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Food establishments get creative during the pandemic

By Cece King | Jun 29, 2020
Photo by: Cece King

Rockport Restaurant Nina June has been putting together themed meals for holidays. Most recently, the restaurant sold grill kits for Father’s Day.

That’s not the only way Nina June’s owner Sara Jenkins has had to pivot her business to accommodate new ways of dining.

Nina June did not offer takeout before the pandemic, but after the governor shut down restaurants in March, Jenkins said the situation became “do takeout or do nothing.”

Although the restaurant will remain closed to public dining, Nina June is newly offering “dinner on the deck” for ten to twelve people with a four-course prix fixe menu that Nina June creates with individual customers. Since starting this initiative on June 20, Nina June has been steadily booking groups.

“It looks like there’s a lot of excitement about it,” Jenkins said.

Some creative adaptations may become business staples. Jenkins hopes to continue selling cocktails to go after the pandemic.

“That has been really fun and exciting, and I’m hoping they don’t take that away from us,” she said.

Jenkins has also been able to expand Nina June’s fresh pasta business. Jenkins began selling pasta at the Belfast farmers market last summer and said, “I was already eager to push that some more this summer.”

On July 8, Jenkins plans to open the front of Nina June as a pantry that will sell the pasta and serve grab-and-go sandwiches.

Rada Volkova, co-owner of Fresh & Co, said her experience has been “a Twilight Zone situation.”

What continues to carry Volkova’s restaurant through the pandemic is community support.

“We’ve been lucky that our landlord let us use some parking spots out front, and we were able to borrow tables from the Red Barn Bakery," Volkova said. "It’s nice to have more outdoor tables than we normally do.”

She also feels support from those outside the small business community, saying “regular customers who don’t feel comfortable dining in have been doing take-out.”

Despite the support, Volkova said she has only been able to open four days a week due to reduced business.

“It’s just generally really stressful.”

What helps her manage is working with a staff almost entirely made up of family members.

Longtime manager of the Waterfront Ellie Best summarized the challenges restaurants face: “It’s much more time consuming to operate a restaurant in COVID-19, and you’re still only operating at 50%.”

Best also said the necessary sanitation supplies pose an additional cost to the restaurant. For her, “The hardest part is policing the facemask.”

She explained customers either refuse to wear them or forget to bring a mask, which results in them being turned away until they wear one.

Despite challenges, business is looking up for the Waterfront. Best said the restaurant no longer does takeout for dinner, because there is enough demand to eat in the restaurant. The town also gave the Waterfront permission to set up tables in the parking lot where customers can order drinks and wait to be seated.

“It helps with social distancing. People can’t hang around anymore at the bar,” she said.

She believes people are willing to wait because of the Waterfront’s seaside views and ample outdoor seating.

Camden Deli owner Tom Rothwell also relies on regulars. He said, “we are thankful for our loyal local clientele who have been so supportive during this difficult time.”

Like other restaurants, Rothwell has utilized on social media to update customers remotely. Although the Camden Deli has recently begun serving customers inside, Rothwell said, “we will not be able to accommodate the volume of patrons we typically have over the next few months.”

Concerned about the decrease in summer foot traffic, Rothwell has tried to create a safe environment that is appealing to vacationers. After working with town officials and other business owners, Rothwell said, “we have been able to successfully get the public restrooms reopened, and recently they have placed some picnic tables in the neighborhood parks to give visitors and locals a place to sit and enjoy their food.”

Rothwell also noted the importance of the small business community: “I think it is imperative that all of the downtown businesses communicate and work with the town to ensure that most, if not all of our businesses will weather whatever the following year brings.”

Sondra Hamilton, owner of Zoot Coffee, is grateful that her business has adapted well in the pandemic, despite not allowing customers to enter.

She said, “takeout has always been a large portion of our business anyway, so we’ve simply adjusted to serving customers from our doorway rather than the front counter.”

Hamilton is glad that the counter is close enough to the doorway so that she and her baristas can still chat with customers. She has reduced her menu to items that can be eaten on the go and purchased a credit card scanner, so her staff doesn’t have to handle the cards.

Adjusting to new sanitary standards has been difficult, but these Midcoast businesses have proven that additional creative measures are necessary to stay open. Although Zoot has too, Hamilton is optimistic.

On Friday, June 26, lodging establishments in Maine can begin serving any out-of-state visitors who either quarantine for two weeks or test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arriving in Maine.

Hamilton said, “with Maine opening lodgings to out-of-state visitors next week, and with July 4th just around the corner, business will definitely pick up for everyone.”

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