by Meredith Gold
Proprietors and customers weigh in on cocktails-to-go, ubiquitous takeout, restaurants as grocers...and lots more.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a whole menu of changes to Maine’s restaurant industry. Some innovations, like the temporary approval of cocktails to go, have excited both restaurant owners and diners. Others changes, they say, should be 86’d as soon as possible, restaurant lingo for “no longer available.” Here’s our look at some of the adjustments that have been made this spring, and the odds that they’ll stick around after the pandemic is over:
HERE TO STAY? (One can hope) Cocktails – and beer and wine – to go
Every restaurant we spoke with would like to keep this “perk” of the pandemic. Many have embraced the idea by bottling their own bartenders’ specialties in aesthetically pleasing bottles with custom labels.
“Cocktails to go is, like, the greatest thing ever,” said Sara Jenkins, chef/owner of Nina June in Rockport. “My running joke is once you open that door, it’s going to be hard to close,” she said. “People really like it. Who wouldn’t want to come by and scoop up two cocktails and go down to the harbor and watch the sunset?”
Merrilee Paul, owner of 50 Local in Kennebunk and founder of a Facebook group called Maine Hospitality Force, says her restaurant sold out of cocktails the first couple of weekends they were offered, “and we couldn’t keep up.”
Layne Witherell of Portland, a semi-retired wine writer who was once general manager of Maine Spirits, the wholesale supplier of liquor for the state of Maine, says he was “shocked and floored and thrilled” when the state fast-tracked cocktails-to-go.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing cocktails as a ‘walk-tail’,” he said. “Let’s get them to go, and walk around with them. If we’re going to loosen up the laws a little bit, let’s loosen them up.”
But will the state allow the practice to continue?
Cocktails to go are a temporary “special privilege” that will end when the state of emergency ends, according to Tim Poulin, deputy director of the state’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. For the practice to continue post-pandemic, he said, it would require action by the Legislature.
NOT FOR THE LONG-TERM: Masks
Restaurateurs are also in near universal agreement about this one. Though they understand how important masks are to keeping their staff and customers safe, the face coverings are still hated, especially by cooks in a hot kitchen.
“I feel like I’m going to suffocate,” Paul said. “And I know the kitchen guys feel the same way, that they’re dying.”
Pete Sueltenfuss, owner of two Other Side delis in Portland, says when the pandemic is over, he won’t miss reminding 60 percent of the customers that they need to wear a mask, too. “They just walk into our deli and they’re shocked when we say, ‘Sorry, you can’t come in here without a mask,’” he said. Policing is exhausting, he says.
HERE TO STAY: More takeout options
A bright spot for consumers amid all the bad news has been the explosion of options for buying restaurant meals.
Takeout isn’t just for pizza anymore.
“I have been amazed at how quickly and well, especially the Portland-area restaurants, have transitioned to online (ordering), curbside (pick-up), and takeout,” said Tracy Michaud, head of the Department of Tourism and Hospitality at the University of Southern Maine. “Places that had none of that before relatively quickly did it, and did it well.”
Michaud says while curbside pick-up and other completely hands-off options may ease up in the future – part of the dining experience, after all, is interaction with people – she thinks takeout is here to stay.
Installing those operations “were not necessarily cheap or easy to do,” she notes, so if they’re working well, why not keep them? Plus, a certain segment of the dining public is likely to be skittish about going back to restaurants anytime soon. Takeout means they won’t have to give up their ramen noodles or filet mignon.
Paul says takeout accounted for just 1 to 2 percent of her business before the pandemic. “We used to laugh and say no one wants to take a fish stew to go,” she said. Then she changed the menu to make it more takeout friendly, and lo and behold, seafood dishes started swimming out the door. Now, Paul said, “If you want me to put a bouillabaisse in a box, ‘here you are, and thank you very much ma’am.’”
