On Memorial Day last year, Vien Dobui welcomed the first of the season's tourists to his Vietnamese restaurant, Cong Tu Bot. The vacationers who arrived were the first of the throngs who would soon arrive by cars, buses, and on cruise ships to enjoy Maine's summer. The holiday weekend was a time of optimism for the state's seasonal business owners.
This year, Portland's Cong Tu Bot is closed. The only restaurant activity immediately expected by Dobui, a James Beard award finalist, is playing a restaurant-themed video game called Overcooked, a far cry from feeding 160 diners a night.
"In February, I was laying out plans to get us to June--we were gearing up to get bonkers," says Dobui, of the usual tourist slam. "Now I'm socially distancing at home, just kind of waiting and watching--trying to figure out what reopening even means." In his area, restaurants can open for dining again on June 1.
Across America, business owners in tourist towns are bracing for what's bound to be the most desperate season of their lifetimes: the summer of Covid-19. Ahead of the holiday weekend, and the start of the season, Maine entrepreneurs described feeling a mix of uncertainty and foreboding about the coming months as the state slowly reopens.
Nowhere is the potential economic whiplash more severe than in Maine, which was experiencing steady growth until the pandemic. Vacationland is No. 1 for vulnerability to the coronavirus among U.S. states, according to a risk model produced by the global economic forecasting firm Oxford Economics. That analysis is based on Maine's high percentage of small businesses and dependence on tourism, among other factors.
Maine's economy was thriving: The state's real GDP grew 2.6 percent in the first quarter of 2019, according to the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission. What's more, direct tourism spending totaled $6.5 billion in 2019, 10 percent of Maine's GDP, according to an annual survey from the Maine Office of Tourism.
With hard-to-follow government guidance that's always subject to change, entrepreneurs must decide how to balance business and employee needs with public health. Do they shutter everything and let down their employees, or welcome out-of-towners and put their neighbors' lives at risk? Hurting someone seems inevitable.
"I used to say, 'Everybody's in the same boat,' but we're not," says Joseph Lipton, co-owner of Stones Throw, a restaurant and boutique in York, Maine. The seaside seasonal eatery opened on Thursday for pickup orders only. "We're all in the same storm and everybody has different boats."
However, Maine's entrepreneurs also say this dread is punctuated by flashes of creativity and inspiration as they cook up adaptations and also discover new ways of doing business that will serve them well after the virus has gone.
Cong Tu Bot's Dobui says he plans to experiment with new ways of offering takeout that draw on inspiration from the food stalls and night markets of Southeast Asia. He's also launching a video series, with the first episode due out this week.
Meanwhile, Lipton removed the booths from his seaside restaurant to create a marketplace for customers. He's stocked the shelves with pantry staples made by local vendors to give customers an added bonus for visiting his shop.
For those who cater to out-of-towners, the nightmare scenarios are seemingly endless. Over the past two months, liability and insurance questions have been the subject of many long, stressful phone calls with his lawyers and bankers, says Peter Hastings, owner of Henry Hotel Group, in Bar Harbor. How does he enforce state regulations that guests self-quarantine for two weeks before they check in? What if someone contracts Covid-19 at his hotel? There are no good answers.
"If you were a business major sitting in a classroom somewhere, you'd look at this situation and say 'close for the year--there's too much risk involved,'" says Hastings. But real life is different. "There's a lot more that goes into it. You have the livelihoods of your employees. You have your reputation."
Already, the pandemic has forced many seasonally focused entrepreneurs to make heartbreaking decisions: In March, Luke's Lobster, a Portland-based seafood chain, furloughed 80 percent of its employees for four weeks to conserve every penny it could and buy inventory for the start of lobster fishing season, in May. With no spring cash flow from its 26 locations, the company couldn't see how else it would have enough money to replenish its inventory and keep its promises to fishermen.
"There was literally no other option if there was going to be a business in the future," says Ben Conniff, the company's co-founder.
As restaurant owners develop social distancing policies on the fly--overhauling their dining rooms, kitchens, and even menus in ways they hope will keep customers and staff safe--they sometimes find their end result bears little resemblance to the business they knew and loved.
Palace Diner, another James Beard finalist, has closed the doors to its charming 15-seat counter, opting to sell mostly sandwiches curbside instead. Normally, "the draw for customers is to be able to sit in that magical space," says owner and chef Chad Conley. The Biddeford-based restaurant no longer offers pancakes, omelets, or other diner staples, either, because they take too long to make. "We're missing a crucial part of the experience."
Longtime tourist attractions now wonder what kind of customers will actually show up this year. Protesters of shelter-in-place orders have announced their intention to turn dining out into a political act. Already a brewer in Bethel, Maine, has fanned controversy, openly defying state orders and making himself into a Fox News poster child in the process.
Others are far less enthusiastic about having their businesses politicized: Dave Rowland, who co-owns SoMe Brewing Company and York Beach Beer Company with his father, is fearful that unruly customers will try to resist social distancing guidelines. Several of Rowland's employees, who previously worked as bouncers, offered to revive these roles when the breweries open on July 1.
Meanwhile, some entrepreneurs have concocted clever marketing strategies to entice customers. Hastings, who decided to close his largest hotel and only open his smaller location, the Ivy Manor, is targeting the community surrounding his nearby alma mater, Bowdoin College, with paid social media ads. Weekly reservations bounced from fewer than 10 to more than 30, he says--a far cry from last year, when they regularly booked over 120. But it's something.
Some of the new ideas have staying power. Conley, who also owns a bakery, Rose Foods, has found a great new business in offering Saturday bagel delivery; he plans to continue that service post-pandemic.
Luke's Lobster had long kicked around the idea of dabbling in e-commerce. Over 11 days this March, the company hustled and built an online store. Already, without advertising except posts on its own social media accounts, that business is doing more than $10,000 in revenue a day, says Conniff--the equivalent of adding another seafood shack.
"The silver lining of Covid-19 for us was that it gives the kick in the ass to start this website," says Conniff.
This new business line enables Luke's to sell new varieties of seafood in imaginative ways. Last Wednesday, Conniff posted a picture taken that day by a fisherman of a fresh-caught halibut and made the steaks from it for sale immediately, a sort of seafood flash sale. By Thursday, the company was cutting the fish into steaks and shipping them out to customers.