My plumber, upon learning what I do for a living, grinned at me and posed a Sphinx-like question. “Do you know what summer people like to do best when they get to Maine?” I did not. “They like to drive 15 miles an hour on Route 1 with their hazards on and book up every restaurant in the state. It’s a love-hate thing, but God bless ‘em,” he added with a chuckle.

Get your highway detours and dialing fingers ready, because 2021 is already shaping up as a bumper year for tourism. No doubt, that’s due in part to the state’s coronavirus vaccine rollout – early measures rank it as the most successful in the nation.

Still, it’s foolish to pretend that things aren’t different this season. And none of us yet knows how pandemic challenges will transform the state’s already fractious relationship with warm-weather visitors.

I asked several Maine chefs, restaurant owners and front-of-house staff how we might be able to help tourists understand what to expect, and what we’ll be expecting from them in return. So if you’re a summer visitor, listen up: There are a few important things to know before you arrive.

#1- There’s a serious staffing shortage everywhere

During its first couple of summers in business, Portland’s Crown Jewel restaurant managed to retain nearly its entire seasonal crew, most of whom traveled to and from Great Diamond Island on the Casco Bay ferry. “But last year put a dent in things,” owner Alex Wight said. “The majority of the team dispersed across the country. Hiring this year has been, no doubt, the most difficult and challenging thing. I’m grateful that we have a full staff, but we don’t have an insurance policy from a staff perspective. Lose a person, and we’ll be doing more with less.”

Nearly the same scenario is playing out across the state. Just ask chef/owner Sara Jenkins, whose Rockport restaurant Nina June is ready for the season, but barely: “It’s an absolutely crazy employment situation. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I’ve patched enough (staff) together so we can do five nights of dinner,” she said.

For now, her solution has been to divide the harbor front dining space into two sections: one featuring a limited number of reserved, prix-fixe tables on the deck, and the other offering responsibly distanced bar seating (and a truncated menu) inside. “We’re going to do what we can do and not stress about it,” she said.

On Mount Desert Island, where Michael Boland co-owns several food businesses, including Copita in Northeast Harbor and Choco-Latte Café in Bar Harbor, the situation appears even more dire, thanks to international seasonal employees who remain unable to enter the country.

“There are J-1s and H-2Bs,” he said. (J-1 visas allow temporary cultural exchange, including work, for students; H-2B visas allow non-agricultural businesses to hire temporary seasonal workers. ) “We employ mostly J-1 staff, but those people aren’t able to make it to the U.S. right now. We hired six people from Turkey, but they can’t get through,” he said. “The coast of Maine is probably missing 1,000 people because of the pandemic. We’re missing 200 people on Mount Desert Island, I’d guess. At Havana (one of Boland’s Bar Harbor restaurants), we’re down five or six people alone. There’s a lot of knocking on wood going on.”

#2- This will be the summer of reservations and backup plans

Ian and Lucy Dutch co-own and operate Dutch’s, a fast-casual counter-service spot for breakfast and lunch in downtown Portland. When I asked about their expectations of this summer, Ian Dutch was frank: “There’s going to be a capacity issue. Places will be full, and people won’t feel like they have the options that they want,” he warned. “Like Commercial Street. It is going to be a nightmare. Those places are going to get crushed, and there might not even be space for locals. So people really need to start looking outside of downtown – research ahead, find some options so you won’t be so disappointed.”

Boland, who also co-owns Islesford Dock Restaurant & Gallery on unbridged Little Cranberry Island, echoes Ian Dutch’s recommendation to engage in some advance reconnaissance before finalizing dinner plans.

“The (Islesford) Dock is on Open Table, and sometimes people don’t pay attention, so we’ll get a reservation followed that night by a cancellation from people who say they don’t know how to get out there,” he said. “But every table counts for us now. We’re learning that if we see a party of two on Open Table, we need to call them and say, ‘Hey, just want to make sure you understand that we’re on an island.’ Unfortunately, half those calls end in canceling the reservation.”

Jenkins, whose prepaid prix-fixe tables can be reserved online or by phone, has spent more than her fair share of time explaining Nina June’s format change to prospective diners. “I think I’ve spelled out what our options are clearly on the website, on Instagram, hopefully on Facebook,” she said. “But even still…I actually had a back-and-forth with someone trying to make a reservation. They wanted four people and a high-chair. I told them, here’s what we’re offering, and they said, ‘No, that’s OK. We’ll wait until things go back to normal.’ But I’m far from convinced things are going to back to normal.”

