ROCKLAND, Maine — Kerry Altiero slid the peel — a giant, flat spatula — into a glowing brick oven and pulled out a golden loaf of fresh focaccia.
He has been doing it almost every day for the past 29 years, ever since he opened Cafe Miranda.
In that time, the restaurant has become one of Rockland’s most popular eateries, with a loyal following of customers from near and far.
But after this weekend, they will have to find another table. Cafe Miranda is closing. Not for lack of customers, but lack of staff.
Altiero says it's been a heartbreaking decision.
"I cry every day,” he said, choking up during an interview. “And I just think, 'If I can’t do it, man, I’m as wily as they come.' My colleagues can’t believe it. You?"
He paused again, and added, “For the want of three cooks.”
The staffing problems have been plaguing many restaurants and other businesses since the pandemic. But Altiero said it had already started by then. He said issues such as affordable housing, child care, and other factors are pieces of it, but that the core problem is money.
Restaurants simply don’t pay enough, he said, to attract and keep workers.
“For example, if you want to be an electrician or plumber, you can hold the tape for $18 to $20 an hour and have a path to become a master. In this business, that’s not happening.”
Altiero said trained and experienced chefs may make an adequate wage, but many in the restaurant industry do not. And with typically small profit margins, he said it's hard for those businesses to pay more.
Those problems, he said, need to be fixed.
“I’d like to think it’s a place for people with a passion for food, where they can earn a living, have a house, a vacation, nice car, have kids, have a retirement you know?” he said.
Using the electrician and plumber comparison again, he said restaurant people, especially those in locally owned, "craft food" restaurants, deserve the same pay and respect as other skilled craftspeople.
One way to help that, he said, is to raise prices, to generate more revenue.
Altiero said he started doing it and had been telling other restaurant owners to do the same.
“I’ve been telling people, 'Tell all your friends. Tell your favorite restaurant or diner, raise your prices so you can still be here when the tide goes out at the end of summer,'” he said.
The loyal customers, and there appear to be many, were lined up outside the restaurant for lunch on Friday. More waited outside once the first wave was seated.
They applauded as Altiero walked by.
“Sad for myself, but sad for the staff, sad for Kerry," Jane Merrill of Camden, who works nearby, said.
“He brought so much to that, and it's hard to see him not being able to continue that,” Merrill said.
Victoria Faust shared a similar thought.
“Cafe Miranda has really been Rockland’s kitchen, and Kerry brings such an irresistible energy to our community. Cafe Miranda will be missed by many, many,” Faust said.
Altiero said he's put the restaurant up for sale, plans to take a month-long motorcycle trip, and then “see what happens.”
The award-winning chef said he has some catering jobs to do, but also intends to work with the trade group Hospitality Maine, and others, to search for ways to increase pay and respect for those working in restaurants.
His own staff, he said, will be able to find other restaurant jobs, but they will be different.
“We had the meeting a week ago on Monday, and we just cried our eyes out,” Altiero said. “They know how special this is. There’s no place like it. Everyone who ever worked here for any length of time has left with more than they came in with, and that’s our legacy.”
Add to that many customers, with memories of satisfying meals.
“Our business is not food,” said the chef. “Our business is remembering. That’s what we deliver.”