Portland lags rest of state in restaurant rebound

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Portland’s famous restaurant industry is struggling. Nearly two years after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Maine, it still lags behind its pre-pandemic strength with fewer restaurants, city and state data.

This has been compounded by some residents’ reluctance to resume restaurant dining as COVID-19 remains a factor.

Portland and the neighboring communities of South Portland, Westbrook and Long Island experienced a larger percentage decline in total restaurant sales from 2019 to 2021 than any of Maine’s 37 other economic regions for which sales in 2019 and 2021 were available, according to recently released taxable data. Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services retail sales data.

These regions include communities from all 16 counties of Maine.

Full restaurant sales data for 2019 and 2021 was not available for areas based in Jonesport, Livermore, Machias, Pittsfield and Winterport.

Portland recorded about $549 million in restaurant sales in 2021, down 8% from the $600 million recorded in 2019.

Meanwhile, restaurant licenses in the city have dropped by almost half since 2019, according to city data, the result of many restaurants closing due to the brunt of the pandemic. More recently, city stalwart The Back Bay Grill announced its closure after 35 years in business.

Portland’s restaurant industry is different from others across the state, said David Turin, the chef and owner of David’s restaurant in Monument Square, in that occupancy costs are unusually high. In a pre-pandemic booming market, many restaurateurs began investing large sums, increasing their occupancy cost to revenue ratio.

“People got really optimistic about Portland and they were like, ‘yeah, we can spend a lot more money than we used to,'” Turin said. “Then the pandemic hits and now everyone is in debt up to their eyes.”

Turin noted that fewer restaurants means fewer sales, and that, coupled with being less open in 2021, could explain the decline.

The restaurants that remained are doing pretty strong business, he said, noting that David’s Restaurant revenue in 2021 was a record. They saw a high volume of people which peaked during the summer.

Still, profit margins are lower than before the pandemic, he said, largely because of a 40% increase in labor costs compared to 2019. Electricity , food, insurance and garbage removal costs have also increased significantly.

One of Turin’s fears is that once Portland emerges from its relative shortage of restaurants and many continue to be unwilling to eat in person, the resulting drop in volumes may not be enough to continue.

“If our numbers were to be lower than we were in 2019, we wouldn’t be able to survive,” Torino said. “We have to do more volume just to operate on the spot.”

However, the numbers also show Portland’s restaurant industry is making a significant comeback after many struggles during the pandemic, said Matt Lewis, president of HospitalityMaine, a restaurant and hospitality industries advocacy group. of Maine.

Indeed, 2021 sales were up about 92% of 2019, a nearly full comeback in a year that began without the widespread availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and included fewer restaurants in the city. And it could have been much worse, for example, if the vaccine had arrived later or if the travel restrictions enacted by Governor Janet Mills had lasted longer, Lewis said.

The figures could be due to a reluctance by some in Portland to return to restaurants because they are concerned about the pandemic, although Lewis said that is unlikely to be the only reason.

As is the case in other urban areas across the country, Portland residents tend to be more aware of COVID than others across the state: They’re more likely to wear a mask and avoid eating. in restaurants or bars than their rural counterparts, according to a 2021 study published in The Journal of Rural Health. For some in Portland, that means going out to eat much less or not at all since the pandemic began.

“There’s still a percentage of people who are hesitant to go to restaurants,” Lewis said. “But it’s getting smaller every day.”

A spokesperson for the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for comment.

Restaurant sales in Portland were virtually identical from June to December 2021 compared to the same period in 2019. That puts the region behind the rest of the state. In nearly every other area of ​​Maine, there was growth from 2019 numbers instead.

Although its total sales are only a fraction of Portland’s, Dover-Foxcroft had the strongest restaurant growth in the state from 2019 to 2021, with a 24% increase in sales.

However, many southern Maine communities outside of the Portland area have experienced growth in their restaurant industry, including Sanford, Kittery, and Biddeford.

But the biggest increase came in the Lake Sebago region, which includes Windham, Standish, Sebago, Naples, Gray, Bridgton and other nearby communities, which rose 14% to $118 million in 2021.

The data was not surprising given the foreigners who had moved to the area since the pandemic as well as the efforts of local businesses to stay afloat, Sebago Lakes Chamber of Commerce Director Robin Mullins said.

Much of that growth has come during the summer months, a time when tourists and seasonal residents flood the area — tourism was actually up from 2019 on some metrics. With case numbers low and the vaccine widely available, many Mainers believed the pandemic was behind them.

“People have been stuck for so long,” Mullins said. “We may have gone out more than we normally would.”

One place that has seen a significant rebound is Chute’s Family Restaurant, which has been serving breakfast and lunch in Windham since 1978.

But 2020 has not been easy. As it saw other local restaurants close, Chute barely broke even for the year due to Paycheck Protection Program coronavirus relief loans, co-owner Bruce Stevens said.

But by June 2021, the restaurant had returned to pre-pandemic normal and was seeing many regulars — often locals on weekdays and those from across the region on weekends. Stevens said those regulars played a big part in getting things back to normal.

“Some of them took a while to come out in public, but they gradually started coming back last fall,” Stevens said. “They took care of us, I guess. We try to take care of them. »

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