Midcoast restaurateurs reflect on year-round success, seasonality
MIDCOAST — As the lingering cold of winter eases and mud season begins, inevitable changes in the business landscape also emerge on the Midcoast. While the area is often considered a seasonal destination, many local businesses, including restaurants, continue to enjoy year-round success.
According to Greg Dugal, director of governmental affairs at the Maine Restaurant Association, the number of restaurants in Maine grew at a "torrid" pace during 2015 and 2016.
"Overall, state numbers were up about six percent in 2015 and 2016, not a sustainable pace,” he said. “The average year is from 2 percent to 4 percent, with 3 percent being the most common number and we are headed back to near that number for 2017."
He added that restaurant growth was at 3.5 percent through November 2017.
Reacting to recent well-publicized restaurant closures and ownership shifts in the Midcoast, including the sudden closure of Francine Bistro in November and the scheduled auction of Camden Harbour Inn March 29, Dugal said it was anomalous and not necessarily the result of a consumer trend. He cited labor issues as well as mandatory wage increases for tipped employees as contributing factors to keeping a restaurant running. They already run on a small profit margin, he said.
"I haven't seen that this winter has been any different than those in the immediate past, so there should be no reason why winter 2017/ 2018 would have been more difficult,” Dugal said. “Weather was not outrageous and consumer confidence is still high. I believe what you have seen in the Midcoast is an anomaly, especially with these high-profile closures or bankruptcies. Having said that, the profit margins are always small in the 3 percent to 5 percent [range] and when you see pressures on labor due to a shortage of workers and upward pressure on labor costs due to this shortage and mandated increases on tipped workers [$1.25 per hour since 2016] there is bound to be some attrition for bad or for good.”
Steady at the helm from Rockland to Belfast
At Delvino's Grill in Belfast, co-owners Tina DelSanto and Anthony Jacovino said they normally never close during the year, though they did so for five weeks over this winter to renovate their kitchen.
"We are a locally owned and operated business. We employ staff who depend on year-round income, as do we,” they said. “We also enjoy feeding local people."
DelSanto and Jacovino said one of the advantages to being open year-round is keeping a strong senior staff employed so that searching for seasonal hires is less arduous.
"Keeping your community vibrant is part of the responsibilities of running a business and closing in the winter, although a necessity for some, does not help with that," they said.
DeSanto and Jacovino said they used to do more advertising in the winter months; however, establishing a loyal local following over nine years has yielded a strong showing of regulars. Like many other regional restaurants, Delvino's runs specials, including their popular "2 for Tuesday" menu.
"The 2 for Tuesday menu is our best deal of the week, and this night has turned into one of our busiest nights, even in the winter,” they said.
Rockland restauranteur Melody Wolfertz, who owns and operates In Good Company, echoed those sentiments.
She said staff stability, as well as serving the community, are two of the main reasons she keeps In Good Company open six to seven days a week all year.
"I think of my main customer base as locals, and we live here year-round, so I will support them year-round,” she said. “My staff have always wanted and needed the hours to support their families.”
She runs special programs and offerings in the winter to generate business and excitement, including Thursday Food Journeys, which incorporate food and literature.
"We do Thursday Food Journeys, something I started six years ago based partly on a series I used to do in Dallas, Chef's Table,” she said. “A book I had bought, titled 100 Places to Eat Before You Die, and the fact I have so many cookbooks and not enough time to use them all, they re-spark my creativity."
Four years ago she started offering "Sundays in India,” serving a special Indian menu. At the time, she was toying with the idea of opening an Indian restaurant.
The Youngtown Inn in Lincolnville has just entered its 27th year in business. MaryAnn Mercier, who owns the business in partnership with her husband, Manuel, said that while the restaurant does stay open year-round, operating six to seven days a week from May through August, winter service is typically limited to weekends and holidays. Remaining open, she said, allows the establishment to maintain a connection with their patrons and the community.
