Travis Milliken, right, sanitizes menus at Foreside Tavern in Falmouth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Every day at 5 p.m. the manager at Pearl Kennebunk approaches Rebecca Charles, the chef/owner, and asks if the restaurant will be offering takeout that day.

The past few weeks, the answer has been no. The restaurant is so short-staffed that Charles is often one of just two people in the kitchen, and she gratefully accepted a recent offer from family members of an employee to chip in washing dishes. She’s been blocking reservations, and takes walk-ins on a case-by-case basis. Hours have been cut back. The menu has been streamlined and shortened, shedding time-consuming dishes such as the panko-crusted chicken schnitzel sandwich.

“We’re barely keeping it together,” Charles said, “and yet the business is there. People want to go out to eat.”

As vaccinations and the waning of the pandemic drive locals back to their favorite restaurants this summer, and tourists who have been set free from masks and social distancing flood the state, those diners probably won’t find the Maine restaurant experience to be the same as in 2019. Restaurants are now allowed to operate normally, but a severe shortage of workers, coupled with snags in the supply chain and rising food prices, are making that long-awaited return to normal difficult. One restaurateur likened the past couple of months to coming off “a 15-month winter.”

Add to that the fact that some restaurants have decided to keep, at least temporarily, some of the cost-saving efficiencies they discovered during the pandemic – new technology, shorter hours, sleeker menus – and it means that, for them, the pandemic is not yet over and that the way they operate, and what diners can expect of their experience, may have changed for good.

All of this comes with an ironic, and devastating, twist: Restaurants still operating on the edge of survival are being deluged with desperately needed summer business, but in many cases, they can’t meet the demand and risk angering customers with long wait times and lagging service. That could mean that, despite government assistance, the restaurant closures that happened during the height of the pandemic may only represent the first wave of casualties.

LONG WAITS, SHORT SUPPLY

For now, restaurateurs say, the majority of customers are being understanding and not lashing out as they did over mask mandates.

“People are certainly nice and happy to be out, and I think the glow of that still has not worn off,” said Charles, who continues to worry that she may lose her restaurant. “You can tell they’re still reveling in it.”

Some restaurants have taken to warning people ahead of time that they face longer waits for food. “We’re trying to do our best to communicate with the customer as soon as we take their order as to how long it’s going to take, so there’s no surprises,” said Ron Stephan, owner of Ricetta’s in Falmouth and Saco. “Instead of getting your pizza in 15 or 20 minutes, it’s 25 to 30 just because we don’t have enough people. Cooks and dishwashers are the hardest to find right now.”

At The Porthole Restaurant & Pub on Portland’s working waterfront, customers are told when they walk in that they are welcome to have a seat, but their order may take longer to arrive than they are used to, says server Joshua Chaisson.

With staffing levels so low, he said, it’s “just so hard right now. You’re going to need to be amenable to sitting and enjoying a cocktail and waiting for your food to come out. It’s not going to be the turn-and-burn atmosphere that you may have experienced before. So if you’re in a rush, and you need to squeeze in a ferry ride over to an island, perhaps you should grab something on the go and not sit down in a restaurant and then be upset that your food is taking longer than normal.”

Diners also should not be surprised if their favorite dish is no longer on the menu, Chaisson said, because food distributors are facing serious supply chain issues, especially a lack of drivers. So if a restaurant is no longer serving those chicken nuggets you always used to get, he said, “it’s not for lack of trying on the restaurant’s end.”

The struggles are not limited to southern Maine restaurants.

El El Frijoles in Sargentville, on the remote Blue Hill peninsula, is located “inside a converted barn in the middle of nowhere” and has been doing August numbers since Memorial Day, according to Michael Rossney, who owns the Mexican restaurant with his wife, Michele Levesque. June is usually dead, he says. It’s the time they train employees and take the afternoons off to play badminton. But by 3 p.m. on the last Wednesday in June, the restaurant, which opens at 11 a.m., had already served 500 people. By 3:45, the parking lot was half full with customers waiting to place orders for dinner because they know that if they’re not in line by 5:15 or 5:30, they’re probably not going to get fed.

“It’s insane,” Rossney said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. The whole supply chain is messed up now too, so we’re starting to have shortages from our major food suppliers. We couldn’t get rice. We had to go to the grocery store to buy rice.”