Jenkins, who calls takeout “a big, untapped market,” is creating a takeout menu that reflects her restaurant’s smaller-and-tighter bar menu.
The future of takeout also depends on the size and style of the restaurant. At Other Side Diner, it hasn’t worked so well, Sueltenfuss said, noting that most people are eating breakfast at home. “Nobody really wants eggs in a box,” he said.
He is likely, however, to continue a more innovative form of takeout post-pandemic, the Car Hop. The diner and other southern Maine restaurants – Isa Bistro in Portland and Gather in Yarmouth – already have car hop service, and The Good Table plans to start it this month. Some customers stay and eat in their cars; others treat the service as another form of takeout. Matt Chappell, the owner of Gather, includes live music, and says his events, which require reservations, have been selling out. He’d like to continue them. For Sueltenfuss, the car hop option offers his customers a fun menu – burgers, lobster rolls, milkshakes – later in the evening, extending his restaurant’s offerings beyond the daily brunch, which ends at 3 p.m.
KISS THEM GOODBYE: Traditional menus
Sean Wilkinson of Might & Main, a branding and design agency in Portland that works with a lot of restaurants, foresees the decline of multiple-use wipe-down menus and the rise of mobile ordering.
“For better or worse, there’s going to be either an uptick in disposable paper stuff and every menu that people touch just goes in the trash, or it goes more digital,” he said. “You might be sitting in a restaurant, but you’re still going to order by phone, looking at screen.”
He anticipates some exceptions. Terrific in-person service and talking with servers about the tasting menus is part of what diners pay for when they visit upscale restaurants such as Hugo’s, Wilkinson said. “There’s a reason why you’re there for three hours,” he said. “It’s a big part of the experience.”
HERE TO STAY: Seafood delivery
No more standing in long lines at popular seafood markets. Seafood businesses and cooperatives – often struggling fishermen banding together – have sprung up in the past few months (SoPo Seafood, for example, and Maine Fish Direct) to offer curbside pick-ups in the community or to deliver just-caught lobsters, haddock, mussels, oysters and other seafood right to your door. And other, already well-established businesses have tweaked their operations to offer delivery. This trend – definitely the way life should be – may have been spawned by a pandemic, but we hope it stays.
KISS THEM GOODBYE? Tight squeezes, some of them, anyway
Social distancing may go away eventually, but the days of packing in people at barely spaced tables are, hopefully, over. Yes, we understand that cramming lots of diners into small spaces gave restaurants a certain vibe, but not everybody likes it.
Witherell, who in ordinary times dines out two to three times a week with his wife, Judy, recalls being in a Portland restaurant pre-pandemic where “the seating was so close together I was practically on the laps of a couple with their kid.”
“I know they want to make every nickel they can because rents are high,” he said. “That’s just the way it works. But some (tables) are just too crammed in.”
On the other hand, communal tables are like Italians greeting each other with two kisses, Wilkinson said – something you hope will return. And bar seating is likely to stay as well, says David Giarusso Jr., owner of Angelina’s in Ogunquit. Bar people are, he said “a particular breed.”
Diners must reserve their favorite bar stool at Angelina’s, and if they can’t get it they’ll come back another night. “Some people will actually leave the restaurant if they can’t eat at the bar,” Giarusso said.
HERE TO STAY: The COVID window
Several restaurants are using newly engineered takeout windows to serve customers. The Other Side Diner, which was part of a bank back in the day, serves its spinach and cheddar omelette through its drive-through window. Anoche, a cider house on Washington Avenue in Portland, is serving hard cider out of a window. And Bard Coffee in the Old Port is serving coffee through new walk-up windows that overlook Tommy’s Park.
“It’s very charming,” said Brittany Paolino, operations manager for the popular coffee shop. “You come up and you have the whole park to wait around for your coffee and you can sit on a bench afterward to enjoy it. The response has been very positive. Everybody seems very grateful to have some thread of normalcy back in their lives.”
