This story is part of the Bangor Daily News’ examination of the effects of the coronavirus in Maine, one year after the first case was detected in the state. Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.
Steve DiMillo, the second-generation manager of his family’s restaurant on Portland’s waterfront, has been opening his doors every day knowing he’s going to lose money.
The half-empty DiMillo’s on the Water is a reminder of what is missing since the pandemic took hold in Maine last March. There are no customers from conventions like the twice-canceled annual flower show, March Madness celebrations are limited by pandemic restrictions and DiMillo has only half of his pre-pandemic staff of 150.
Like many others in the struggling hospitality industry, he has managed to keep the restaurant on Long Wharf going by laying off staff, curbing work hours and tapping into state and federal funding. But it has been stressful for DiMillo, who started by washing pots and pans at the restaurant in 1968. Five of his eight siblings work there with children and nieces. Some cooks and servers have been on staff for 25 years or longer.
“This is a place where even the staff are family,” DiMillo said.
Clockwise from left: Server Sarah O’Neil tends to customers at DiMillo’s restaurant on the Portland waterfront on Feb. 24, 2021; a pair of masked customers walk down the gangway at DiMillo’s; a few customers eat lunch at DiMillo’s, where seating capacity is currently reduced. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
But many restaurants weren’t able to hold on. Portland, known as one of the nation’s top food destinations, lost notable eateries during the pandemic. Owners and workers at ones that remain shared wrenching stories of hardship. On top of financial stress, DiMillo wrote his wife a goodbye letter as he struggled to breathe after getting the virus.
The damage has reverberated throughout Maine. HospitalityMaine, an industry group, said about 10 percent of hospitality businesses here went out of business in 2020. It is not clear how many are gone for good or in hibernation until the situation improves.
The pandemic was not the economy-wide disaster that many feared early on, but it devastated the hospitality sector. While Maine gained revenue in December 2020 compared to the same month in the previous year and some sectors saw large jumps, restaurant taxable sales declined 25 percent. The hospitality industry, which includes restaurants and hotels, contributed an estimated $5.2 billion in revenue to the state’s economy in 2020, 25 percent below 2018, a University of Maine study found.
But there is hope for a relatively fast recovery as the worst of the pandemic looks to be behind Maine. Gov. Janet Mills rolled out an economic reopening plan last week that will allow for more travel ahead of the traditional opening of the state’s tourism season on Memorial Day. That drove a strong round of initial hotel and wedding bookings along with 1 in 5 Mainers having received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The industry recovered quickly after Sept. 11 and the Great Recession,” said Steve Hewins, executive director of HospitalityMaine’s education foundation. “There’s more pent-up demand now.”
Until business turns around, restaurant industry workers from servers and cooks to managers, owners and even building owners face an uphill scramble to make ends meet at work and at home.
Others will not come back quickly. Drifters Wife, which had drawn praise from Bon Appetit magazine and had a chef who was a James Beard Award semifinalist, was one of Portland’s biggest casualties when it closed in July. The owners kept the Washington Avenue space, saying in a Facebook post they needed to “reimagine what is inside.”
DiMillo’s saw its biggest hit toward the beginning of the pandemic, when the restaurant closed for eight weeks and even DiMillo had to go on unemployment. His lowest point came after he got COVID-19 in April. While he was able to self-quarantine outside of his house, his breathing became so labored at one point that he thought he wouldn’t make it through the night.
“I wrote my wife a goodbye note,” he said. After about a month, he started feeling better, and redirected his energies into the restaurant.
Sarah O’Neil, one of the few servers called back to work part-time in mid-May, said she has relied on savings and partial unemployment to make ends meet. O’Neil said DiMillo handled the layoffs well, explaining ahead of time to workers that the state was shutting down. When it came time to close the restaurant on March 15, he paid workers for an extra week.
It took O’Neil six weeks to get any money from unemployment, because the state’s system couldn’t handle the apostrophe in her last name, she said. When she returned, she had two shifts per week instead of being full time.
To stretch her income, she gave up entertainment and other expenses and now spends more time walking her dog or doing other free outdoor activities.
She also got the coronavirus from a friend in October. While she had no symptoms, the restaurant closed and a sanitation crew came in before it could reopen a week later.
From left: Server Sarah O’Neil balances an order while coming out of the kitchen at DiMillo’s restaurant on the Portland waterfront on Feb. 24, 2021; Alexis Preston takes names and phone numbers for potential contact-tracing purposes at DiMillo’s. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Her boss, bar manager Lisa Baugher, has been at DiMillo’s for 21 years. When it came time to lay off half of her staff of 16, she gave them an option to choose to go on unemployment if they were concerned about safety or and gave others the option to cut hours.
