Since its opening in 2015, Union Street Bakery has been more than a destination for the Brunswick breakfast and lunch crowd; it has been owner Sandra Holland’s happy place.

From the sunshine yellow walls to the locally grown flowers to the mismatched dishes, every inch of the restaurant is designed to feel cozy and inviting.

“It’s like you walked into somebody’s living room or your grandma’s house,” Holland said. “It’s exactly what I wanted.”

But after another employee quit without an explanation Wednesday morning, leaving the bakery’s already stretched staff in a lurch, Holland found herself at the same breaking point many restaurant owners around the state are approaching.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “And I’m friends with all these restaurant people; I know everybody feels the same way.”

While business at Maine restaurants has largely rebounded since the lows of the pandemic’s early days, widespread staffing shortages have caused some eateries to reduce hours or close altogether, according to Matt Lewis, president of HospitalityMaine.


“We are not out of the ramifications of the pandemic,” said Lewis, whose organization represents the state’s restaurants and lodging industries. “They still are causing quite a bit of damage.”

Restaurants like Big Top Deli in Brunswick have been forced to change the way they operate since COVID’s arrival in 2020, according to owner Tony Sachs. Because so many customers now order food in advance, the deli needs an additional worker on each shift to man the phone and prepare to-go meals.

While he needs more help than ever, Sachs, like other local business owners, has found it nearly impossible to hire and maintain workers.

“It used to be that a ‘help wanted’ sign on your door would have people coming in,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen anymore. We try to rely on people who are working here to find their friends, but we’ve hired most of everybody’s friends at this point.”

The accommodation and food service industry saw some of the state’s largest drops in employment between 2020 and 2021, according to a report from the Maine Department of Labor.

The pandemic exposed weaknesses and accelerated trends that were already threatening that sector, Lewis said.


“The younger generation is attracted to a flexible working schedule,” he said. “Some of these younger folks have opportunities where they can travel around the world and still be able to do their jobs. Once they get a taste of that, it’s very difficult to get them back to an on-site every day, every hour position.”

Sachs agreed that today’s workers appear less willing to take on the long hours and high stress of restaurant jobs, especially when there’s no shortage of other positions paying $15 an hour or more.

Even after raising wages to compete for labor — costs that are typically passed on to customers in the form of price increases — Big Top Deli is still three workers short of its pre-pandemic staffing levels, according to Sachs. As a result, the restaurant has gone from operating seven days a week to six days and recently to five.

Sachs called his decision to close on a few Saturdays this summer “a big blow,” but said it was necessary for his employees’ mental health.

“I don’t want them to work six days a week, because then everybody burns out,” he said. “Then you lose them, and then you’re screwed.”

Debora King, executive director of the Brunswick Downtown Association, said the region’s lack of housing has hit local businesses hard.


“(Workers) simply can’t afford to live here, and that’s putting a real pinch on so many industries,” she said. “Given the price of gas these days, it doesn’t make sense to commute an hour both ways for a job that may not be paying $25 or $30 an hour.”

Down a baker all summer and set to lose half her remaining staff when the college semester resumes in the fall, Holland has had no choice but to prepare for a new era of Union Street Bakery, even though business is busier than ever.

While the restaurant’s colorful walls and assortment of plates will remain, its sizable menu will go, at least for the time being. Instead, the restaurant will serve two hot sandwiches per day, along with a collection of cold sandwiches and salads.

Still, Holland is holding out hope for workers that could turn Union Street Bakery back into her happy place and bring stability to other restaurants around the Midcoast.

“Our small businesses are what make our community special,” she said. “If we can’t find people to work, we’re not going to last.”

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