestone hill,” Gould said. And they switched to counter service.

When cold weather arrived, they couldn’t put heaters on the hill, so they transformed into a to-go sandwich shop and market, selling spice blends and snack packs.

Eva Thornton, right, serves a meal to Ben and Theresa Batty of Albany, New York, at one of Izakaya Minato’s outdoor tables this month. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

PO’ BOYS PIVOTS

Sandwich shops were better positioned when the pandemic arrived and quarantined Mainers craved comfort food that could be delivered or easily picked up curbside. Chris Bettera, owner of Po’ Boys & Pickles in Portland, experienced both heartbreak and hope as he navigated his business through this new territory. He opened his second location in August 2019, a small sandwich shop in the Old Port that he fully renovated, adding a new walk-in and a new flattop stove with a convection oven.

The shop catered to downtown workers, hotel employees and people from the nearby courthouse, most getting lunch on weekdays. It was running in the black until the pandemic, Bettera said. His downtown staff all took the bus to work but felt uneasy continuing to do so, “so right off the bat we didn’t have the staff to run it,” he said. “And sales had dipped drastically as all the office buildings were closing.”

Bettera closed the Old Port shop in March 2020, then pulled the plug on it altogether last fall. He had an amicable break-up with his landlord, breaking his lease but leaving those valuable capital improvements and brand new flattop behind.

That might have been the end for his entire business if Bettera hadn’t listened to advice from his dad, an Italian immigrant who owned a successful restaurant in Connecticut and always told him not to rely on credit or spend what you don’t have. Bettera had set up the Old Port shop so that if it failed, the repercussions wouldn’t touch his original restaurant on Forest Avenue.

Sales decreased dramatically at the Forest Avenue location for a few weeks, so Bettera made a few tweaks – just four staff members kept the place open seven days a week until 8 p.m., sometimes working from 8 a.m. until 1 or 2 a.m. By late April, when the restaurant’s PPP loan kicked in, Bettera had the whole staff working again “because it got busy really quick.” He called in employees from the Old Port shop and put them to work painting the deck and building new picnic tables for outdoor dining.

Po’ Boys & Pickles in Portland added picnic tables outdoors to help navigate the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Po’ Boys already offered takeout and delivery, and by quickly setting up online ordering, Bettera did well over the summer. By fall, sales started going down, but they do every year.

Bettera had become more concerned about Portland’s new hazard pay rule, which requires businesses to pay employees a higher minimum wage during declared emergencies, and the potential effect of snowstorms on winter sales. He watches daily sales closely to discern patterns and adjusts staffing accordingly. When he can, he buys in bulk. If beef drops from $3 a pound to $1.80, he stocks up. The same with pork, a key ingredient in his popular Angry Pig sandwich, because he wants customers to be certain they can get what they like.

The cost of ingredients also affects labor. The restaurant tends to be slow between 3 and 5 p.m.

“If it looks like the profit margin is being hit, I have to cut the staff during that period and have them come back later,” Bettera said. “We try to minimize those things, but those are the kind of tricks we do to make sure we can stay in the black and not fall into the red.”

Customers, for the most part, have been understanding and patient, Bettera said, except in summer, when tourists were coming in and “throwing food at us and yelling at us, refusing to wear masks.” But most have been like the guy who drank the restaurant’s draft beer that had gone stale just because he knew Bettera needed the business. Another customer bought two sandwiches and left $100 in the tip jar.

“What I wake up afraid of is somebody contacts me saying they’ve either been in close contact or have tested positive themselves,” Bettera said.

DINER’S INS AND OUTS

At Becky’s, the few months after lockdown were rocky. The diner reopened for takeout only on May 1 and, soon after, added online ordering.

“We had always done takeout but it was less than 5 percent of our business,” Zack Rand said. “Takeout became 100 percent of our business.”

A rising sun lights up buildings along Commercial Street in Portland shortly before Becky’s Diner opens on April 15. Owner Becky Rand never doubted that the diner would survive to celebrate its 30th anniversary in March. But “if this had happened the first few years I was open,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A $349,500 PPP loan helped with the bottom line but had to be spent during the first eight weeks, when Becky’s was still gearing up for summer and didn’t have a lot of staffing. Racing against that deadline, Rand used the money to give his current employees temporary hazard pay and lure others who were reluctant to return because they could make more money on unemployment.