CUTTING BACK

At Foreside Tavern in Falmouth, owner Anne Rutherford tried banning walk-ins and going reservations-only, but it didn’t work because not enough people check social media before they turn up at the neighborhood-style restaurant. So she is allowing walk-ins and accepting a limited number of reservations each night. Before the pandemic, she said, she only used reservations for parties of six or more, but “I think it’s something we’re going to absolutely keep, primarily because it just helps us plan better, which is definitely a nice thing when you’re short-staffed in every capacity.”

In the 17 years the restaurant has been open, Rutherford has never had to cut hours because of staffing issues. After the initial reopening, the tavern was open six days a week instead of seven, but recently she shaved another day off “because I’m going to burn out the people I have.” She hopes to bring back Tuesdays at some point, but plans to keep the restaurant closed on Mondays permanently.

The website for Sapporo, a Japanese restaurant on Commercial Street in Portland, warns that its hours “are subject to change without notice” and asks customers to call to confirm that the restaurant is open. A message on the answering machine says to call back if no one answers during normal business hours: “We may be experiencing staffing issues and appreciate your patience.” Email and phone messages left seeking comment for this story weren’t returned.

Stephan cut back hours and dropped the slowest days of the week at Ricetta’s during winter. Now he wants to reopen on Mondays and Tuesdays, but he can’t find staff, despite offering a $500 signing bonus for cooks. Recently he took a 25-minute drive down to Saco to interview a potential employee, and the person never showed up. Sometimes people get hired and don’t show up for the orientation. One person showed up for orientation and then she never showed up for her first shift. “It’s just crazy,” Stephan said.

Stephan also streamlined the Ricetta’s menu during the pandemic, scaling back to just the top sellers in each category to save on product and prep work. “We’re never going to go back to the huge menu we had before,” he said.

Staffing shortages have also prompted some restaurants to change their format entirely. Cara Stadler announced a few weeks ago that Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland would switch to counter service because of staffing issues. El Rayo in Scarborough has done the same, although owner Tod Dana said it had nothing to do with staffing. “It had everything to do with safety,” he said, noting the restaurant has not had any COVID outbreaks.

Dana said he has hired high school students to work as food runners this summer, hoping the experience will pique their interest in other kinds of restaurant work. He plans to stick with this system indefinitely, saying he thinks that people don’t necessarily want the full-service dining experience at a more casual place like El Rayo, where the average check runs smaller than dinner for two at a fine dining restaurant.

“By and large, people have adapted and seem to like the independence of the counter service experience, but we’ve had a couple of customers – maybe more than a couple – who said, ‘So, when are we going back to full service?'” Dana said.

Steve Johnson of Cumberland scans the QR code to get the menu at Foreside Tavern, as he waits for his party to arrive. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

TO STAY OR TO GO

Some restaurants used technology during the pandemic to limit contact between servers and customers, with mixed results. Foreside Tavern started asking customers to scan a QR (short for “quick response”) code with their smartphones to get access to the menu, which saves servers time handing out, picking up and wiping off menus. Rutherford says the shortcut is “popularish,” depending on the age of the customer. Older people prefer traditional menus, she said, “but lots of people are happy to just snap it and sit right down.” She’s decided to keep using the barcode system but also have regular menus on hand for those who want them.

Stephan introduced contactless payment at Ricetta’s, but it “hasn’t been hugely received. There’s a certain faction of folks that continue to use it. I guess, generally, the older clientele doesn’t use it, and the younger folks are a little more accepting of that kind of thing.”

One thing all diners seem to love? Takeout. For more than a year, people have been able to get takeout whenever and wherever they wanted it. During the height of the pandemic, restaurants embraced takeout as they struggled to survive. Even Fore Street, one of the best-known restaurants in Portland, was selling its beautifully crafted lamb pot pies and other options from its farm-to-table menu online. Those days are over. Some restaurants have put a temporary hold on takeout, usually because it takes too large a toll on the short-staffed kitchen to fill those orders while juggling feeding the dining room as well.

Sai Guntaka, the manager of Taj Indian Cuisine, works with Nithin Kumer, center, and Hikari Ihira to put together takeout orders at the South Portland restaurant. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We have suspended takeout for now as it became challenging to do both well,” said Matt Chappell, owner of Gather in Yarmouth. “It was a difficult decision because many of the take-out customers stuck with us during the leaner winter months.”

