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

Say you are the owner of a popular, on-the-peninsula restaurant in Portland gearing up for an ordinary summer tourism season. To handle the crowds, you’ll be expanding your staff, in some cases as much as doubling it. For about five years now, hiring for the summer has been a challenge, an annual chore that’s begun to feel as burdensome and as certain as death and taxes. With so many restaurants in town, there simply aren’t enough skilled hands to go around.

Now add a pandemic to the equation.

Over the last year plus, you’ve lost much of your staff through furloughs and layoffs. Some you’ve hired back. Some have left the industry for good; real data is hard to come by, but estimates predict as much as 25 percent of the workforce may never return. At the same time, restaurant staffers still overseeing their children’s schooling and care may not be able to work their usual hours. And federal unemployment assistance – that extra $300 a week – has been extended through early September, the beating heart of Maine’s tourism season, providing a disincentive to work, some employers say.

It doesn’t help that the restaurants are starting from behind. Even the industry’s “best” quarter last year was hardly that. Figures from July through September, the most recent timespan available from the Maine Department of Labor, show that the number of employees at food service and drinking places in the Portland metro area were down 28 percent from the previous year, after a 50 percent drop in April through June. (Comparable figures for all jobs in the area show a decrease of 14 percent last spring and 9 percent last summer.)

Statewide, the hospitality workforce, which includes hotels, in addition to restaurants and bars, declined from some 59,000 full- and part-timers to 36,000 from 2019 to 2020, or 39 percent, according to a report prepared by two University of Maine economics professors for the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation.

For the restaurant industry, the pandemic has been calamitous.

Financially speaking, it’s always a stretch to hire in the spring. Restaurants in Maine typically make their money in the summer, banking it for the slow winter season. By spring, with reserves at their lowest ebb, they must find, train and pay new staff, money going out before much is coming in. Emotionally speaking, after the most demanding, backbreaking year of their business lives, restaurant proprietors are straining to muster the energy and money to gear up.

“Frankly, after a year of doing this, we are all sucking on an empty tank,” said chef David Turin, who owns David’s and David’s Opus Ten in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland.

David Turin, the chef-owner of David’s Restaurants, at his restaurant in Monument Square in January. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe Buy this Photo

Undergirding the particular difficulties of this summer’s hiring process is the same excruciating uncertainty that’s stamped the entire last year. Maine’s summer crowds usually arrive as reliably as the tides. But will they? And when? (“Is it going to hit on Memorial Day? Is it going to hit on July 4? It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Peter Sueltenfuss of Other Side Diner and two Other Side Delicatessens.) When they do get here, will they be comfortable eating inside or should restaurants hire only enough staff for outside service? And granted, the rising number of Mainers, and Americans, who’ve been vaccinated provides a strong measure of comfort, but the high number of COVID cases and the aggressive variants that have arrived here inject a strong dose of anxiety.

“We’re trying to hire toward what we’re guessing our July is going to look like. If you have some dice on your counter right now where you are working, I would recommend you roll them, because who knows?” Turin said in an early April interview. “Who knows? I feel I am so out of my depth trying to put together all these bits of information coming at me in the news. I am not a scientist. I am a cook. I have no expertise in this at all. It’s like waving a wet finger in the air: Is it going to blow from the south or the north?”

SEND HELP

Jay Villani is frustrated. The owner of Local 188, Black Cow and Salvage BBQ, all in Portland, is having trouble hiring. Again.

I can’t find anybody who wants to work. Yeah. No. It’s kind of crazy,” he said in an interview in late March. He’d been running an advertisement for help every day for two weeks straight, posting on Craig’s List, Facebook and other social media. Other local restaurateurs say they solicit staff on these, as well as on Indeed, Instagram, Good Food Jobs and through culinary school connections and word of mouth.

Villani was running into what Portland restaurateurs agree is a universal problem.

“Everyone wants to work in the front of the house,” he said. “There is no one who wants to work in the back of the house.” Front-of-house includes servers and bartenders – tipped jobs, in other words – while back-of-house covers positions like sous chef, line cook, prep cook and dishwasher. In a busy restaurant in the height of the summer, front-of-house employees can make a tidy sum.

Jay Villani, owner of Local 188 in Portland in the kitchen April 14. Villani says no want wants to work in the back of the house at restaurants – positions like sous chef, line cook, prep cook and dishwasher. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I’ve had two people apply (for back of the house). Two people,” Villani said in an exasperated tone. “I could probably use four to six more hands in each restaurant. There is just not enough help in this town.”

Steve DiMillo, manager of his family’s eponymous Old Port restaurant and chairman of the board at HospitalityMaine, underlines that.

