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How Portland Restaurants Are Trying To Adapt To Empty Dining Rooms

Boda, a popular Portland restaurant, in 2019.

Portland’s much-lauded restaurant scene has been closed to dine-in business for approximately two weeks thus far in an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

The sudden change is affecting restaurant workers and owners, even those who’ve made the pivot to offering takeout service. One popular downtown eatery is among those that has been forced to adapt to a whole new way of doing business.

Just over two weeks ago, Boda was packed. The Thai restaurant’s dining rooms were filled and regulars were at the bar. But restaurant manager Zak Taillon was ill at ease. He was just starting to anticipate the effects of COVID-19’s spread on a business that can be difficult, even under normal circumstances.

“It’s really hard. This job already kind of feels like a firefighter — like a volunteer firefighter that’s on call 24/7, because we’re open late night,” he says.

More recently, Taillon says he has been feeling like less of a firefighter and more like a service member.

“We kind of feel like soldiers right now, in this weird war where we have to feed people,” he says.

Credit Willis Ryder Arnold / Maine Public
Maine Public
A sign at Boda, seen March 14, advises diners to use caution. The city and state have since closed restaurants for dine-in service.

Both the city and the state have ordered restaurants in Maine to close their dine-in service, but have allowed them to stay open for takeout. For Taillon, the change has created some new challenges.

“It’s been just 24/7, like I wake up somebody who’s got questions about unemployment or questions about hour-reduction or, you know, we got a new update from the city, or the new cases are found in Portland and my boss and my coworkers are all texting me and calling me to make sure that I heard the latest,” he says.

The kitchen had to be rethought, workers’ hours reduced, and employees and customers had to be protected from a new health concern that topped the news each night. Two workers are autoimmune compromised and two have asthma. Taillon says it has been hard not to get bogged down by the scope of the problem, and he’s frustrated by what he sees as a lack of guidance from government.

“I don’t think any of us are really qualified in the restaurant industry to be dealing with something that’s big and especially where we’re not getting any help,” he says.

There’s little doubt that the industry will be hurt, says Steve Hewins, president and CEO of Hospitality Maine.

Hewins says the historic $2 trillion federal stimulus package will help in some ways. He points to the small business loans that will be forgiven for those that continue to employ their workers.

But Hewins says most of his constituents are still fearful about the long-term effects that the pandemic will have on the economy.

“I think that’s the biggest concern for most of us. Most of our members have fear and uncertainty about both the length and what ultimately the industry will look like post virus,” he says.

Two weeks ago, back when Portland’s restaurants were full and grills at Boda were smoking, Taillon saw cause for hope amid all of the uncertainty.

“The beauty is that, you know, all the things that make us as a community are now coming forward and we’re learning to take care of each other,” he says.

Now Taillon says he hasn’t lost hope, but acknowledges that the world seems different — more complicated.

“It went from being this like Portland destination restaurant. And now I feel like we’re serving people who, this is the only time they’re leaving their house all day,” he says.

Taillon says Boda is doing OK now that it’s offering takeout, but it’s not meeting its past level of business, which is true for many restaurants in the city that have pivoted to takeout and delivery-only options.

This week the Portland City Council voted to extend the city’s stay-at-home order until April 27. The state has additionally mandated that restaurants remain closed to dine-in customers until April 30.