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Amid shelter-in-place order, downtown restaurants find creative solutions to keep business afloat

April 24, 2020

On March 23, the staff of Wild Oats Bakery and Cafe had been preparing baked goods and soups since 4:30 a.m. when owner Becky Shepherd received a text saying that a shelter-in-place order had been announced for the Town of Brunswick. After dealing with the hectic crowd of customers yelling their food orders, Shepherd decided to close for several weeks to craft a more effective way to serve people.

Wild Oats is only one of the many restaurants and businesses in downtown Brunswick that have been forced to transition to new food-serving models with revised hours and adjusted menus since the town and the state announced shelter-in-place orders last month due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Wild Oats has stayed closed since, with its staff hard at work on coming up with a plan. Shepherd created an app that takes online orders and allows customers to pick up their food at the curb within 45 minutes. With new tools in their kit and an adjusted menu, Wild Oats will reopen today, though Shepherd acknowledges that it won’t be a substitute for the way business was before.

Reuben Schafir
ORDER'S UP: Ben Gatchell, owner of Dog Bar Jim, works at the coffee shop's pick-up window serving coffee to customers. Since the Town of Brunswick and the state of Maine put a shelter-in-place order, downtown restaurants have found creative ways to serve customers following CDC guidelines.

“We thought we were doing well with doing take-out and pre-packaged goods, and all of a sudden we could only do curbside, and obviously our whole business model is built on customers coming in and seeing products and sitting down and having an experience, so it was pretty disruptive,” Shepherd said in a phone interview with the Orient.

Little Dog Coffee Shop also started taking online orders shortly after the shelter-in-place mandate went into effect. Owner Mason Palmatier reports that, since the shelter-in-place order, he has experienced an 80 percent loss of daily business.

“I realize that since this has all occurred, coffee isn’t our main business,” Palmatier said in a phone interview with the Orient. “It’s not selling coffee, it’s just providing a comfortable and safe place for people to meet and to study and to work, and with what’s going on, that’s why we have been affected pretty hard.”

Downsizing staff, downsized demand

Palmatier has had to lay off nine employees, now maintaining a staff of five rather than 14. Meanwhile, Portland Pie Company in Brunswick has had to lay off 50 percent of its staff, while Shepherd let 60 percent of her employees go.

Newer restaurants such as Maine St. Steak and Oyster, which opened in February, and Odd Duck, which opened at the beginning of January last year, are now each run by two people—the owner and the executive chef.

All of Odd Duck’s reservations, including many Bowdoin graduation events, have been cancelled up until June, according to owner Becky Marcos.

“Within the next month we had six events booked, one of them being a Kentucky Derby party … I had birthday parties and a wedding event and all kinds of things that were all cancelled,” Marcos said in a phone interview with the Orient. “It’s been devastating. We were doing well and were on target to break even this year, and the whole virus has knocked the wind out of our sails.”

In addition to the cancellation of Bowdoin graduation reservations, Odd Duck relied on its seasonal patronage from the Maine State Music Theatre, which was called off on April 21.

“Now that they won’t be having a season at all this year … it’s really going to hurt us hard,” Marcos said.

In an attempt to bring more of their staff back to work, some restaurants have applied to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a Small Business Association (SBA) loan program that is part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act which was signed into law on March 27.

“If we did $3000 a day and now we are doing $3000 a week, there needs to be some assistance or we are unable to help the people that we employ,” said Ashley DeSilva, executive chef for Odd Duck, in a phone interview with the Orient. The restaurant has applied for PPP aid and is awaiting a response.

Little Dog, Wild Oats and Maine St. Steak and Oyster have also applied and are waiting to hear back, while Portland Pie, Gelato Fiasco and Bolos Kitchen, Cantina and Candlepin have already been approved for the PPP loans. The loans have enabled Portland Pie to hire some employees back, according to Director of Administration for Portland Pie and Bolos Samantha Moore.

According to Mitch Newlin, an employee-owner of Gelato Fiasco, the shop is selling 800 pints per week, the amount normally sold on “a busy summer Saturday,” and the loan will help business for the next eight weeks.

“The PPP loan will really help for the next few months,” Newlin wrote in an email to the Orient, “[But] it’s too hard to speculate what will happen after [eight weeks] without knowing what will happen with the government recommendations and how customers use all the curbside and delivery services as they adapt to the ‘new normal.’”

Shepherd added, however, that it has been difficult to bring back employees on unemployment benefits.

“We’ve struggled with how the majority of our employees are on unemployment, and they are getting their full compensation for what they would have been making, plus $600, so it’s hard to get people to come back to work when they are being compensated so well,” Shepherd said. “I value that everyone is getting compensated … I really applaud that, but it also makes it hard to fully staff up.”

Creative solutions: new deals, local partnerships

Marcos said that, regardless of how busy the restaurant is, she is hoping to bring all staff members back.

“We can polish the floors, we can paint the walls,” she said. “There are plenty of things to do to keep my employees busy whether we are busy enough in the restaurant or not.”

Others, like Maine St. Steak and Oyster Executive Chef Tony Pastor, said it would be difficult to bring back staff to the months-old restaurant.

This is the first week Maine St. Steak and Oyster has done take-out orders, receiving about 120 orders—30 of which were purchased by one customer who donated them to the Brunswick Police and Fire Departments.

“That was a boost for us to feel busy [and] to get our systems down because restaurants are all about repetition and getting down systems to create a very consistent product,” Pastor said. “It was a very good first week. It wasn’t very busy, but it was a nice start because we feel like this will be our reality for the next couple of weeks.”

Other Brunswick restaurants have received mass orders, like Portland Pie and Little Dog Coffee Shop, who both have contracts with Bath Iron Works to supply workers with lunch. Pastor said he offers Bath Iron Works 300 lunches per week, partnering with Big Top Delicatessen, which provides sandwiches, while Little Dog provides cookies, bags up the meals and delivers the food.

To boost business and encourage more customers, restaurants have implemented other creative solutions. Although Wild Oats previously declined to distribute recipes, the restaurant has created a recipe subscription program to stay connected with the community and add a revenue stream. Customers can pay $25 to subscribe to receive the bakery’s most requested recipes. The first round of 17 recipes received between 300 and 400 subscribers, and with the second round underway, there are now 600. Shepherd plans to release a third round of recipes in the coming weeks. Wild Oats is also offering grocery items such as flour, eggs and yeast to provide the ingredients necessary to complete their recipes as well as help customers avoid long lines at grocery stores.

“It was much more than we ever could have hoped for, and it did help us pay for staff insurance and premiums,” Shepherd said. “We put so much time into it, and it was a labor of love and [there] was such incredible feedback.”

Shepherd added that Wild Oats is still on target to move locations to Brunswick Landing in the early winter, keeping guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in mind as they work on the new space.

Additionally, Little Dog is also offering grocery items in addition to sanitizing products, and has partnered with FIORE Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars as well as Maine Street Sweets by posting their products at cost to the website. Meanwhile, Odd Duck has partnered with Pauline’s Bloomers, a local flower company, to provide flower arrangements on the menu. Additionally, the restaurant is offering charcuterie picnic “date night” baskets and family meals.

“I’m thinking that right now people just want comfort food,” Odd Duck’s Marcos said. “I don’t want anything fancy or special. I want turkey dinner, I want something that reminds me of home and happy times—easy food.”

“Our motto is, what can we do to be relevant and still put out good food and stay alive?” Marcos asked. “When this is all said and done, we can crawl up from the ashes, and we’ll still be here.”

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