Baugher, a single mother who also cut her hours, figures she’s lost up to $30,000 in income in the past six months, which she’s tried to make up by cutting costs at home and using savings. She counts that lower income and customers who won’t wear masks among her biggest stresses now.
Some put on a mask and stay, some leave quietly and others leave loudly, she said. Still other customers behave oddly, like the person who brings in a measuring tape to make sure everything is 6 feet apart.
“I’ve seen quite a bit of weird,” she said. “But I respect whatever they feel they need to do to be comfortable.”
She also worries about the restaurant, the DiMillo family and their business. It has been an uphill battle. The restaurant at first opened only for curbside service, which brought in $10,000 in sales the first few weeks. But expenses were $35,000. The deficit was not sustainable, DiMillo said.
It reopened in early July to inside service and some outside dining, but state regulations restricted the total customers to 50 each in two rooms for a total of 100. Normally the restaurant holds a total of 300 people. DiMillo said a week in January would normally bring in $180,000 in sales, but this year it was around $53,000.
DiMillo and other owners don’t expect to fully return to pre-pandemic business levels this year, but he hopes to reach 75 percent of usual sales this summer tourism season, up from 50 percent last summer. The business has survived with state and federal grants, including the Paycheck Protection Program.
“We’re hanging on by our fingernails,” DiMillo said.
Clockwise from left: Chef David Turin prepares a pasta dish at David’s restaurant on Feb. 24, 2021; A customer eats pizza outside David’s restaurant in Portland’s Monument Square ; a pedestrian walks in front of David’s restaurant. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
David Turin, chef and owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland, doesn’t like the idea of having to survive grant-to-grant, but at age 64 he said other options were unacceptable.
He would have had to forgo potential retirement and work the rest of his life to keep the business going, remortgage his house or shut down, calling it “a terrible set of calculations.”
“I have a grandchild who I have seen exactly twice because I’m afraid that I’m going to get her or her parents sick,” Turin said.
Turin leases the buildings for his two locations in Portland’s Monument Square and in South Portland, so he has fixed expenses. That allows him to carefully parcel out funds. Initially he had enough to close for up to three months before the situation got dire. He then got a federal loan that covered payroll until Dec. 6. His pre-pandemic payroll was $30,000 a week. Then that money ran out. New aid programs may get him through mid-June.
The pandemic’s effects came to a head during restaurant week last year. The event, which usually draws throngs of people to Portland to eat at multiple restaurants, ended on Thursday, March 12, the same day Maine recorded its first presumptive COVID-19 case.
“Everything came to a grinding halt” as business and reservations dried up the next day, he said. On Sunday morning, he was cooking in his restaurant in South Portland and asked how workers felt. One server burst into tears and the sentiment of his employees was to go home and hunker down.
“We put a sign on the window that said ‘we’re closed’ and I made breakfast for the staff,” he said. “We divided up the food that we didn’t eat and took it home.”
He gave away the highly perishable items like meat and fish, thinking he’d reopen in South Portland within weeks. As the pandemic dragged on, he called everyone back in a month to get items like butter and milk that had an intermediate shelf life, and then in another two weeks he called the staff back again to give them everything that was left so it wouldn’t spoil.
Turin closed his two restaurants and paid the 54 furloughed staff for an extra week and continued paying their medical and dental insurance for three months. He reopened the Portland restaurant the second week of June for takeout, with just himself, his wife and two children working.
The Portland restaurant in July started serving at 8 outdoor tables where there normally would be 26, and the South Portland location reopened for takeout. He has seating for about 30 people indoors in Portland.
Turin said sales were down about 85 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, including the times the restaurants were closed or operated on a limited basis. Still, he said he is lucky because the restaurants are long established and not choked with debt. Turin said his stubborn nature also figures into keeping his restaurants going.
Bill Stauffer, who owns the Portland building where David’s is located and four others on the peninsula, said Turin is a good tenant who has been able to pay his rent.
When the pandemic hit, Stauffer realized that his restaurant, massage and hair salon tenants were particularly at risk. He sold stock to give himself a financial cushion and talked to each tenant to work out a plan to stay. Some like David’s were able to pay while others needed rent forgiveness.
“I made it clear to him that I want him to stay,” Stauffer said. “He’s good for our building long term, so if he can’t pay, we will work that out.”
Other Portland businesses were not as lucky. A recent study by Boulos Co., a Portland real estate firm, found about 20 potential restaurant locations for sale or lease in Portland, the highest amount at one time on record.
The empty buildings and the quiet evenings in a city normally bustling with people worry Turin. He said people who open a business are all-in and work long hours often doing backbreaking work.
“Then all of a sudden, this stops them,” he said of the pandemic. “It’s a shattered dream that’s just a huge hole. That makes me feel so incredibly sad.”