Sales for the second quarter of 2020, part of which the restaurant was closed, were down 70 percent. At the same time, the pandemic had raised the cost of doing business. Rand had to pay for protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and hard-to-get food supplies went up in price.

By mid-June, Becky’s had opened a few tables outside, on the porch on the second story of the diner and under a tent in the parking lot. By July and August, he had opened up every other table inside, but kept counter seats off-limits. Rand asked all of his employees to come back, and his staff grew from 10 or 15 people to 60-75 full- and part-time workers through summer and fall.

Elliott Randall of South Portland sits on the back deck at Becky’s. Randall, who eats breakfast there two to three times a week, has taken a table on the deck all winter because he is still not comfortable eating inside a restaurant. “I just pretend I’m ice fishing,” he said. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“We were really cranking in August and September,” Rand said. “We were very busy.”

Sales were still down 10 to 20 percent. But takeout boomed as waits for tables stretched to an hour or two. Some customers, when told how long the wait would be, walked right past the staff to “go inside to the counter and order takeout,” Rand said. “There were days when takeout was still 50 percent of our sales.”

Business slowed to a crawl again between Thanksgiving and Christmas, even on Black Friday, previously a busy day at the diner. The parking lot seating, warmed by propane heaters, remained open into November. Once those tables came down, the diner went to seating 20 to 35 people at a time inside over the winter.

“Our kitchen is ready to push out food for a lot of people, and they’re only cooking three to four tickets at a time, where they’re used to cooking nine to 10 tickets at a time,” Rand said. “But we don’t have the tables. So keeping the takeout going is big.”

An Becky’s Diner employee packages a takeout meal last month. “We had always done takeout but it was less than 5 percent of our business,” Becky’s manager Zack Rand said. “Takeout became 100 percent of our business” for a time last spring. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Rand is hoping this summer will start off as busy as August was last year. And he is grateful. During the worst of the pandemic, except for federal aid, the Rand family never had to go looking for loans or investors to survive. They were fueled by their matriarch’s passion for the business.

“She has a lot of confidence in what she’s built here,” Rand said, and his mother agrees. During the past year, Becky Rand never had a doubt that the diner would still be standing on its 30th anniversary.

“If this had happened the first few years I was open,” she said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

PERSONAL CONNECTIONS

The decision to close a restaurant is complicated. When the owners of Drifters Wife announced on social media in mid-July that the acclaimed, seasonally focused restaurant would be closing for good, it sent a shudder through the Portland dining community. It seemed like a bad omen for local restaurants trying to make it through the pandemic, even though Peter and Orenda Hale said they planned to hold onto their Washington Avenue space and open something new there.

“After 5 years in business, as of last fall, we were finally debt free,” the couple wrote in their announcement. “Now, just months into the COVID pandemic, that is no longer the case. We need to adapt to what is happening in the world right now.”

But there was more to the story that the Hales didn’t publicly talk about at the time.

“I think to assign the closing of Drifters Wife to COVID is unfair and oversimplifies COVID as a reality,” Peter Hale said. “There are myriad dynamics at work.”

Orenda Hale said, when the restaurant initially closed in March 2020, “we were like, ‘See you in two weeks!’ ” When it became clear they were in for a much longer haul, and that dining in was out, the couple (who also own the Maine & Loire wine shop) used most of their initial $162,300 PPP loan to offer takeout. But the PPP rules kept changing. The restaurant closed again in late May.

The break from the daily grind brought the Hales to an unexpected place. For years, their schedule had been backbreaking. Yes, all the hard work had won them accolades, including being named one of America’s Best New Restaurants by Bon Appetit in 2018. And yes, they were “really proud” of what they built. But the Hales were only able to have dinner with their children and put them to bed two nights a week. They decided, Orenda Hale said, that they “were not willing to compromise our kids anymore.”

The couple says they could have reinvested in takeout, built a small patio or taken other steps to reopen Drifters Wife. “I have no doubt that we could have made it work, but we didn’t want to,” Orenda Hale said.

