A Downeast take on the ‘pandemic pivot’
In the restaurant industry of Maine, the conversation these days centers around surviving the winter.
Nobody speaks in terms of profits. It’s all about managing the losses following the long months of pandemic-related lockdown.
Brian Langley, owner of 35-year-old landmark eatery Union River Lobster Pot of Ellsworth, doesn’t sugar-coat it.
“There’s a devastating winter coming for the hospitality industry. Every single restaurant in Maine makes its money in the summer. We rely on the money we make in the summer to make it through the winter.”
Based on word of mouth he’s hearing, even some of the finest restaurant institutions will be causalities. And those who manage to hang on will reopen to a vastly changed world, he adds.
“I have the sense there will be a lot of fatalities in our business. I know of restaurants that have been around for 30 years that are just closing their doors.”
In an interview with Boxerbrand’s blog Recipe for Success, Langley discusses the up and down of how Union River Lobster Pot managed its “ pandemic pivot,” as he terms it. He discusses what worked, creative measures, the saving grace, and how a family of ducks helped to buoy the spirits of restauranteurs and diners.
BB: How did you get through the long months of lockdown?
BL: I used a three-prong approach to our pandemic pivot. First, we did an assessment of our facility, indoors and outdoors. We have a fair amount of space outside, which ultimately really helped us. Second, we looked at our people and our staffing in order to transition from table service to counter service, takeout and curbside and third, we did overhaul our online presence and built in an online ordering feature and curbside takeout. We invested in getting an app for online ordering, and invested in a thermal printer for labeling of takeout bags. We also invested in packaging, bags, individually wrapped utensils and condiments.
BB: You also changed your menu and restaurant experience.
BL: We scaled back our menu offerings, deciding what could travel and discarding what couldn’t. In the midst of this I saw an opportunity to try some things out that I think my customers in the past would never let me try. This was our test-pilot summer for many things. As far as the menu, I created a line of fairground foods, a niche that did quite well in the wake of all the fairs being canceled. We did a hand-cut Maine potato French fry served with dipping sauces, and as a joke I rolled out something I called lobster poutine. It’s French fries with cheese curds and a lobster thermidor sauce. People really, really liked it! I also introduced a Connecticut-style warm lobster roll with butter, which also did well.
And we also started serving outside. We have quite a bit of property on the river, so we invested in picnic tables and were able to seat people socially distanced outside. Our servers would package their food and run it out to them.
BB: How did the staff adapt to their new roles and responsibilities?
BL: They were incredible. All of a sudden, we went from having no servers, hostesses or bussers. Instead we had counter staff and runners and traffic-flow staff who directed traffic outside and made sure people stayed socially distanced. And our customers were so appreciative of our staff that they were very generous with their tips. I took the tips and calibrated an hourly wage for everyone. Our wait staff who earned $40/hour on average in the summer saw their wages fall to $25/hour. But our bussers, who were earning $15/hour in a normal summer, saw their wages rise to $25.
BB: How were the Lobster Pot’s numbers overall?
BL: We didn’t really make any money this summer, but we kept 25 families (our employees) going this summer. A major help was the Paycheck Protection Loan, which is to the credit of Sen. Susan Collins and all she did to help develop it. It was crucial and it saved us. I’ve just finished the paperwork to ask for forgiveness of the loan, and I am also applying for a second loan, which is being offered to the hospitality industry in Maine, based on losses. My losses from March to September this year over last year are about $340,000. So, I’m hoping to get approval for this secondary measure.
BB: How have you stayed mentally strong?
BL: One saving grace about life in Maine is that when the bottom falls out, you don’t have far to fall. That’s how I look at it. Even seasonal business owners like myself might have a winter gig, and are used to scraping by.
That said, I consider myself to be one of the fortunate ones. And one of my secret weapons has been a recalibration of my purpose in the community, and another secret weapon was this family of ducks who were born on the river. We get ducks every year and don’t pay much attention to them. But this year, as people were sitting outside, they started feeding the ducks. One mother told me that the ducks helped calm her children down. And the ducks got braver and braver to the point that by the end of the season these seven ducks would line up waiting for the fairground fries.
And this speaks to our purpose in the community. We helped people restore normalcy to their lives. I had one elderly customer, who lives alone and was shut in, come and sit outside. Just to see other people. We teamed up with our local theater company The Grand Theater in Ellsworth, which was closed during the pandemic. They put on socially distanced Shakespearean plays, which was hugely popular.
BB: Your sense of the importance of small-town life also changed.
BL: A lot of seasonal residents returned to Maine in March to ride out the pandemic. They came because they wanted to be in a place where the air is clean, and where there’s more elbow room. I asked every seasonal resident what it meant to them to come to Maine. One mother who lives near Philadelphia told me, “It means everything.” The summer memories of a simpler time in Maine is what brought people back, even during the pandemic. I think this pandemic has caused people to rethink what they want in a community. And I have the feeling, based on inquiries I have had from business people looking for opportunities in Maine, that there’s a segment of the population, working from home, telecommuting, who might choose to come to Maine. — Union River Lobster Pot is a longtime Boxerbrand customer. Thank you!