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Aaron Harris sighs as he talks about the changes afoot at the 84-year-old A1 Diner located inside a historic Worcester Lunch Car next to the bridge over the Cobbosseecontee Stream in Gardiner.
Before the coronavirus hit, regular customers huddled into the tiny, renowned diner, which can seat 45 people at six booths and 16 counter stools, to enjoy cheeseburgers with local beef and more eclectic fare, including Korean barbecue sliders.
The A1 has been serving takeout and reopened for dine-in service on Monday after Gov. Janet Mills greenlighted early in-door eating for restaurants in 12 mostly rural counties in an effort to counter sharp revenue downturns in Maine restaurants. Those in other counties are able to reopen on June 1, with health restrictions. But the tight spaces in diners can create challenges to meet state mandates to keep parties 6 feet apart.
At the A1, every other booth is open, two stools are available in front empty tables and plexiglass has been installed in spots at the counter. The diner can only hold half the number of customers, who are waited on by servers wearing gloves and masks.
Even with takeout, revenue is down 75 percent since the coronavirus restrictions were put into place. But what worries Harris almost as much are the lost connections between customers and staff.
“A diner is for everyone. We know your orders,” he said. “That loss of intimacy is really hard for our staff. I’ve heard some staff say, ‘I miss so-and-so.’ I think they are genuinely bummed.”
Dan Beck, owner of Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, said the counter has been a place for widows and widowers to congregate and keep each other company.
“There’s a lot of banter at the counter with people talking about their viewpoints,” he said. “We miss that.”
Restaurants were among the hardest hit by Gov. Janet Mills’ coronavirus pandemic restrictions, which until recently caused them to close indoor dining and resort to curbside pickup. Taxes paid in March by restaurants, a reflection of how much sales have declined, were down 33 percent compared to March 2019, according to state revenue data released Tuesday.
On top of the revenue hit, customers remain hesitant to eat out and some food ingredient costs have risen, for example, sugar is up $13 a bag and flour is up $15 a bag, Beck said. Plexiglass, protective equipment and using takeout containers rather than reusable plates have eaten into already low profit margins. Harris said he has invested several thousand dollars at a time when he has been losing revenue and exiting a slow winter season.
Harris said he’s been able to hold on so far with a federal loan, curbside business and some large purchases, including one business owner buying a $300 gift certificate in cash and vouchers the city of Gardiner gave to essential employees to buy food at local restaurants, including the A1. He expects to be able to keep the A1 afloat, and is looking at adding seating on the sidewalk abutting U.S. Route 201.
Beck said Moody’s has brought in about 40 percent of its normal revenue in the first three days of full operations this week, including continuing curbside. He said customers are happy the diner has reopened, but some are not keen on a state requirement to get a customer’s name and phone number at each table in case health officials must trace an outbreak.
“Some people are writing the names of political officials,” he said. “But the majority so far haven’t had an issue giving us a name and a phone number.”
The decision on whether to reopen has weighed heavily upon restaurant owners, who have to balance the public’s health with their desire to stay in business.
Zack Rand, general manager of Becky’s Diner in Portland, said he is up in the air about reopening on June 1. Rand, whose mother Becky owns the diner, said he is concerned about the increased testing that is bringing more positive virus tests and is weighing that against how cozy the diner is inside.
Opening inside would probably cut his seating capacity to 25 percent of the normal amount, he said. The diner is only making 25 percent of its usual revenue now as its team considers opening a second-floor deck overlooking the ocean and putting tables in its parking lot.
Rand, too, is feeling a sense of lost identity for the diner as the pandemic restrictions become a way of life, saying “the hustle bustle” is a big part of the business.
In the meantime, Becky’s is selling a lot of comfort food that doesn’t taste the same when it’s made at home.
“We’re selling a lot of fried seafood and lobster rolls,” Rand said. “Using a countertop air fryer is not going to be the same as a diner can deep fry them.”
Watch: Why Maine is tracking number of tests instead of people tested