Salvage BBQ in Portland, including chicken, ribs, pork, squash and cole slaw.

Over the last half decade or so, the Portland area has been lauded by a long list of national publications for its emerging restaurant scene.

The Boston Globe published a story last year calling Maine’s largest city “a gastro-tourism paradise,” as well as “an innovative and nationally recognized hub of cuisine,” for instance.

Portland’s step onto the big culinary stage isn’t just good marketing, there’s also data to back it up. 

Here are some quick charts and illustrations that help put Greater Portland’s rise to prominence in some context.

A greater share of Portland’s workforce is employed by restaurants than in almost any other city.

restaurant workforce
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With exception of a forgivable dip around the start of the Great Recession, these U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that not only have full-service restaurant jobs occupied a steadily increasing share of the Portland-South Portland workforce since 2001, but also that the share is greater than any other major Northeast city.

Nearly 5.5 percent of the Portland-South Portland workforce — or about 12,053 workers — punch their time cards at full-service restaurants, a number that would be even higher if fast food establishments, food trucks and cafeterias were added to the mix.

As the chart above shows, even traditional culinary hot spots like New York City and San Francisco don’t have such a relatively large restaurant culture, although in fairness, those much larger cities have much more expansive and diverse economies.

[Does a minimum wage hike grow or kill restaurant employment?]

Could these numbers be a cause of concern? That Portland-South Portland relies too heavily on restaurants, for instance?

Probably not, experts say.

“It’s always going to be a red flag to economists to see lack of diversity in an economy, or an apparent lack of diversity,” said Christopher O’Neil, a government liaison consultant for the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce. “Those same economists may tout the value of developing clusters. Obviously, we’ve got a cluster of restaurants.”

While the Portland area has more of its workforce tied up in full-service restaurants than many other communities, there are still more workers in the local finance and insurance field, for instance.

“We may have hundreds of restaurants, but we have thousands of businesses,” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said. “We would want to keep it eye on it because we don’t want to become too reliant on any one particular industry or any particular business, but I think it’s more of a sign that we do have a very competitive restaurant industry.”

[Portland restaurant horror stories as told by workers]

The number of businesses seeking liquor licenses keeps going up.

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These are pretty basic numbers, but they’re still illustrative.

Simply, in 2005, two new businesses sought liquor licenses in Portland, according to the city. In 2010, 15 did, and this year, that number was 29. By this pattern, 2020 will see about 60 new liquor licenses doled out in the city, one easy-to-track way to gauge the growth of full-service restaurants.

Obviously, this trend is likely to level off at some point, and this chart isn’t perfect. It makes big jumps ahead in time and includes some instances where an existing business changed hands and the new owners were required to get liquor licenses. It may also include a few cases of businesses intending to just serve alcohol, but no food. Still, those exceptions as percentages of overall liquor licenses can be expected to apply to each year more-or-less equally, so the dramatic upward trajectory is still valid.

[Urban Farm Fermentory plans to open brewery]

People are spending more of their money in restaurants.

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These numbers, which come from research firm Nielsen and were reported out by the trade mag Restaurant Business, apply again to the combined Portland-South Portland area.

You might think that if more restaurants open, there would be less revenue to go around as greater numbers of businesses fight for smaller and smaller slices of the overall pie. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Instead of market saturation, Greater Portland’s restaurant explosion seems instead to be creating a multiplier effect.

There are more restaurants, each restaurant is making more money and — as the third line shows — each person in the region is spending more of his or her money at restaurants than about five years ago.

“There are a lot of restaurants and people do say that, but I’ve not heard people say they haven’t succeeded because of that,” Greg Dugal, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association, said. “I’ve heard people say they’ve actually succeeded because of that. We’ve become this destination beyond our own borders and beyond the northeast, where people want to come and try out the culinary arts.”

[The art of beer and bacon: Maine college launches culinary arts program in Portland]

Here’s what people are talking about, in one chart.

portland food word cloud
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Remember those national publications? Here’s a word cloud developed from six of them: 2009 pieces in Bon Appetit magazine and the New York Times; a 2013 piece in Food Republic; and 2014 pieces in the Huffington Post, Boston Globe and Food & Wine magazine.

Word clouds illustrate the frequency with which certain words appear in larger bodies of text — the larger the word, the more frequently it appears. Word clouds provide a visual display of recurring themes and dominant language, in this case, embedded in how some of the country’s top food writers have described Portland over five years.

Local restaurateur Masa Miyake is a giant in this display, and acclaimed restaurants like Hugo’s, Eventide and Central Provisions clearly have played important roles in the city’s ability to win over food reviewers nationwide.

Notice “sea,” “farm” and “farmers” appearing as likely references to local sources for fresh ingredients, as well as words like “lobster,” “seafood,” “oysters,” “cheese,” “blueberry,” “tomatoes” and “sauce.”

[Hip vibe on the half-shell at Portland’s acclaimed Eventide Oyster Co.]

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.