Their next project, called Pigeons, will be designed around creating a healthier work-family balance. It will open at noon Wednesday through Sunday, and close after a 3-6 p.m. happy hour. The concept is based on Pigeon Sunday, an “affordable, fun and approachable” daytime gathering the Hales hosted at Drifters Wife before the pandemic hit, Orenda Hale said. Initially it was a place where restaurant workers could come to be waited on, instead of waiting on others.

“It ended up being this vibrant buzz of eclectic community members, industry folks, families,” she said. “People would bring their kids. We’d have groups of, like, eight parents with newborns come and hang out at the large table and have a burger. It really was exciting and fun for us, and it was casual.”

Drifters Wife was among the restaurants mentioned by Bon Appetit magazine when it named Portland Restaurant City of the Year in 2018. The restaurant closed last summer during the pandemic. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The Hales hope for a late spring opening.

Their story highlights that restaurants are more than a place for eating. They are part of the community, a space for people to gather and socialize. Portland restaurateurs say they, too, miss the social vibe and the personal relationships they’ve developed with their customers, complaining that interactions with diners during the pandemic have become “transactional.”

Pratt, at Tandem, said that, before the pandemic, customers would place an order, then hang out at the espresso machine and chat while that order was being made. Now they have to step aside for the next person waiting to order.

“Food and coffee are part of our mission,” he said, “but atmosphere and creating a welcoming space, that’s really what we like to do, so it’s very unfulfilling doing what we’re doing now. It’s very transactional. It’s a business I never would have started.”

Gould spoke fondly of a Central Provisions regular who comes in less often now but still supports the restaurant. Gould said she wants to give the woman “a huge hug because she’s been our regular since Week 1. She’s a dear friend at this point.”

“I think part of hospitality in general, and why most people get into this industry in general, is you want to feed people,” she said. “You want to take care of them. You want to make them happy and have them be full and satiated.”

Alden said Izakaya Minato’s omakase-to-go option, in which customers leave it up to the chef what to serve them, as well as sake pairings, have provided a way for her to continue to interact with customers, exchanging emails about what kind of sake they want and generally providing more of a dining experience for them, even though they’ll be eating at home. But the staff misses plating the food and seeing people enjoy it at the table. “It takes a lot of joy out of the restaurant,” she said.

Restaurants’ regular customers have maintained a connection with their favorite places. Amy Wooldridge and Peter Camp, a married couple who run CampTek Software in the Old Port, live in the same building where they work and getting out to Portland restaurants and bars is their much-needed change of pace when the day is over.

The live music fans would go to concerts as many as five nights a week and, beforehand, grab a slice or two of pizza at Otto, or Mexican at El Rayo. On Sundays, they’d go to The Yard, a live entertainment bar in Bayside that serves food. Some of their favorite spots are Shays, The Front Room, Downtown Lounge and especially Thirsty Pig, a frequent choice during the pandemic because they love sitting in the restaurant’s outdoor huts and like the way it’s handled COVID precautions. The couple has walked out of restaurants they thought were too busy to be safe, but they still dine out, on average, three times a week.

“We go places where we see very clearly that they’ve got health policies in play,” Wooldridge said. “They’re wearing masks, they’re telling others to wear their masks.”

Camp said, since they can’t travel or go to concerts, “we try to give back as much as we can to the restaurant community in the Old Port,” from tipping well and buying gift cards to going Christmas shopping for restaurant merchandise. “We encouraged anybody who was buying for us to purchase either gift cards or shirts and stuff from some of our favorite places,” Wooldridge added.

Amy Wooldridge and Peter Camp of Portland sip beers in the outside seats at The Thirsty Pig, one of their favorite dining spots, on March 18. City restaurants came up with innovative seating to extend outdoor dining into the colder months. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Sometimes, Camp said, showing their support means “just going in and having a beer or two to show your face.”

“We want this to be a vibrant community,” he said, “not just in the summertime, because everybody is here in the summertime, but keep it vibrant, keep it local throughout the year.”

HOPE AND CHALLENGES AHEAD

Messages of hope are on a lot of lips this spring, but there are challenges still to come. Restaurateurs have to rehire staff to work through what they hope will be a busy summer tourist season to help make it through next winter, “which may be the true test for those still in business,” said Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for HospitalityMaine.

