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Maine restaurant owners get creative to keep guests safe, warm

Restaurant owners say they need to stay open to financially stay afloat. To do that they need to find a way to keep guests safe and warm this winter.

PORTLAND, Maine — "Your dream is not a forever thing," Ilma Lopez, the co-owner of Chaval in Portland's West End neighborhood, said.

Like many small business owners, she's worried hers will not survive the pandemic. She's also concerned about keeping her staff safe. Her team consists of more than a dozen people and she said she feels a responsibility to keep them not only safe but also secure with a steady paycheck.

Lopez also wants to keep restaurant guests safe. With help from her parents, they constructed greenhouses that will be used for seating now and growing produce later.

"I don't want our team coming into a closed space," she explained.  "So we have the walkie talkie." 

The greenhouses have heat, windows open at the top and the sides, and they are sanitized and aired out between each reservation. 

Chaval was recently one of nine restaurants awarded a grant to cover the cost of construction. The grant was from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, Norway Savings Bank, Coastal Enterprises, and Community Concepts.  

That grant is separate from the city of Portland's new Winter Business Sustainability Grant Program which launched Thursday to help keep jobs —offering grants of up to $10,000.

Meanwhile, people in Bangor seem to be enjoying heated igloos at Timber. Even though they cost thousands to set up, the restaurant's general manager, Suzanne Fletcher, says they're a hit and are here to stay.

"[The dining option] definitely helps the revenue and keep us where we need to be," she said.

There are also igloos outside the Quarry Tap Room in Hallowell. The owners say they may purchase more but are hesitant to see what happens in the months ahead.

In Kennebunk, ice shacks are being used for small groups to eat at Batson River Brewing.

"A rainy day would just tank us so having these to get through these months of cold and snow are really big," Amy Caramanate, food and beverage director at Batson River Brewing, said.

To avoid as much contact as possible with staff, they're using a flag system.

No matter where you try to dine in Maine these days, you're likely going to need a reservation ahead of time. And in a time when things can change fast, be aware of any cancellation policies.

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