Kitty Durant, center, of Portland performs a karaoke version of Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” at the East Ender, which morphs from casual upscale dining to a karaoke bar nightly at 8. It’s part of a shift in direction the restaurant made as the pandemic receded. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Last May, in the thick of a nationwide labor shortage that forced restaurant closures throughout Maine, sudden and unexpected staff departures slashed kitchen staff at the East Ender by nearly half.

East Ender owner Karl Deuben, General Manager Arryan Decatur and their remaining staff knew they had to figure out a plan to keep the popular, two-story Middle Street venue viable. On top of the staffing crisis, food prices were soaring, throwing kitchen budgets out of whack at East Ender and countless other restaurants throughout the state.

The situation seemed dire enough to call for a concept change. The East Ender had started hosting karaoke nights in November 2021, and they were steadily becoming a real draw. And Deuben and his crew recognized that while food costs were rising, alcohol prices remained relatively stable.

So morphing the refined casual dining restaurant into what Decatur part-jokingly calls a “karaoke bar and grill”– with the ground floor bar and dining area serving as a disco-ball bedecked karaoke performance space, and the larger upstairs room used for dinner guests – seemed like a no-brainer.

They designed a new menu of thoughtfully crafted bar food as well, a departure from the slightly dressier fare its customers have loved since Deuben and former partner Bill Leavy took over the East Ender in 2015. They’d serve the food on disposable takeout containers, allowing them to economize further by eliminating the restaurant’s dishwasher position.

And voila, at the start of the summer, the karaoke bar iteration of the East Ender was born.


“We essentially rebranded our space and our concept in the space of about a week,” Deuben said. “Karaoke was a shot in the dark that ended up defining our business in an unanticipated way. We embraced that shift once we saw that it helped our business model. It reinvigorated the brand.”


Like East Ender, many other area restaurants facing pandemic-era problems have found themselves changing their business models on the fly. Some revamped their menus or changed the emphasis of their restaurant to focus on what they knew would sell.

Others, like the former Middle Eastern restaurant Baharat on Anderson Street that is now Full Turn, chose to morph into entirely new businesses.

Baharat was facing mounting supply-chain problems in early 2022, leaving the kitchen unable to procure staple items like dried apricots or rose petals. “In order to keep the brand up and running, we’d have to compromise on a lot of things that we didn’t want to compromise,” former manager Chloe Kessell said.

Owners Clayton Norris and his wife, Jenna Friedman, who opened the East Bayside restaurant in 2017, decided to close Baharat last September. Still, they had a lease on the space until 2024.


So Kessell and another Baharat manager, Melissa Pappas, stepped up with the concept for Full Turn – with Norris and Friedman staying on as partners – the revolving-menu restaurant that would open in the former Baharat space.

“We kind of walked backwards into this opportunity. It was very much right place, right time, right skill set,” said Pappas, who said she and Kessell found inspiration for Full Turn from esteemed Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s restaurant Next, which completely changes its menu theme every few months. For years, they had wanted to produce their own version of the Next concept, and now realized their chance had arrived.

Kessell and Pappas pulled together their business plan in just two weeks last October. With the help of their team – including the full former staff of Baharat –they launched Full Turn on Dec. 2, though renovation work on the space remains ongoing.

“Rather than get held down by what we can’t do, let’s figure out what the limits really are and explore what was actually in our control,” Pappas explained. “It’s been a nice experience putting the last restaurant to bed and starting the new one.”

Randy Forrester checks his pizza crust at Radici. The restaurant has changed its hours, its staffing and its pizza recipe so that the Forresters can have more work-life balance. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Still other local restaurateurs switched up their business models not because they were having operational difficulties, but because the pandemic made them realize it was time for a lifestyle change.


“A lot of people realized they didn’t want to work the same way that they had been,” said Randy Forrester, chef-owner of Radici pizzeria on Washington Avenue. “It was a wake-up call. We all have to take a check on our mental health. Nobody is going to do that for us.”

Forrester said he and his wife, Ally, had to miss their daughter’s sixth birthday last year because of work commitments. In July, the couple resolved to overhaul their work lives to better suit their family’s needs.

Ally left Radici, where she ran the front of house, and took a position as a program developer at Coastal Enterprises Inc. in Brunswick. Forrester, who had regularly worked with a helper in the kitchen, developed a plan that would allow him to scale back Radici’s small operation even further and run it as a one-man show.

He chose to end dinner service last summer and offer lunch only, a schedule change that shaved hours off his day and returned him home to his family in Brunswick as early as 4 p.m. some days. “Before, there were nights when we weren’t getting out of here until 11:30 p.m., and you have zero chance of catching your six-year-old when you do that,” he said.

The only structural change needed was to cut a space in the decorative wood slat wall between the kitchen and the dining room so that customers could place their orders directly with Forrester. But to make the new approach really work, Forrester had to change the style of his pizza.

Forrester’s sourdough-crust Neapolitan-style pies had been single-serving, 11-inch rounds that finished baking in three or four minutes at about 700 degrees. Preparing multiple individual pies and finessing the char on each one to perfection was too much for one person.


“There was no way for me to be able to make that kind of pizza and also take orders,” he said.

But by offering square slices of a thicker-crust, Roman-style pizza – baked at lower temperatures for several minutes longer in carbon steel sheet pans equal in size to about three of his Neapolitan pizzas – Forrester bought himself the time he needed. And he says the process delivers even more flavor and textural interest to his pizza: The sourdough sizzles in top-quality Sicilian olive oil as it pan-bakes, caramelizing the exquisite crust so deeply that it crunches audibly with each bite.