“When you go through a year like we just did, you can’t take away the fact that, for all intents and purposes, the industry was closed down for three months,” Dugal said. “You don’t make that up. It’s impossible. Even though we had three good months in the summer, the cash flow wasn’t there.”

And for seasonal restaurants – about 40 percent of restaurants statewide – simply reopening might be too expensive if they are barely hanging on. There is food and alcohol to order, and payroll to think about.

“You’re talking thousands of dollars right out of the gate, just to get ramped up,” Dugal said. “It could be as little as a couple thousand or as much as $15,000 or $20,000, depending on the size of the restaurant.”

Yet Portland restaurants have a lot going for them, including their apparent resiliency. It helps that fixed costs, like rent, are more affordable here than in bigger restaurant cities. Rents for a turnkey restaurant space in the Old Port range from $25 to $40 per square foot, or $35 to $40 per square foot if it’s in a prime location, such as Fore Street or Exchange Street, according to Nate Stevens of The Boulos Co. In Boston, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, restaurant rents range from $75 to $100 per square foot. That’s one reason so many chefs have settled here and opened their own places.

On top of that, liquor licenses are much more attainable and affordable in Maine than they are in Boston.

Alden, of Izakaya Minato, used to live in San Francisco and has kept an eye on its restaurant landscape. She read an article about how one group of investors had to fork over a cumulative rent of $100,000 a month to keep their bars from going under.

“Maybe you can float a couple thousand dollars or even $10,000,” she said, “but you can’t justify ($100,000), and you can’t hold out for very long. So I think big-city restaurant landscapes are going to change more drastically than a small city like Portland, which has more chef-owners, more people who are able to work and maybe not pay themselves for a while, and have less rent to deal with.”

Pandemic regulations have also varied from state to state. Maine reopened for indoor dining in June, but New York restaurants not until February.

“I think our city has actually been pretty lucky so far, and we haven’t seen too many places close, which is amazing,” Gould said. “It just shows how resilient our community is. I think one of the most wonderful things about our community is how hard we try to support each other, which was more apparent during this pandemic than it has been during any other time.”

Gould says if one person figured out, say, a troublesome part of the PPP loans, “we would hurry to tell as many of our friends as possible. Nobody wants to go eat at the same restaurant every night. I want to see my friends succeed. I want to see them survive.”

Gould also praised the city’s response, from closing a few streets to traffic last summer to increased flexibility from the business licensing department. Ian Malin, owner of West End restaurant Little Giant, noted that the city relaxed the cost and permitting restrictions for having tables on sidewalks and in on-street parking spots. The fee for those so-called parklets was lowered from $5,000 to $1,000, making them “much more attainable,” he said. The day after he applied for his own parklet for Little Giant, an inspector showed up, and Malin had his permit three days later.

Moving toward a second pandemic summer, there’s optimism in the air and plenty of entrepreneurs interested in feeding the pent-up demand for restaurant dining. Stevens said that during the past month or two, he and other real estate professionals have seen a surge in demand for restaurant space in Portland that “even surpasses what it was pre-pandemic,” in part because of landlords’ willingness to be more flexible. Landlords generally are not lowering lease rates, he said, but are negotiating “step-up” leases, with lower rents up front, for people trying to get a restaurant ready to open by summer.

The people looking to rent, Stevens said, are a mix of line cooks and managers who have worked in local restaurants and now want to open their own place, existing restaurants looking for another location, and restaurateurs from out of state, including Boston and Rhode Island. The owners of a Portland food truck and a cafe at Sugarloaf ski resort have leased the Po’ Boys spot and plan to open a doughnut shop there in June.

“If there were a dozen 1,500-square-foot restaurant spaces with hood systems, they’d be gone at this point,” Stevens said. “It is pretty remarkable.”

But the pandemic isn’t over yet. Even with new restaurants planning to open in the city soon, more than 30 remained at least temporarily closed as of early April, most with plans to reopen but some with dark websites and disconnected phone numbers. Peter Hale notes that at every turn over the past year, life has been unpredictable, and the virus underestimated.

“I think what people are doing is making it work, and no one can see the forest for the trees because it’s such a scrape,” Hale said. “It will be probably years, even when things have gotten better, before we can really take an inventory of what we lost and what we gained in this time. So we’ll just stay hopeful, and we’ll keep working.”

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