“It is universally worse than any other time,” he said. As of late March, he too was getting scant response to ads on Instagram and Facebook for the roughly 15 positions he hoped to fill at DiMillo’s on the Water. Maybe he should branch out to Indeed, he asked himself out loud. “I just made a note to ask chef, but the last time I asked chef, she said it’s a waste of money,” he said. “We get nothing.”

In a survey HospitalityMaine did of its membership in late March, 96.5 percent said they were looking to hire staff; 32 percent wanted help “immediately.”

One after another, Portland restaurateurs share their hiring travails. Sueltenfuss, too, is looking for summer staff.

“And 50 other restaurants in a 50-mile radius are doing the same thing,” he said. “We’re all friends, and we are all competing for the same two people.” Even if the state were to allow him to fill 100 percent of the seats in his diner, he said – on May 24, restaurants may increase indoor capacity to 75 percent, as outlined in Gov. Mills’ Moving Maine Forward plan – “we don’t have the staff to feed 100 percent.”

Jason Loring, part owner of Slab, Nosh and Congress Bar & Grill in Portland (as well as Hunker Down in Sugarloaf), doesn’t even want to discuss the situation. He emailed in late March to decline a request for an interview. “We are in the middle of trying to figure it out,” he wrote. “All I know is we are gonna have a lot of business this summer and not enough employees. That’s all I got.”

DiMillo compared the situation to Maine’s sizzling real estate market, a seller’s market, for sure. When it comes to hiring for the summer of 2021, he said, “It’s an employee’s market. One worker has all kinds of choices.”

UNSAVORY IMAGE

The summer labor shortage predates the coronavirus pandemic and its causes go deeper than the city’s concentration of restaurants competing for the same set of workers. It reflects both national and local realities.

For at least a 20-year period beginning in the 1990s, restaurant work, or its image, grew ever more glamorous, a perception fueled by organizations like the James Beard Foundation in New York; corporations like the Food Network; and Hollywood, where good-looking fictional chefs popped up all over the silver screen. But in recent years, its image has suffered. Press attention has turned to its unsavory side – toxic bosses, drug and alcohol abuse, mental health struggles, poor pay, sexual harassment and little to no health insurance, that last a critical lack in a year when the coronavirus has ravaged the nation. Some chefs add that this generation of younger cooks is less willing to work 52 bone-crushing weekends a year.

“In 2015, more people started to leave the industry and less people came into it,” said Daryle Degen, who founded the Appleton-based headhunting company Maine Cater Recruitment, with his wife, Orianna. “There are more career options available. The industry is not as desirable as it once was. People are now starting to view the hospitality industry as a fallback option, the emergency option. If my goals and dreams and hopes don’t work out, I can always go back to cooking or waiting tables.

Daryle Degen, right, and his wife, Orianna Degen, of Maine Cater Recruitment, an Appleton-based headhunting company, at their home office. Daryle Degen says working in the restaurant industry is not as desirable as it once was. Buy this Photo

“The pandemic really pulled back the curtain and exposed the restaurant industry,” Degen added, for “how fragile it really is.”

A drop in culinary school enrollments nationwide bears out these developments, and makes it harder for restaurants to find trained kitchen staff.

“Cooks are becoming aware of the cost-reward ratio of going to culinary school – it’s totally out of whack,” observed Andrew Taylor, a partner in Big Tree Hospitality, the company behind Eventide Portland and Fenway, Hugo’s, and The Honey Paw. “They spend huge sums of money to go to school – and lottery-like odds that you become a celebrity chef – and get out and are a minimum-wage cook.”

That’s a particular problem for Portland, as the city has become an increasingly expensive place to live, especially on the peninsula, where many of its restaurants are clustered. And if restaurant staff can’t afford to live here, they can’t rely on frequent, late-night public transportation from nearby less expensive towns to get to work, either. Villani, who grew up in New Jersey and on Staten Island, compared the situation to the New York of his youth. He left as a young man because he couldn’t afford to stay. 

For the most part, local restaurateurs say they are not seeing the “benefit” of a larger candidate pool after some restaurants (Vinland, Piccolo and Flood’s, among them) were permanently shuttered by the pandemic.

“For every restaurant that closes down, two open up, even in this last year,” Degen said. “It further dilutes the talent pool that’s already strained.”

Likewise, they are not seeing a bump in potential staff because of “hazard pay,” which Portland voters passed by referendum last November. The measure raises the minimum wage during an emergency, such as a pandemic. Dylan Gardner, who owns Nura Hummus and Falafel Bar in Monument Square and Falafel Mafia food truck with his brother, speculated that the name could backfire.

“People see it’s hazardous, it’s dangerous, it’s hazard pay for a reason,” he said. They may think to themselves, “Do I want to do that?”

OPPORTUNITY FOR BALANCE

That’s the very question a number of longtime restaurant industry workers asked themselves this past year.

