Director of Photography Bodhi Ouellette films a reenactment scene at Tandem Coffee Roasters with an interviewee for “The City of Servers”, a Portland-based documentary about restaurant workers. Photo courtesy of Travis Harden

Five years ago, none other than Bon Appétit magazine itself anointed Portland its Restaurant City of the Year, citing our fair city’s abundance and variety of high-quality dining experiences. Five years later, Portland’s food scene remains as abundant and varied as ever (even if other publications are pushing Biddeford to take Portland’s place at the fine-dining table). Portland is the place for a great, adventurous and uniquely satisfying night out.

But what about the people bringing you all that delicious food? Those impossibly hard-working food service professionals are the subject of “The City of Servers,” a new documentary from Portland filmmaker and former server Elora Griswold, which will premiere next Thursday, May 11, as part of the Maine Mayhem Film Festival.

“I was a barista in Portland until eight months ago,” said Griswold, now a student at Southern Maine Community College, whose Communications and New Media program professor Corey Norman runs Maine Mayhem each year. “I had heard great things about SMCC and Corey’s classes, and that led to this opportunity. I got into filmmaking through journalism and pursued a mixed-media approach, since that’s most likely to appeal to people my age who approach media that way.”

Producer and director Elora Griswold on location at Bull Feeneys for “The City of Servers” first day of filming. Photo courtesy of Travis Harden

Drawing on her own experience working in Portland’s food service industry, Griswold, after her pitch, was chosen by Norman as one of this year’s five Maine Mayhem films, and set to work exploring as many aspects of the Portland food scene as possible. She set up an anonymous tip line for food workers at “The City of Servers” Instagram page in order to gather stories – good and very, very bad – from fellow veterans of the scene.

“There’s always the risk of bias with a documentary,” Griswold said of her process, “since we all have our own feelings or political beliefs. I wanted to be a fly on the wall and get all sides, to get a well-rounded perspective.” Despite her own hands-on experience in Portland’s food world, Griswold said, “I wanted to start connecting to the community more.”

Gradually, the Instagram tip line became a steady source of information, anecdotes, and complaints from the Portland server scene, the guaranteed anonymity freeing Griswold’s subjects to truly let their thoughts be known. “Some weeks it could get really heavy,” says Griswold. “At first, I asked open-ended questions like, ‘What do you love about working in Portland?’ and ‘What needs to change?’ Pretty quickly, the conversation branched out to include everything from sexual harassment to wage theft to masking and hazard pay during the pandemic. Always, these were general questions relevant to downtown Portland.”


And those issues are vital to those Portland servers trying to make rent in a very expensive city, with Griswold noting how Portland’s real estate establishment gradually became a running theme. “It’s interesting how real estate became part of the investigation,” said Griswold. “A number of local real estate organizations contribute to the political action committees (PACs) that influence local elections in Portland that have a direct effect on Portland’s workers.”

Griswold cites last year’s election defeat of referendum Question D, which would have raised Portland’s minimum wage to $18 an hour and eliminated the sub-minimum tipped credit wage, which allows restaurants and bars to pay servers below minimum wage, as long as their tips make up the difference. As Griswold notes, her dive into the murky waters of PACs and campaign spending revealed how a group called Restaurant Industry United, funded by industry groups such as HospitalityMaine, Uber, DoorDash and the National Restaurant Association, pumped a lot of cash into ads opposing the wage hike. Question D went down hard, garnering only 39% of the vote, despite most actual restaurant workers supporting the bill.

“I had three main goals in making ‘The City of Servers,’” said Griswold. “First, I wanted to actually put the emphasis on the waitstaff’s perspective. The news is always about the grandeur of Portland, and that’s great, but there’s a reality behind that. Rising rental rates, workplace issues. Second, I wanted to shine a light on how PACs influence Portland’s elections when it comes to these sorts of issues, to show how big money plays in our local restaurant industry. And third, I wanted to dig into the minimum wage Question D by asking the servers’ perspective.”

It’s those actual working people who take center stage in “The City of Servers,” with Griswold combining interviews with reenactments of some of the stories they share about their time in the Portland restaurant trenches. Stepping out from behind tip line anonymity, Griswold’s server subjects are all strikingly candid in taking their thoughts on their profession public. Said Griswold, “Everyone I interview in the film chose to reveal their real name and likeness on screen. That came about after a lot of conversation about my goals with the film. It was a big step of trust.” She also credits the local establishments who allowed her to film “The City of Servers”’ reenactments during the restaurants’ off-hours. “People were very generous,” said Griswold. “I’m still getting to know the Maine film community, and my experience was great.”

For Griswold, Maine Mayhem is an exciting step in her intended career as a filmmaker. Of the five short films making up this year’s festival, she’s especially proud that, for the first time, all are directed by women, and that hers is the only documentary chosen for inclusion. “I want to thank Corey for guiding this awesome opportunity,” said Griswold, adding, “As for the conclusions drawn, I’d say if people are interested, they can come out to see it.”

The Maine Mayhem Film Festival screens on Thursday, May 11, at Portland’s Nickelodeon Cinema. Tickets are $12, and can be purchased at the Nick or online at The 6:30 p.m. showtime sounds like a great excuse for dinner and a movie in Portland – just don’t forget to tip your servers.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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