There should be plenty of smiles around Boothbay Harbor due to returning tourists filling local restaurants and inns. Several restaurants report business is up 30% over 2019. But instead of smiles, there are a lot of tense faces. Problems resulting from a labor and food shortage have several restaurants closing one to two days a week during their busiest season. Brady’s Pub owner Jen Mitchell is experiencing a 30% increase in business. Brady’s is already closed one day per week. A perfect storm of a regional labor and food shortage has resulted in the pub closing on Thursdays, too.
Mitchell made the decision July 6 after her business saw an unexpected surge of customers. Several other restaurants closed early due to the same labor and food shortage problems. The hungry patrons arrived at Brady’s looking for a meal. When Mitchell realized patrons would have a two-hour wait, she decided to close early. “It’s crazy. We had so many people I wasn’t sure there was enough food, and I didn’t want to make them wait, and not be served,” Mitchell said.
Labor shortages have been an ongoing battle fought by local hospitality businesses for decades. But local businesses report 2021 is worse than past years. Local restaurant owners report Maine food distributors also face the same labor shortage which has resulted in unreliable deliveries. Mitchell decided to switch distributors earlier this summer from Performance Food Group to Maine Sysco and another company. “It was a mutual decision with PFG.They have large contracts with state facilities, like hospitals and national chains, so small businesses, like us, are last on the list. It got to the point where we were receiving only a partial order or nothing at all,” she said.
At McSeagulls, third-year general manager Kevin Thomas faces the same challenges. Earlier this year, he shortened operating hours by an hour to accommodate the labor shortage. In a regular season, McSeagulls hires 30 people. This year, the restaurant has 17. McSeagulls is also a PFG customer. Thomas reports the restaurant can’t even order Cavatappi noodles, plastic straws and one important drink mix. “I haven’t gotten any pineapple juice for a month. That’s how bad it is,” he said.
In discussions with PFG, Thomas learned its labor is down 25%. This has resulted in the sales agent who services McSeagulls pitching in to fulfill orders. “He is pulling stuff off the floor filling orders. And this was on his vacation,” Thomas said. “It’s gotten to the point where distributions require a minimum order, and, even then, there is no guarantee. I’ve never seen anything like this year.”
For Mitchell, this year’s crowd is reminiscent of years past. She compared 2021 to 1976. America was celebrating its Bicentennial and Boothbay Harbor invited the Budweiser Clydesdales which also drew big crowds. Mitchell remembers restaurants having two-hour waiting lists. “It was crazy, but people would find something else to do before eating,” Mitchell said. In her decision to close for a second day, Mitchell wanted to avoid patrons waiting long periods and getting poor service. “I want people to come to Boothbay Harbor and have the best experience they can. I’d rather have them mad at the door than be seated, and find out there is no food.”
At Taka Mediterranean Bar and Grill, Manager Joelle Harshman also reports a robust business season. Like other local eateries, post-pandemic business is up significantly. Taka is also struggling to find enough staff and food. The shortage has forced Taka to close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the height of tourist season. “This has been the toughest year yet. We don’t have enough food runners, bussers, dishwashers or hosts. We are so short-staffed that I’m in the dish room and so is the owner,” Harshman said.
Food distribution is another of Taka’s problems. On a recent Friday, Taka expected an 8 a.m. delivery which didn’t arrive until 3 p.m. Faced with running out of food, Harshman sought assistance from other restaurants. “You do what you can. If you need lemons, you ask to borrow some from other restaurants. They are facing the same problems and we’re all working as a community through this.”
As far as closing two days a week, Harshman described the move to preserve their staff who work from open to close, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., five days per week. “That’s 70 hours a week. That’s a lot to put on anyone, especially with only four people in the kitchen,” she said.
While the labor and food shortage is dire for all Boothbay Harbor restaurants, it’s worse at Whale’s Tale. Owner Jack Cogswell has owned the restaurant for 20 years and the Upper Deck for 10 years prior. But 2021 might be the year he won’t open at all. He needs about a dozen workers to operate his Atlantic Avenue restaurant, but so far nobody has applied. “I’ve advertised for four straight months in the Boothbay Register and haven’t had one response. Without workers, we can’t open,” he said.
Cogswell believes the labor shortage is due to lucrative unemployment benefits created during the pandemic. “You can’t pay people to stay home. I don’t care how many $2,000 or $5,000 bonuses you give. People aren’t going to give up unemployment insurance and their freedom just to work,” he said.