“I’m happy with the result, and I don’t feel we’re compromising anything,” Forrester said. The chef – twice a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for his former fine-dining restaurant Osteria Radici in Allentown, N.J. – had always been passionate about bread baking, and wanted the crust to be the focus of his pizzas when he and his wife first opened Radici in 2020 near the start of the pandemic.

“I feel (Roman-style pizza) is a better vehicle for the bread,” he said.

Of course the format change, particularly eliminating dinner service, came at a cost. “We knew going into it that average checks would be lower at lunch,” Forrester said. “We knew we wouldn’t be able to sell as much wine, which is a passion of ours. We knew there were certain sacrifices we’d need to make. That work-life balance is a real thing.”

As for the effect on Forrester’s family, “So far, it really has worked for us on a personal level, which is really nice,” he said. “Our whole family is in a better spirit because of this.”


The experience also pushed Forrester outside his professional comfort zone, deepening his connection to customers in the process.

“I was really worried about working both the front and back of the house alone,” Forrester said. “I’m shy, and it’s never been something I was trained to do. But it’s been the most rewarding part of this for me. There’s not a single person who comes in here that I don’t talk to now, and I think it’s fun for the customer, too – they’re talking to the person who did the whole thing, from start to finish, and the same person who’s going to clean it up when you’re done.”

A cup of Turkish coffee at Dila’s Kitchen. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


In the Public Market House on Monument Square, some food stalls on the second floor have also switched up their business models to attract more customers. Stephanie Dila Maloney, chef-owner of the Turkish food stall Dila’s Kitchen, noticed last year that people were often drawn to Dila’s for the Turkish botanical teas and coffee she offered.

“So I wanted to make it more like a tea or coffee house where you can have a one-on-one exchange with me and learn more about my culture and the food I serve,” Maloney said.

Stephanie Dila Maloney at Dila’s Kitchen in the Public Market. Maloney has added coffee and tea services and fortune telling to her menu of offerings. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Along with her imported beverages, Maloney’s fortune-reading services – a skill the half-Turkish chef picked up as a child from her aunts in Turkey – were growing more popular as well. In December, she put a post on social media promoting her New Year’s Eve Turkish coffee readings, where she gives customers a glimpse of their futures by analyzing the silty grounds at the bottom of their coffee cups.


The 11 open time slots she offered for the event sold out within an hour.

“It’s working. People are liking it, and it’s creating more of a buzz,” Maloney said, noting that her decision to promote her non-food items and services has boosted food food sales, as well. “You go with the flow, what people like is what you want to give.”

Shanna-Kay Williams, owner of the Jamaican food stall Yardie Ting upstairs at the Public Market, had her own whirlwind experience trying to adjust to the post-pandemic business climate last year. In October, Williams opened Soni’s Market Place, named for her late daughter, with the plan of selling grab-and-go breakfast and lunch dishes.

About two weeks into the enterprise, Williams saw that customers wanted hot dishes cooked to order rather than cold or room-temperature convenience items, so she overhauled the menu to offer fresh-made dishes like grilled mac and cheese and Italian sliders.

Despite her nimble adjustments, Soni’s closed after a month. Williams said she may incorporate some elements of the former Soni’s into Yardie Ting later this year, but she doesn’t regret her efforts, and noted that Yardie Ting’s business has been robust enough to require her full attention anyway.

“Change is good at times, and sometimes change is needed,” Williams said. “If you’re doing something that’s not working, switch it up.”


The new Margherita pizza slice at Radici. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


The changes at Radici benefited not just Forrester and his family, but the restaurant’s customers as well, according to at least one Radici regular, John Reese of Portland.

“Because of the challenges of the pandemic, and how Randy and Radici have responded to them, we have the opportunity to experience a chef offering the purest expression of his own talents,” Reese said. “It’s pared down and it’s perfect.

“In this iteration of Radici,” he continued, “it’s like you’re getting a private concert with Bruce Springsteen.”

Naturally, not all fans of a given restaurant welcome change, particularly to a menu or a vibe they’ve come to love.

“There will be customers of ours who say they like the old style better,” Forrester conceded. “It’s perfectly viable. I loved the old style. We didn’t switch because it wasn’t working. We switched because this was the style that worked for this concept.”


Forrester said he still encounters return customers who hadn’t yet learned of his changes and are perhaps unpleasantly surprised. “But when I tell them why, that it’s for our family, nobody’s going to argue with that,” he said.

East Ender employees Leeanna Sanphy, left, and Allyson Joyce perform a karaoke version of Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Deuben said he had similar conversations with customers after the East Ender changed to a karaoke-forward format.

“Understandably, some people were like, ‘We were just here a few months ago, what happened?'” he said. “As a diner, you don’t necessarily like to be surprised in that way.”

“I have had to politely break a few hearts as well,” Decatur said. “There were people who were really sad to see certain dishes go away.”

If the East Ender hadn’t been under the gun last May to adapt or die, Deuben says he might have rolled out the changes differently. “Ideally, we would have shut down, changed the name and said, ‘This is our concept now,'” he said. “And people would have understood that.”

Regardless, the change to a karaoke format has been a success for the venue, helping them draw a younger demographic and become a go-to spot for late-night fun.

“Despite the karaoke, it’s still a great place to eat,” said Decatur. “The food quality hasn’t gone away, and it’s continuing to evolve, which is exciting. You can come here and have a great meal in a beautiful room, we have that for you. Or if you want to get a little weird, we’ve got karaoke downstairs.”

Deuben said the East Ender’s intimate karaoke performance space – singers stand just inside the main entrance, belting out tunes to a 400-square-foot room – creates a kind of magic that elevates the whole scene.

“If you have just 12 people in here and they start clapping, you feel like you’re performing in a concert hall,” Deuben said. “It’s a genuinely uplifting experience, a controlled party atmosphere, and I think people needed that. We all need some positive social interaction after the past couple of years.”

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