#3- Expect shortages and higher prices

“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Brian Catapang, beverage director and owner-partner in Biddeford’s Magnus on Water, a cocktail bar and restaurant that recently hired 2020 James Beard Award finalist Ben Jackson as its chef. “We are trying to increase pay for all our employees – that’s becoming the narrative nationally now – so we can pay everyone a living wage, so there may be price reflections of that on the menu,” he said. “You see it in Portland restaurants with potential hazard pay. It’s very real. That money has to come from somewhere, and between slim margins that restaurants operate on and potential supply chain issues, costs will go up.”

Supplier snafus are more than theoretical in Wiscasset, where Ed Colburn, chef/owner of Water Street Café, has found himself coping with the double-whammy of an early start to the season and unexpected ingredient bottlenecks. “It already feels like summer here, honestly. It usually doesn’t pick up until July, but it’s good to be busy, of course,” he said. “But it’s not that simple, because every other week now, we’re hearing from distributors that there are shortages of things where they weren’t before. We just have to roll with the punches, but it’s rough to lose that stock, plus 50% of your staff, capacity and revenue, while still running full-steam ahead.”

For Jenkins the new financial calculus has prompted a rethink of the very nature of her business. “Restaurants work on volume. I used to think that was true only for places like big chop houses, but I realized it’s true for all of us, even small places,” she said. “If I used to have 100 covers for a night but now I only have 20 covers, each one has to count, and honestly if I have less tables, it means those tables have to cost more one way or another.”

Admittedly this photo, at Festina Lente in Kittery, was taken pre-pandemic. But restaurants all over the state expressed a “Christmas-morning-level of anticipation at the thought of being reunited with customers.” They’re ready and waiting for the approaching tourist season. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

#4- Restaurants still want to see you

Despite pandemic-specific challenges, nearly every person I spoke with expressed a Christmas-morning-level of anticipation at the thought of being reunited with customers.

To Tandem Coffee & Bakery barista Adam Carlow, this season offers an opportunity to expand and improve on the café’s remote approach to hospitality: “We want you to come visit, we want to treat you well, meet you, talk to you and hear your stories. The biggest challenge we’ve faced in COVID times is making sure we don’t lose anybody in the crowd,” he said. “We’re fortunate that guests have been giving us feedback that they are still getting a human connection with us, even with being masked and behind glass. And that’s definitely reciprocated.”

Catapang and his business partners feel the same. “We can’t wait to open the patio again and do table service. The pandemic sort of took the life out of why we’re in this business together, but that’s the whole reason right there: to make those connections with spirits,” he said. “We can’t hug obviously, but we want to see people and reconnect. Restaurants have always been places that break down walls and boundaries, and we’re finally at the forefront of being able to do something like that again.”

Reconnecting through cocktails might also be in the mix for Crown Jewel’s guests, but Wight hopes to bring back something essential that homebound patrons have been missing. “I hope it’s not too cheesy to say, but escape and a transportive feeling is at the core of what we do, and we can’t wait to share that again,” she said. “Plus, we can’t wait to get back to seeing people in real life and not dealing with takeout packaging throughout our dining room,” Wight added with a laugh.

#5- Bring some patience along with sunscreen and a mask

They might not have a secret text chat or Facebook group, but nearly everyone I spoke to was on the same page about the most important message for tourists this summer. According to Ian Dutch, it amounts to four words: “Be kind to restaurants.”

Carlow’s formulation is half the length, but just as powerful. “In large, bold, capital letters: Be patient,” he said. “We are human beings working in a pandemic, masked and gloved. We need to be human to each other. Sometimes folks show up and just expect things to just unfold for them. Whatever they want, they get. This summer is different. We want them to be understanding if something isn’t available or not possible.”

While expressing the same sentiment, Boland was more empathetic to the impatience of some tourists. “It all worked at the start. People were tipping well and were understanding. But now, I think that’s starting to fade. At least, it’s not as true for everyone anymore,” he said. “I get it. I can ask visitors to be patient, but when they’re hungry, they’re hungry. People might get off the trails and maybe want something quick and efficient. But I still want them to have that understanding. I’d like people to reset their expectations when they get out of New York, New Jersey or Boston and cross the border. Things will take longer, things are a little slower. It’s tempting to think that we’re all Americans and things should be like they are for you at your home. Shift down a gear, maybe two. Go down into third. It’s Maine.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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