Julie Barker, co-owner of Helen’s Restaurant in Machias, would never have dreamed that the restaurant burning down in 2014 would end up being a blessing in disguise.
They rebuilt the place in 2015 to be bigger, and with an advanced HVAC system and a new outdoor deck area, and though she’s long worried it was too big, in the year of the coronavirus pandemic, she said she’s thankful every day that Helen’s has the space that it does.
“We’re so, so fortunate to be able to space people out, and to have an awesome HVAC system. I feel for people that don’t have that kind of space,” Barker said. “It makes me feel a little more confident, going into the winter.”
As cold weather sets in around Maine, restaurant owners and their staff now face an uncertain winter season. After a warm-weather season that was better than expected and helped greatly by expanded outdoor dining across the state, some eateries are concerned about keeping customers as temperatures drop and snow flies.
People who may have felt safe eating outdoors might feel different about doing it indoors — especially in the winter.
On Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills upped indoor dining capacities to 50 percent of normal capacity, or 100 people, whichever is less, and on Nov. 2, indoor service for bars and tasting rooms will resume. With the ability to serve more people indoors, the question for restaurants then becomes how to do it safely.
Some, such as Paddy Murphy’s in downtown Bangor, have erected plexiglass dividers between booths. Others, like Central Provisions in Portland, have installed UV lights into their HVAC systems to keep filtered, sanitized air circulating in the restaurant. And some, like Helen’s, have been offering a mix of dine-in, deck seating, takeout and curbside service since they were first allowed to reopen on May 19. They also recently started offering delivery within Machias.
“Takeout has been huge for us. And we have amazing, faithful customers,” said Barker, who said late May and June were pretty slow, but business picked up dramatically in July and has stayed steady ever since. “Business is lower than normal, yes, but it’s enough.”
As for outdoor dining, some restaurants will continue to offer patio and curbside seating well into the colder months. Beer gardens, such as the ones at Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast and Mason’s Brewing Company in Brewer, often have heat lamps or fire pits available to keep diners warm as they eat and drink outside. And some places, such as Timber Kitchen & Bar in Bangor, already have a history of doing outdoor events in the winter.
Timber has for several years now offered an outdoor ice bar in January and February, though general manager Suzanne Fletcher said she hasn’t made the final call as to whether the restaurant will host it next year. Fletcher has, however, invested in some heated, clear igloo-style tents that seat up to eight people, which she plans to set up by the end of October.
Clockwise from left: Timber Kitchen and Bar in Bangor has closed some of its tables to allow for social distancing; Harland Newman tosses pizza dough on Oct. 15; Signs throughout the restaurant designate which tables are open; bartender Nikki Nelson makes a cocktail. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN
“We’re pushing outdoor dining as far as we can, and we hope these dining domes will be a fun alternative for people,” Fletcher said. “We’re going to go all out on decorating them and making them a unique experience. But it’s still not easy to get people to eat outdoors on a freezing night. We’re just going to have to see how it goes.”
Fletcher said that after reopening for both indoor and outdoor dining on June 1, Timber did about 70 percent of its normal business for the first two months. August and September’s numbers climbed up to around 89 percent of normal, however, and she said the last three weeks have actually exceeded previous years’ numbers for that time frame.
“People wanted to make the most of it, I think,” Fletcher said. “We’re really lucky that we have the space that we have, though, and we’ve still had hour-long, hour-and-a-half waits for tables some nights.”
As of this week, Maine, adjusted for population, ranks second lowest in the nation for COVID-19 cases and fourth lowest for deaths. But restaurants in the state’s southern counties — Androscoggin, Cumberland and York, which have accounted for more than three-quarters of Maine’s cases — have had to contend with a higher level of risk of virus transmission than their counterparts in much of the rest of the state.
Cara Stadler, who owns Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland with her mother, Cecile, recently decided to permanently close her other Portland restaurant, tapas eatery Lio. Stadler said they had struggled to make rent during the pandemic and that their landlord did not offer rent relief. They didn’t see a way forward, she said, given ongoing operating restrictions and the looming winter season.
Stadler has not reopened either of her other restaurants for indoor dining, and she doesn’t plan to this winter. For her, the risk to public health and the low margin of profitability simply do not make doing so worth it.
“I don’t have the finances to completely revamp my HVAC system, for a fraction of the diners we’d normally have,” Stadler said. “It’s just not good to eat inside. It’s one of the worst things you can do, when it comes to safety. If some people feel safe doing it, that’s fine. I don’t. And I don’t want to put my staff or my customers through that.”
Bao Bao has instead done a steady takeout business, with its carry-out-friendly menu of dumplings, buns and other Chinese classics. Tao Yuan had a full summer and fall of outdoor dining, and Stadler will continue to offer takeout through the winter. She also plans to create an on-site grocery store, stocked with produce from Tao Yuan’s greenhouse, prepared foods and other cooking supplies. She said she’s actually looking forward to a less stressful winter, compared to the uncertain hustle of 2020.
“Everyone in Maine knows winter sucks. It’s actually one of the great things about Maine, the fact that we have a slow, calm winter, and for chefs, we don’t have to bust our balls like we do in the summer,” Stadler said. “As long as my staff is paid and the bills are paid, we can hang on.”
Barker, from Helen’s, said she still feels some lingering anxiety from the early months of the pandemic, when she wasn’t sure if her business would survive. Now that the restaurant has an established safety protocol, however, and people know more about what to expect, she’s feeling more optimistic.
“Every day we open the doors, I’ll get a panicky feeling if people don’t come in for a half hour. But then they usually do,” she said. “All of this has been a huge learning curve. It’s been exhausting. But it’s also been rewarding, to see people really sticking with us, and how amazing our staff has been.”