Every corner and side street has an eatery, bakery, or brewery with something special to offer. But a lot has changed since the coastal city topped these foodie lists.
The coronavirus pandemic forced many downtown restaurants to close—some temporarily, some permanently. Most had to adapt to survive the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic.
According to the Portland Food Map, nearly 30 Portland restaurants closed in the past year.
Nelle Hanig, the business programs manager for Portland’s Housing and Economic Development Department, said a lot of the downtown spaces that closed this past year have been leased to new restaurants that are opening in their place.
“And kudos to them for their willingness to take a risk to open a restaurant while this pandemic is still impacting us,” Hanig said.
Hanig said the city did what it could for businesses in terms of permitting for outside dining, by approving an open-air market downtown, and closing various streets so restaurants and shows could open safely outdoors. Outdoor dining lasted as long as places felt that they were going to get business, given that it was getting colder.
The city received many requests for outside dining permits, she said, “and we anticipate there'll be more outside dining in 2021 than there has perhaps never been before.”
The consensus among city officials and businesses alike is that outdoor dining is likely here to stay.
The restaurant industry in Portland has undoubtedly changed, and the full scope of the pandemic's effects likely won't be known for years. But those that have survived, and in some cases thrived, in the past year are looking towards a brighter future, embracing the changes rather than succumbing to the hardships.
These are just some of their stories.
Part 1: Matt Ginn, executive chef of Evo Kitchen + Bar
It was a Monday when Evo decided to close its doors—March 16, 2020, the day before St. Patrick’s Day. At the time, Maine had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19.
In an attempt to curb gatherings, the city of Portland had just announced a mandated curfew for businesses ahead of the holiday. It feels like a lifetime ago, but it’s a day chef Matt Ginn, his staff, and countless others remember.
Matt said the week before the pandemic reached Maine, the restaurant did $4,000 in sales. The next, $600. So, Evo, a “Maine meets Mediterranean” restaurant in Portland’s Old Port, closed, becoming one of the first downtown businesses to do so. Evo was initially going to be closed for two weeks—a mentality held by many at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We closed for a month and … I could never have foreseen the scope of it,” Matt said. “I sat at home for six weeks, and at first, I was frustrated,” he said, because of other restaurants that were still operating.
The Payment Protection Program loan provided some relief for the restaurant and they were able to reopen for takeout in April. But even on a good day, they weren’t breaking even.
“It was discouraging … it didn't pay for the people to be there,” Matt said. “And if it wasn't for the loan, we wouldn't have been able to do it.”
One of the owners, Casey Prentice of the Prentice Hospitality Group, quickly sprang into action, thinking of ways to help. That’s when Evo X was born: a concept originally intended to be a second brick-and-mortar location for Evo was instead reimagined as a food truck.
After some quick research, they found a truck they liked in Allentown, Pa., which Casey drove back to Maine. Matt said Casey basically pulled up in front of Evo, and said, “What do you think? Can we open in a week?”
Matt said he told Casey, “Let’s do it."
Evo X, situated perfectly at Fore Points Marina on the waterfront, was “enormously successful,” Matt said. “It saved the staff. We didn’t lay off one person.” In fact, Evo was hiring and looking for staff for the summer.
The food truck, which had a good-sized outdoor patio with picnic tables, fire pits, and a marina bar, was so busy they were turning people away at the door for most of the summer.
“Great summer,” Matt said. “Fast forward—September hits. Numbers start to come down and it gets cold. October…oh man, the food truck gets bad.”
Again, they had to think quickly, and think of ways to keep outdoor dining an option in the colder months. After the food truck closed for the winter, they build chalets on the sidewalks outside Evo’s Fore Street location.
The Instagram-able glass chalets, decorated with chandeliers, chic table settings, flowers, and ivy at $110/a head, became the restaurant’s means to get through the winter. The chalets nearly doubled Evo’s indoor capacity, which was limited because of safety concerns.
“It saved the restaurant,” Matt said.
Matt said the reaction from guests has largely been, “We love the food, we love the space, the flowers, everything you did with it, but also just, thank you for just providing somewhere that I feel comfortable eating.”
In addition to Casey’s efforts last year, Matt largely credits his staff for staying strong over the past year.
“They’ve been a rock,” he said. “They’ve been so solid and have provided me with confidence and the ability to keep pushing through.”
As for this coming summer, Matt said, “This is going to be the busiest summer we've ever had, and I think not just from exclusive for Evo, but for Portland. We're turning the corner. The vaccine is out. Numbers are down.”
Evo’s owners and Matt also run the Chebeague Island Inn, a destination wedding venue and hotel on an island off the coast of Portland. The inn closed last summer as countless weddings were canceled, but Matt said this summer, they have weddings booked for every weekend.
He said he’s sensitive to people’s concerns about opening and holding weddings, but he’s not worried.
“I can’t work from home,” Matt said. “I need to work and I need to be busy and provide for my family.”
Matt said he thinks there will be years of healing after the pandemic. But at this point, he’s ready to get on with his life and think about the future.
“I’m 36 years old, I have two kids. The show has gotta go on.”
“I'd rather live in a world that is involved with handshakes and hugs than separation, anxiety, and masks,” he said. “And so for me, that’s why I’m not scared. I think the light is at the end of the tunnel.”
Matt hopes to reopen the Evo X food truck in mid-May. The Chebeague Island Inn opens May 14, “and Evo will have the busiest summer it’s ever had,” Matt said.
Stay tuned this week for more parts to this story.