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PORTLAND, Maine — Crystal Pomerleau, an out-of-work Portland bartender, doesn’t expect her job to return anytime soon.
Even when the hospitality industry emerges from restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, the former bar manager at Three of Strong in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood believes the profession will be different, with more restrictions, fewer staffers and less volume.
“The job I was hired to perform no longer exists,” Pomerleau said.
Mainers are drinking more during the pandemic. But without bars, sales of beer, wine and liquor happen largely at stores with consumption at home, cutting out the bartender. Restaurants and bars have been closed to dine-in service in Maine since mid-March. Those restrictions will begin to lift statewide on June 1, but bars will have to wait until July.
Is the profession doomed? Not quite, one group of Mainers argue.
Last week, Pomerleau and a cohort of hospitality industry workers launched a campaign to benefit bartenders statewide who have lost work due to the pandemic. The campaign, called Save Our Shifts, offers a glimpse of the future of the profession during a public health crisis, mounting a platform for barkeeps to present mixology tutorials for people drinking at home.
The group is soliciting pitches for cocktail recipes from bartenders around the state. Once they’re selected, they’re paid to film the process at home. The campaign then edits the material into well-produced videos, which they broadcast over social media.
“A lot of bartenders rely on that person-to-person interaction,” Pomerleau said. “Every bartender’s goal is to establish a place where people feel comfortable and welcome. How do you make people feel comfortable and welcome right now?”
Mixologists from Chaval, a Portland restaurant, issued the first two videos — or “night shifts,” with live “day shifts” also in the works. Others in the campaign’s first wave include Thomas Ardia from Lewiston’s Sonder and Dram and Brian Catapang from Magnus on Water, a new Biddeford venture that opened its doors just weeks before the shutdown.
In lieu of tips, the campaign solicits donations from the public, with the bulk of revenue coming from sponsorships from liquor brands, whose wares may be used as ingredients.
The coronavirus threatens to devastate Maine’s tourist season, damaging a state economy that depends mightily on its service sector, comprising one-third of the workforce in Portland alone.
As the virus shuttered restaurants on its way to Maine, Darren Case saw out-of-work barkeepers across the U.S. post recipe videos and solicit tips online. He saw an opportunity to organize those individual efforts on one platform, providing relief to a food and beverage industry that he felt was overlooked by federal relief efforts.
“When the stimulus packages came out, it just seemed like they weren’t really well suited to support restaurants and bars,” Case said. “It felt like we had to step up.”
Case and his wife, Kristina Hansen, who are both Kennebunk natives, started Round Tree Distilling in Biddeford’s North Dam Mill in 2015. They joined the local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders Guild in 2015 for help launching their business, including their flagship Bimini Gin.
He said bartending changed over the last quarter-century — at least before the pandemic — from “a side job” to an ascending career similar to those of chefs. Case hopes the campaign can keep bartenders on that path, even though no one can say when it’s going to be viable to make a living behind a bar again.
“If this had happened 25 years ago, people would be out looking for different types of work, but there are far more people now who want to continue in bartending, they want to stay in that career.”
Watch: State labor commissioner speaks to unemployed Mainers