Hagai Bernstein spent more than a decade cooking in restaurants, most recently as chef de cuisine at Evo, a modern Mediterranean restaurant in Portland that he helped open in 2015. When the pandemic reached Maine, Evo, like every other restaurant in the state, closed suddenly and indefinitely. Bernstein was called back to work in May, but he found re-entry a difficult adjustment.

His wife, an at-home midwife, was much busier than usual, he said, seeing the many expecting moms who were scared to have their babies in a hospital in the middle of a pandemic. His own children – a third-grader and a 4-year-old – were at home, and both child care and summer programs had become impossible to find. His role at Evo required he be all in. Suddenly, he no longer felt he could. In June, just one month after returning to work, Bernstein made the “very difficult” decision to quit.

Hagai Bernstein was the chef du cuisine at Evo, but decided to leave the restaurant in June and now delivers for CarHop and works at C. Salt Gourmet Market in Cape Elizabeth. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“Just being off for a month and a half really made me re-evaluate some of my goals in life with my family and how I would like to operate along with working,” he said, talking hands-free as he delivered food for CarHop, one of several jobs he has held since leaving Evo; he has also installed irrigation – not as far-fetched as it sounds as he grew up on a kibbutz in Israel; worked scanning packages and stacking boxes in trailers at an L.L.Bean warehouse; and, since last month, has been cooking at C. Salt Gourmet Market in Cape Elizabeth. “I wanted to see if there were other things I could do and not just work in a full-service restaurant that required me to be there 12 hours a day. It was an opening. It was a window.”

Turin, who serves on the board of HospitalityMaine, and is active in several other local and national food and hospitality organizations, says he knows of no hard data on the number of people who’ve left the restaurant industry permanently during the pandemic. It’s always been transient, but the figures he’s heard bandied about exceed the norm: between 20 to 25 percent of the workforce. He himself lost a “lovely, lovely woman” who’d worked at David’s 388 for 14 years. “She went out and got certified as a forest therapist,” he said.

Some local operators of restaurant delivery services and cannabis stores say they’ve had an influx of staff from the restaurant world. Count Travis Milliken among them. He’s the manager at Foreside Tavern in Falmouth, but the pandemic has reduced his hours, so he’s supplementing by, like Bernstein, delivering for CarHop. He questions whether restaurant workers who were laid off during the pandemic will be permanent career changers: “There’s the old adage – once a restaurant person, always a restaurant person,” he said, laughing. “Every time you think you are out, they pull you back in.”

Emily Kinney takes food from the kitchen to a table during a lunch shift at Luke’s Lobster. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

This unprecedented year, though, could prove different. “I spoke to at least 10 chefs this week, chefs with phenomenal backgrounds, and they have all transitioned out of the industry permanently,” said Degen, at Maine Cater Recruitment. “This kind of pushed them over the edge. The pandemic really highlighted the importance of a good work-life balance, and that just doesn’t exist in the industry.”

Wherever the numbers ultimately fall, the exodus only intensifies the hiring challenge that restaurants already face.

Since he left Evo 10 months ago, Bernstein has come to see the arc of his career differently. He wants to return to food, but maybe he’ll cater. “I don’t see it as working in a restaurant or on a line, grinding every day.” Meanwhile, a funny thing happened. This spring, several restaurants reached out to offer him jobs. “The pay has increased by at least 30 percent,” he said. “It’s a cook’s market. They can pick and chose where they want to work and dictate how much they want to be paid.

“Restaurants need to be a lot more flexible,” he added. “It hasn’t been the most hospitable industry for families or parents. Because about 10 years ago, Portland had this (restaurant) revolution, with many really talented cooks (moving here). But 10 years have passed, and people have kids, and they got married and their goals and aspirations have changed.”

STRATEGIES AND INCENTIVES

He may be preaching to the choir.

“The pendulum has swung in the favor of the workers,” said Taylor at Big Tree Hospitality. “To some degree, it’s dependent on us to attract them. Every restaurant is trying to do what they can to attract people.”

Strategies for hiring for the coming summer, and beyond, are as wide-ranging as the type of cuisines these restaurants serve, from promoting from within to emailing “everybody you know,” Turin said, to tell them you’re looking.

Some hiring managers and restaurant owners started the process early. “Given the circumstances, we want to be prepared,” said Jesse Bania, general manager/wine director at Solo Italiano; others are taking it slow until the course of the virus is clearer. “One step at a time,” Taylor said. Over the years, Turin has personally tried “about 1,000 different strategies.”

