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After tough & busy 2021, Maine restaurants look to the new year

The busy tourist year brought a 27% increase in sales for hotels compared to 2019, but only a 3.5% increase for restaurants, officials say.

MAINE, USA — As the kitchen crew prepped for lunch, the wait staff at David’s Restaurant in Portland made sure tables were ready. It was New Year’s Eve, with lunch at the beginning of what promised to be a busy day.

It’s also the windup of a busy year for the popular Portland restaurant, according to the owner and chef David Turin.

“Since  April or May, it’s been the busiest we’ve ever been. And people say you must be making money hand over fist,” Turin said.

Turin said that isn’t quite the case. Restaurants, he said, typically have only a 4% to 5% profit margin. With higher costs for everything in 2021, including a 25% jump in labor costs, a lot of money has come in and gone back out.

“I’m spending $1,000 a month on test kits and PPE [personal protective equipment],” he said.

“If someone gets COVID and are out, we’re paying their wages for 10 days to two weeks,” Turin said.

He added that labor costs have increased significantly because of Portland’s unique requirement for a wage bonus during emergencies.

But David’s has remained consistently open, he said, which has not been true of many other Maine restaurants. 

The staffing shortage, in particular, has plagued restaurants of all sizes all over the state. Greg Dugal with Hospitality Maine, which represents restaurants and hotels, said it has been “an uneven year” for those in the restaurant business:  plenty of customers, but so short of staff that companies have had to close some days.

“I think people standing in line, waiting to get into restaurants, made it feel they were really busy,” he said. “When, in reality, they were understaffed. The line was there as much because [there were] not enough people to service guests coming as it was there were a lot of people around.”

Dugal said the busy tourist year brought a 27% increase in hotel sales compared to 2019, but only a 3.5% increase for restaurants.

Looking to 2022, he said the staffing issue is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry, along with continued management of the pandemic.

For Turin, though, all that business was proof people are eager to eat out.

“What I learned in 2021 is we are essential because something about the human condition is people want to be out socializing with friends and family, and I never thought of it as a need [before],” Turin said.

The continuing demand from Mainers to eat in restaurants, despite the continuing pandemic, will mean the businesses must constantly be on guard against COVID, worrying about the virus at least as much as the quality of the food they serve.

“Honestly, the hardest thing has been creating an environment where both staff and our guests feel safe, and we feel safe coming to work,” Turin said.

Dugal said the businesses would need to be creative to deal with staffing issues and other challenges, but he agreed that 2022 looked promising so far.

He added, “We’re restaurant people, so optimism comes naturally. We have to be that way ’cause you never know what’s going to happen. We have a pandemic. What could be worse? A rainy summer pandemic.”

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