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At a time when the remaining restaurants across the state prepare to reopen indoor dining Wednesday under health and spacing guidelines, one Maine chain has fared comparatively well during pandemic restrictions.
Portland Pie Co., which has five company-owned restaurants and two franchises, plans to open another location in Windham next week and start construction on one in Lewiston in the fall, its owner said. It also is scouting an Augusta location.
Pizza shops nationwide have seen business decline less than other restaurants during the pandemic, including quick-serve hamburger locations, according to QSR magazine, which said 63 percent of customers sought pizza during the pandemic compared to 51 percent who bought burgers and sandwiches.
The reasons include that pizza is an inexpensive comfort food that feeds many people. Even when they had to close to indoor patrons, pizza shops were already set up for takeout and delivery business. By comparison, most restaurants have had to reinvent themselves since Gov. Janet Mills ordered them to close indoor dining in mid-March.
“We didn’t have to recreate who we are and we didn’t have to come up with an online ordering system,” said Jeff Perkins, CEO of Portland Pie.
The company has its own drivers, which helped keep business going, as did having multiple locations. The company-owned restaurants are in Portland, Scarborough, Biddeford, Westbrook and Bangor. The two existing franchises are in Brunswick and Waterville.
Franchisee Pat Mulligan, who owns the Waterville location, also owns the new pizzeria in Windham and the coming one in Lewiston. The landlord of the Windham location reached out to Mulligan late last year to take over the location, a former Friendly’s that closed last May. A nearby Pizza Hut also closed. The Windham eatery is on Route 302, which cuts through heavily trafficked shopping centers on either side.
When the pandemic hit Maine in February, Mulligan said he didn’t have second thoughts about the Windham build-out, which was well under way at that point.
Still, the pandemic hasn’t come without challenges to Portland Pie. Both Perkins and Mulligan received their own federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to help tide them over and bring back staff who were furloughed when indoor operations ceased. When reopening indoor dining, they have a 50-person limit.
Perkins plans to reopen indoor dining Wednesday and is back to 75 percent of the 250 employees he had across all locations when the pandemic hit. Even with outdoor dining in some locations, he expects sales to be 25 percent to 40 percent lower than last year. Extra costs like disposable plates and single-use condiments also are chipping away at profits.
Mulligan has added an outside beer garden with eight picnic tables to get more customers in Windham. Still, he’ll be able to have less than half of the customers he’s approved to seat. Meanwhile, he is waiting for the Waterville location to get busier, students at nearby Colby College and Thomas College to return and sports programs to restart.
“I’m not as concerned right now about profits compared to staying in business,” he said.