Other places, such as Otherside Diner in Portland, are turning takeout on and off like a light switch, depending on how busy they are.

Rutherford said she wants to keep takeout as an option at Foreside Tavern, but “it’s the first thing we’ll call off if we are too busy.”

Charlie and Aimee Ely were shocked when they saw the reaction to their Facebook post in May announcing they would no longer be accepting takeout orders at Locally Sauced, their Tex-Mex restaurant in Yarmouth: Two customers gave them a one-star online review. One of them wrote a snarky note to go with it, saying she was beside herself with the news: “One would think they got plenty of practice with take-out orders this past year during the pandemic.”

Charlie Ely says seeing those reviews was “rough.”

“I don’t think it’s necessarily malicious,” he said, “it’s just a lack of understanding.”

The Elys say that diners often don’t understand the additional cost of doing takeout (all those containers and bottled cocktails cost money) or the extra stress it puts on the kitchen – especially a small, one-person kitchen like the one at Locally Sauced, which has 60 indoor seats and 40 outside. It can be tough to manage expectations, Aimee Ely said. Consider the night when two women arrived at the restaurant at 5:55 p.m. and ordered 11 entrees to go.

“Nobody was ordering one or two things,” Aimee Ely said. “We were getting people ordering for one or two families. It’s the equivalent of someone coming in and having a table for 10.”

And then there’s quality control. “I don’t know how they’re going to put these together, and God forbid if something goes wrong,” Charlie Ely said. “There’s no opportunity to fix it.”

Ely, who has been trying to hire help in the kitchen since February, has to answer calls himself, taking long, complicated takeout orders and payment over the phone. He may tell the caller the order will be ready in 15 minutes, “but I don’t know that five four-tops are about to sit down right then.”

Meanwhile, the customers who chose to come to the restaurant to eat are left wondering why their orders are taking so long.

THE COST OF EATING OUT

Regardless of whether the food arrives in a takeout container or on an artfully designed plate at a table, diners are likely to experience some sticker shock this summer when they get the bill. Restaurants are raising pay and benefits to lure staff, and food costs are soaring. Dana said he and his managers have talked about raising prices at El Rayo but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. That may change soon. The restaurant’s suppliers, he said, recently gave them a heads-up that the cost of everything – proteins, vegetables – is going up because of supply-chain issues.

Earlier this year Austin Miller, co-owner of Portland Japanese street food restaurant Mami, raised wages at his restaurant. By late May, staffers who had been earning $12-$14 an hour were earning $16-$19 an hour. He gave everyone two weeks’ paid vacation this year, and passed out bonuses at Christmas.

“We need more of that in the industry,” Miller said. “We need to make money too, because we put our hearts and souls into this, but to get that goal, we have to make sure our employees get what they want out of it as well.”

His strategy worked – Miller entered the busy season with the most staff he’s had in four years. But he’s also had to raise prices to pay for it.

At Foreside Tavern, which has been advertising $20 an hour for line cooks, Rutherford has been making small adjustments here and there, believing that a big price increase on a favorite entree would likely be upsetting to customers. If someone wants a free refill, they have to ask for it. That extra dollop of ranch dressing or sour cream that the server once delivered gratis will now cost 50 cents or so, depending on the item. And the free bread-and-butter service is gone, unless a customer specifically asks for it.

“We’re happy to give it to them,” Rutherford said,” but it’s all this wasted product. It was just a thing we did because that’s what we did, versus saying ‘Do you actually want this?’”

Larger increases have been reserved for lunch and dinner specials, which have gone up a couple of dollars.

But despite bigger checks, customers aren’t being stingy with their servers. They may not be leaving the enormous tips they once did, but apparently they are still being fair, even somewhat generous. Chaisson, the server at The Porthole who is also on the board of the workers’ rights group Restaurant Workers of America, said that’s not surprising.

“In Portland, Maine, tip percentage average is some of the best in the country,” he said. “If you look at data from around the country, the Northeast in general has always had the higher tip percentage states anyway. Maine has always led the pack in the top five states, so we’re incredibly blessed.”

But nothing, he said, can compare to last summer. Generally, Chaisson and others said, tips are getting smaller, but they are still on par with what people were leaving before the pandemic. Some restaurateurs think that’s a good sign because it means people are going out more, and visiting their old haunts more regularly.