“It is important to us to stay open in the winter to keep our local clientele,” she said. “A larger number of our regulars work seasonal businesses and can only go out in the winter. March and April (aka mud season) are usually the slowest months, and we take a break then and just open for Easter.”
Mercier said that events throughout the winter have had a positive effect on their business, and that they work to be open for special events within the region.
“We think Camden does a very good job promoting our area in the winter,” she said. “We are much busier now in January and February then we were 10 years ago. The winterfest, toboggan nationals and Camden Conference bring a big boost to the area. We make sure we are open for all of those events,” she said.
In Camden, Sea Dog Brewing Company Manager Robert Labbe said that while the establishment is still in its early years, they have become part of the community and look forward to continuing to play an active role.
"Our hope is that over the years we will be recognized as a year-round staple of the Camden community,” he said. “The slower winter season gives us an opportunity create a connection with locals who we may not see in the summer. Charitable events, birthdays, anniversaries, and community events, such as the Toboggan Festival and Christmas By the Sea, are great opportunities to showcase our food, service, and atmosphere to locals and visitors.”
The reason to stay open year round is two-fold: In addition to making connections with the community, the Sea Dog has hosted fundraisers for several local organizations, including schools, athletic teams, and animal rescue groups. Being open year-round additionally allows The Sea Dog to provide benefits to full time employees, he said.
"The other element to us being a year-round mainstay is our company's opportunity to provide employment and benefits to our full-time employees,” he said. “The full-time core of our staff has an opportunity to receive medical, dental, and life insurance in addition to other benefits. For us to be able to offer these benefits we need to provide year-round, full-time employment.”
The Waterfront, on Bay View Street in Camden, is another iconic harborfront restaurant that celebrates 40 years of business this year. Owner Sam Appleton and late business partner Leonard Lookner opened the restaurant in 1978 after shuttering their Belfast restaurant, City Boat Landing.
Today, Appleton is the sole owner of the restaurant, which he runs with longtime general manager, Ellie Best. Best began working at The Waterfront 21 years ago as a server and stepped into her management role approximately 15 years ago.
Being open year-round affords The Waterfront the ability to cultivate a dependable and dedicated staff in both the back of the house and on the floor, she said.
“Having such a solid staff really makes all the difference,” she said.
A number of Waterfront staff members have worked there longer than a decade, or can be counted on to return seasonally, each year. She said the restaurant serves as a first place of employment for many teens who return throughout their college years for summer work. There are multiple sets of siblings who work at The Waterfront each summer.
From Lookner and Appleton, Best learned to think long term. If a great applicant comes in seeking work, Best said she makes an effort to find a place for them even when the restaurant is not actively hiring. This ensures a deep and competent staff no matter what the season, she said.
The Waterfront is unique in that it operates what nearly constitutes a second restaurant in the summer, Best said.
The establishment’s main kitchen serves the full menu, while a small seasonal kitchen on the bar side of the building opens during the summer months when a limited “Harbor Grill” menu is offered on the right side of the deck.
On a busy night in the winter, The Waterfront will serve approximately 200 guests; in the summer that number often hovers around 500. The dining room and deck can accommodate 350 to 400 diners in an evening and the Harbor Grill will serve approximately 150 diners on a busy summer evening.
Like other local year-round restaurants, The Waterfront benefits from a strong base of local regulars. And part of what makes the business work is a focus on consistent, approachable, and reasonably priced food, Best said.
“I like to think we can fill a niche for anyone, any day of the week,” she said, adding that serving lunch and dinner seven days a week makes the establishment a reliable bet. “The number one thing is consistency.”
“There is no question that the restaurant industry in Maine is somewhat uneven due to seasonality and that will never change,” said Dugal. “It takes a good business person to survive the potentially six months of less than robust activity that occurs from November to April. some [restaurants] are immune to this but most are not.”
Finding year-round employees can present a significant difficulty, he said.
And, during peak season, it can be challenging to find staff, while winter can present difficulty ensuring that staff have enough hours.