Henry Johannen brings checks over to a table during a lunch shift at Luke’s Lobster. Johannen has been with the restaurant since they opened in Portland and as one of the employees who was not furloughed he worked throughout the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Short-term enticements include sign-on and referral bonuses – both of which are offered by Otto Pizza. Larger operations – like Big Tree Hospitality and Fathom Companies, which owns Union in The Press Hotel and the soon-to-open Luna bar and Salt Yard restaurant in the Canopy Portland Waterfront – dangle better benefits and more opportunities. “In this building alone, there are many positions you can work over the course of time,” Taylor said. “There is a whole lot to learn.”

Hotels can also offer scheduling flexibility, said Karl McElligott, director of food & beverage for Fathom Companies. He’s looking to hire roughly 35 restaurant employees this spring. “You can fill in around family,” he said, a distinct advantage during the pandemic, when support systems like schools and senior centers have been closed. “Seven days a week means multiple shifts,” he elaborated, “not just Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.”

Ben Conniff, co-founder of Luke’s Lobster, which now has a branch on Portland Pier, thinks he has a leg up in the values department. The company is a Certified B Corporation, meaning it must meet high social and environmental standards that “balance profit and purpose.”

During the pandemic, Luke’s Lobster has worked to support the community, Conniff said, for instance, joining efforts to feed front-line workers and giving free meals to voters on Election Day to ensure that hunger wouldn’t keep anyone from voting. “That’s really helped our teammates want to stay. It’s helped us to recruit great new teammates.”

Asked his hiring strategy, DiMillo replied that “staff retention is job No. 1. The future is: you better start being as good to your staff as you are to your guests.”

These businesses may soon get help from the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation, which is launching its Great Maine Comeback campaign Wednesday through radio, social media and digital advertising. The foundation, “which is all about education and workforce,” according to Executive Director Steve Hewins, was established just three months ago. This, its initial effort, is intended to address the immediate hiring crisis statewide with a website, greatmainecomeback.org, which is slated to go live next week and will connect job seekers with the businesses that need them.

“We want everybody back,” Hewins said. “The Great Maine Comeback is designed to remind people that the industry is coming back and we need people coming back.”

Better pay may be the best answer, as Hagai Bernstein discovered this spring. That’s not a new issue, but the pandemic has created “a new urgency,” Turin said. In response, compensation levels are “changing very rapidly,” Turin said. “In order for people to get workers, that starting wage is going to have to be higher and the benefits are going to have to be better.”

Diners, he warned, should expect to pay more. “The reality is operating a restaurant is really very simple math,” Turin said. “You have to bring in more than you spend. If you want to pay people more, (customers) have to pay more for the things (they) buy. It’s a financial fact.”

Michael Tibbetts washes dishes during a lunch shift at Luke’s Lobster. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Case in point: When Honey Paw and Eventide Oyster reopened for outdoor dining in early April, they added a 3 percent Kitchen Fair Wage Fee to every bill. “This does not represent a gratuity to service staff, and 100 percent of this fee will be distributed directly and evenly to all back-of-house employees,” the restaurant group said in a statement. “This fee, though small to each diner, will meaningfully impact our kitchen staff and help reduce the discrepancy between back-of-house and front-of-house income.”

Taylor added that, while he complains about the difficulty of hiring every spring, “typically by July 4, it works itself out. How? I don’t know. It’s a mystery, but it does all seem to fall into place somehow.”

MAKING IT WORK

But what if it doesn’t? What if the coronavirus subsides, tourists return in record numbers and Mainers – sick of our own cooking and raring to bust out of our quarantined lives – pack Portland’s restaurants alongside them, and meanwhile, restaurants can’t find the staff they need?

They have an array of common-sense options. Restaurateurs and managers variously say they will streamline menus to reduce the need for kitchen staff; cut back restaurant hours, such as closing Mondays or eliminating brunch; pay overtime; ask more from management; cross-train employees, or as McElligott put it, “We are asking all our employees to be a little more Swiss Army knife”; bring in family members to work the host stand or clear the tables; and “keep trying,” said Ann Foley, human resources director at Otto.

“People make a lot of deals with the devil when they are trying to operate their business. A lot of praying goes on,” Turin said. “And it can feel pretty desperate.”

Come summer, you may find DiMillo operating the deep fryer, churning out fried clams, shrimp and scallops for diners in the car ferry-turned-restaurant. He’s done it before. In fact, he likes the job. “Sometimes, it’s a break for me,” he said. “There are no decisions to make.”

Villani, who joked that his hiring strategy for summer 2021 will be “standing on my head and trying to juggle with my feet,” is taking a different tack. “Hopefully this article will come out soon and people will be like ‘Oh, this guy is hiring.’ ”

Read Part 1: Threatened by coronavirus, Portland’s restaurants turn the tables

Read Part 2: On Middle Street, a culinary hub embodies an industry under siege

Read Part 3: Restaurant closures ripple through local economy

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