CHANGE FOR GOOD

There’s also good news for people who like their space, enjoy ordering a cocktail with their takeout, or love piling their plates with a variety of foods. Many restaurants haven’t yet brought back all their tables because they don’t have enough staff to take care of them. So if you like social distancing, you’re in luck – at least until winter, when indoor dining rooms may get a little tighter. It looks as if cocktails to-go, already extended to September 2022, has a decent shot at becoming permanent. And buffets are starting to come back.

Democratic Sen. Louie Luchini of Ellsworth sponsored the temporary extension of cocktails to-go, which allows the sale of alcohol through takeout or delivery as long as it’s accompanied by a food order, so that restaurants and bars could continue to offer it after the state of emergency ended. His bill also extended to distilleries. He said that when the Legislature reconvenes in January, he wants to bring back a bill to make it permanent and hold a full public hearing on the issue. More than a dozen other states have already made cocktails to-go permanent.

“From all the people that I’ve heard from, whether it’s a consumer or the restaurants themselves, it’s been incredibly popular,” he said.

Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for Hospitality Maine, said the trade group also plans to fight to make it permanent.

Love a good buffet? The Harraseeket Inn in Freeport brought back its breakfast buffet in late May, much to the delight of the many guests who had been asking about its return, according to executive chef Dave Douda.

“I think it’s just something that they look forward to because it’s that little bit of normalcy that’s been gone, for over a year and a half now,” he said. “We thought it was a good idea because we’re so short-staffed, too, and doing a buffet is a lot easier on the staff than fully staffing a restaurant to serve a menu. It was kind of a two-way street.”

The inn is perhaps best known for its decadent Thanksgiving buffet, which often sells out in August. “We’re already getting calls about it, making sure it’s still happening,” Douda said, laughing. (Yes, it’s happening.)

Ricetta’s recently reopened its lunch buffet in Falmouth, albeit a downsized one with one soup instead of two, just one choice of pasta, and no more fruit salad.

Taj, an Indian restaurant in South Portland known for its lunch buffet, has been offering only takeout, curbside pickup and third-party delivery since April 2020. The restaurant used the shut-down time to plan a major update to the kitchen, including new floors and new equipment. Manager Sai Guntaka said that lunch business has declined because of the lack of a buffet. He does plan to reopen it, but not until the first weekend in August, after the renovations are completed.

Mohamed Khaire of South Portland picks up an order at Taj Indian Cuisine, which is still closed to dining in while the restaurant undergoes renovations. It plans to reopen the dining room, and its popular lunch buffet, in August. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

STILL FIGHTING

Aimee Ely says Locally Sauced customers approached her in May and June, congratulating her and her husband on making it through the pandemic. She explained to them that they were actually just entering the real crunch time, coming off winter and working twice as hard as a normal year.

What will the summer and fall hold? Who knows, but Rebecca Charles expects “crazy ripple effects” from the pandemic, “and I think they’re going to be felt for a long time.”

Charles, who owns Pearl Oyster Bar in New York City as well as Pearl Kennebunk, is about 30 percent short of staff in her Maine restaurant, despite raising pay anywhere from $2 to $5 an hour. (“The most recent line cook I hired is getting $20 an hour,” she said, “and I’ll be happy to give him a raise pretty soon.”) She never knows when a new hire is going to quit, or just not show up one day. That means she can’t accept more than 80 reservations a night at a time of year when she should be doing 120-130.

The only thing that’s kept both of her businesses alive since March 2020 is federal relief, she says.

After a long, exhausting four days in the kitchen (she’s had to cut back from five days to four), Charles takes Monday off, trying to regroup. “I wander around the house,” she said. “I take a bath. I eat a couple of meals. I try to feel physically better. I’m 67. This is hard. I’m working two stations – two-and-a-half stations, really.”

She thinks about retiring almost every day, but she is not in a position to financially.

“I took a big risk when I opened this restaurant in Maine, and it hasn’t been financially successful,” she said. “(It’s been) critically successful, but you can’t put that on a plate and eat it, and you can’t pay your mortgage with it.”

Despite the glee that Mainers feel about dining out again, for restaurant owners like Charles, the pandemic is still very much a threat.

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