Labbe, of the Sea Dog, said winter can be challenging to the business.
“The biggest challenge for us is simply the lower traffic through the community,” he said. “While we can only control the community-driven traffic so much, we work to create an environment that welcomes locals and remains family friendly.”
The Sea Dog recently converted an underused space into a lounge area with a pool table.
The Waterfront makes adjustments to accommodate bad weather, including limiting the staff and service area on a snowy night.
“You have to think about your staff,” she said. “Typically, we have the closest person come in during a storm so that we can remain open, we have to be very conscientious.”
At Delvino’s, DelSanto said finding hours for the staff can be a challenge during the sleepier winter months.
“The only real problem in the winter is being able to provide hours to our full-time staff,” she said. “But they know Maine winters and prepare.”
Wolfertz said she envies the restaurants that shuts doors for a few months, but her desire to provide consistent employment for her team and contribute to the year-round vibrancy of the Rockland community are among the motivators for keeping In Good Company’s doors open all year.
“I combat [winter fatigue] by finding ways to re-interest and refresh myself in what I do and the restaurant,” she said.
Mercier said that at The Youngtown Inn, weather is their “biggest challenge.” Despite the challenge presented by unpredictable winter weather, Mercier said that the restaurant has only had to close a single Christmas Eve and a single Valentine’s Day since the establishment opened.
According to statistics provided by Dugal, there are 1,000,000 restaurants with 14.4 million employees nationwide. In Midcoast Maine, restaurant work can be lucrative and enjoyable. Retaining quality staff — and providing dependable employment — was among the top reasons restaurateurs said that they remain open throughout the year.
“To keep a good staff, you have to employ them,” Best said.
At The Youngtown Inn, Mercier said that they employ a year-round staff, however she and Manuel also do much of the requisite work themselves.
“Our biggest benefit of running our restaurant and Inn, is being a working chef and manager team as we are. We are able to do a lot of the work ourselves and cut costs and payroll as needed through the seasons,” she said.
Wolfertz said that while some of her staff works only a day or two each week, consistent work helps them support their families. She said she employs 17 staff year-round.
At Delvino’s, a crew of senior staff work throughout the year, however approximately 15 staff members are added during the summer.
Both The Waterfront and The Sea Dog are larger spaces and employ 40 to 50 people each in the winter and 90 to 100 during the peak season, according to their respective managers.
A balancing act
Dugal said that restaurant revenue in Maine totaled $239 million in October 2017, representing an increase of 5.6 percent over the same month in 2016. In November 2017, Maine restaurants took in $184 million, a 7.3 percent increase over November of the previous year.
In 2016, statewide restaurant growth topped 6 percent, and reached 9.3 percent in Portland.
“Growth of the industry is a blessing and a curse,” he said. “Because Maine has such a foodie reputation, people are now visiting Maine based strictly on culinary tourism with a lot of that centered around the greater Portland area. Chefs are attracted here because of the abundance of fresh food and the fairly inexpensive nature (square footage costs) of operating a restaurant in Maine. This influx, however, has caused square footage costs to increase, while margins remain the same. Also the more chefs and restaurateurs that move to Maine, the more the competition heats up.”
Best said it is important to always consider that the wildly busy days will inevitably be countered by those other days when just a handful of customers pass through the doors. Still, it’s important to the community for The Waterfront to be open.
Despite slower winters, the Midcoast restaurateurs agreed that a great deal of community building occurs in the winter, and to each of them it’s important to play a role in their respective communities.
“I don’t want Rockland to be a tourist town that shuts down in the winter,” Wolfertz said.
Dugal said Maine’s restaurant industry is supported regardless of the season by factors including media reports and complementary businesses that appeal to the palette-conscious.
“Good press and the abundance of good chefs, farms, microbreweries, distilleries, and wineries are very much a positive at this point,” he stated.
Author’s note: Jenna Lookner is the daughter of the late Leonard Lookner who co-owned The Waterfront until 2012.
Jenna Lookner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org