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Updated: May 18, 2020 Focus on Small Business

Thinking on their feet: Restaurant owners adapt to changing times

File photo / Tim Greenway Krista Cole, co-owner and director of operations at Sur Lie.

Maine restaurants are weathering the COVID-19-related shutdowns in different ways. While some are turning to takeout to pay bills, others are downsizing or already calling it quits to avoid getting deeper into debt.

Even for those confident about reopening, there’s no guarantee that all their staff will feel safe returning to work right away, or that customers will rush to dine out again. Such are the dilemmas facing Maine’s $7 billion restaurant, bar and lodging industry, made up of mainly small businesses hit hardest by the crisis.

As owners determine their own path forward in accordance with the state’s reopening guidelines, here’s how three are faring and their current mindset.

Takeout and tapas

Among the first to shift gears was Sur Lie, a downtown Portland gourmet bistro and wine bar specializing in small, intricately plated dishes.

While tapas and takeout are not an obvious combination, Sur Lie has been at it since mid-March, making it work with only two line cooks out of its 11-strong staff. Krista Cole and Antonio Alviar opened the Free Street eatery in 2014, and brought in a new executive chef last December.

In March they shifted to takeout service five days after Maine’s first confirmed COVID-19 case. Through an online system, customers can place orders for prepared dishes as well as meal kits and farmer’s baskets, with or without wine pairings and local beers, for pickup Thursday through Sunday.

“We’re doing pretty good, trucking along and hanging in there,” says Cole, a former nurse. “There’s really nothing else you can do.”

While its popular sweet-pea hummus is available for takeout, the tweaked menu includes cheeseburgers and other sandwiches Cole says have been “flying.”

Regardless of when Sur Lie reopens, she sees the takeout business continuing, and the farmer’s baskets through summer and into fall.

And while they’ll be “super-excited” to reopen, she says Sur Lie “will definitely err on the side of whatever is best for the community.”

She also sees a future for the city’s restaurants if they band together.

“It’s been hard to sit back and reflect on what happens if we don’t make it,” she says. “We’re all trying to make sure we come out of this as a group.”

Video shoots and ladders

At Camden Harbour Inn on Maine's midcoast, Natalie’s Restaurant has also been mixing things up with a heavy dose of humor.

The hotel, owned since 2008 by Dutch natives Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, is part of the international Relais & Chateau luxury hotel and restaurant association, with Natalie’s as its culinary anchor decked out in romantic red.

While putting fine dining on hold to focus on more informal takeout, the team has had fun shooting tongue-in-cheek short videos in the restaurant, about how it’s adapting, and sharing them with customers via email and on social media.

Most revolve around social distancing mishaps, like serving wine from a height of 6 feet on a ladder with a tape measure or throwing dishes at a table from across the room. Another shows a bartender’s demonstration of the disinfectant-rich “COVID-19-ini” cocktail, served in a martini glass with a Tide Pod garnish.

Screenshot / Natalie’s Restaurant
Wine service with physical distancing at Natalie’s Restaurant at the Camden Harbour Inn is portrayed in a humorous video, part of a shutdown-era vignette series.

“We definitely wanted to put something out there that puts a smile on our guests’ faces,” says Brunyanszki. “Hopefully it will benefit us when we open up again and people have a positive feeling.”

The most recent video, starring a waiter behind an umbrella with cutouts for his hands, was released the same week that Gov. Janet Mills unveiled a partnership with IDEXX on coronavirus testing that allowed her to tweak the state’s phased-in reopening plan. The new plan would allow Natalie’s to reopen as of May 18 and Camden Harbour Inn as of June 1.

While evaluating whether it makes sense to open the restaurant first, Brunyanszki says that Natalie’s will reopen with modifications that go beyond the state’s recommendations.

That includes having two sets of gloved wait staff—one for service, one for clearing—and setting plates down rather than tossing them.

Hinting that video production may continue even after reopening, Brunyanszki says: “It’s up to us … to create experiences that are unforgettable.”

‘Pinching pennies’ and making pizza

Back in Portland, David Turin in early May opened his first new venture in a while — a “no contact takeout business” — out of David’s on Monument Square.

“I am as nervous about doing this as if I were opening a brand new restaurant,” he says hours before the online site launch. All three of his eateries, which also include David’s Opus Ten and David’s 388 in South Portland, are closed.

“We’re in the dining business, not in the feeding business,” he adds. “It’s really challenging for me to try and figure out what I can do that will be representative of my brand.”

File Photo / Jim Neuger
David Turin owns three restaurants in the greater Portland area, one of which (David’s Opus Ten) he does not expect to reopen this year.

On Day Two of takeout, he says the first night went well despite some online glitches. Now doing meatloaf Mondays, pizza Wednesdays and date-night Fridays with three-course dinners for two, he says he’ll be glad to get 15 to 20 orders a night.

“We don’t expect to be overwhelmed,” he says while peeling carrots purchased from Sur Lie.

A latecomer to pandemic-era takeout, Turin says he’s looking into funding options after getting approval for a $300,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan he doesn’t plan to accept because of conditions he says that don’t make sense.

“We’re probably like everybody else, we are pinching pennies,” he says.

Turin says David’s Opus Ten won’t reopen this year and worries about his other two restaurants, one of which—David’s 388—was recently renovated. He doesn’t see them reopening until August, and worries about the sector’s long-term survival.

“Our industry has had diminishing margins steadily over the years,” he says. “As that’s happened, restaurateurs have gotten much more crafty at figuring out how to squeeze a profit out of a dollar. We’ve done that by increasing our volume, making our dining rooms more ‘cozy,’ and figuring out technologies to get more people through the door.”

Nevertheless, Turin says there’s cause for optimism, and is grateful for loyal customers who have been buying gift certificates for $100 and more he feels “terrible” about not being able to honor right now.

In the meantime, he’s committed to make the takeout model work, saying: “It’s either evolve or die. I’m in the mode to evolve.”

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December 16, 2020

Definitely not time to make funny videos about such an awful time for so many people around the world. But what else could you expect from owner Brunyanszki. Another one of his ridiculous tactics to survive. He couldn’t make it in Portland with such a distasteful bar named Opium. Just another one of his shenanigans to get attention. Sad! Really sad!

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