Bard has a permit to put six tables in the park, but Paolino said they don’t plan to use it because it would require too much cleaning. She said that post-pandemic, the walk-up window will likely become a regular feature in summer and fall.
KISS THEM GOODBYE: Single-serve spices and condiments
Salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles, and bottles of olive oil will all come back to the table – eventually, restaurant owners say. At Angelina’s, Giarusso has salt and olive oil brought to the table in individual ramekins by request – “one use, done.” But he doesn’t foresee this lasting forever.
HERE TO STAY: Restaurant-cum-grocery stores
Jenkins says she always wanted to transform the front of Nina June into a store. She’s not planning to have any indoor dining this summer, so she’s moving forward with the store plans and has created daily pantry and takeout menus. On the pantry menu she’s selling staples like flour and “a lot of snacky things,” such as olives, feta-pistachio dip, crackers, salted nuts, imported cheeses and fresh pastas. She’s also got local produce. All of that is likely to stay long after the coronavirus is under control.
“A small farm-to-table community is better able to pivot, so we’re all trying to be flexible and we’re all trying to work together,” Jenkins said. In Portland, Local 188 has its own in-house grocery. And Sur Lie is selling a locally sourced farmers market basket every week, either meat and veggie, or all vegetables. The baskets, says owner Krista Cole, have been “so popular. We sold out immediately the first week. Then we doubled the baskets and sold out the second week.”
Cole said she’d love for the baskets to be “something we can offer moving forward, that people hopefully will still find value in, even after restaurants are open.”
KISS THEM GOODBYE? Parking spots in Portland
In May, the Portland City Council cut fees and eased regulations for restaurants that want to use parklets during the pandemic for expanded outdoor dining. It shut down city streets temporarily for the same reason. Witherell and his wife hope the al fresco trend is here to stay. The very first day outdoor seating was allowed in Portland, they took advantage. “The Porthole for breakfast – us and the seagulls,” he said, “and then we did dinner at Petite Jacqueline.”
Witherell believes outdoor seating is “essential” for the success of the Portland’s summertime restaurant scene. He’s all for adding more of it, any way the city can. “Shut down all those streets, and let’s Uber our way into Portland,” he said. “It’s a great dining experience.”
Of course, were this trend to stick, more outdoor dining could mean fewer parking spaces than ever on the peninsula. Innovative ideas like parklets and closed streets might work well over the longer-term in smaller cities like Westbrook to help the state’s restaurant industry recover from the pandemic, Michaud said. Given Portland’s parking woes, though, for its temporary measures to become permanent, it might take “a little more negotiation,” she said.
HERE TO STAY: Enhanced sanitation
Every time Sueltenfuss’ hands touch a credit card at one of his delis, he washes them. His hands have become so dry and cracked that his sympathetic wife and business partner, Jessica, often gives him a pass on doing dishes at home or giving the kids a bath.
Inside the delis, customers are not allowed to touch anything, not even a soda or a bag of chips.
“It’s a bit extreme, but it makes us much more comfortable,” he said. “It minimizes the time we have to walk around the store sanitizing things.”
Sanitizing isn’t likely to be that extreme in the future, but it will be around for a while, if for no other reason than to make people feel comfortable returning to restaurants.
“Hand sanitation practices are not going to go away,” Michaud said. “This (pandemic) is traumatic for people, and so I think understanding and communicating enhanced sanitation and health and cleanliness is here to stay for a long time.”
“Even if this goes away, I will be leaving my sanitizing stations up on both entrances and exits,” Giarusso said. “I want people to get into the habit of coming into my restaurant and sanitizing their hands.”
Restaurants will advertise their sanitation practices and make it part of their branding, Wilkinson and others predict, just as Spinnakers in Wells is already doing with signs on the tables that read: “This table has been sanitized.”
The restaurants “that are doing it really overtly and purposefully are the ones that are going to feel comfortable to dine in,” Wilkinson said.