Adapting – While pivoting was all the rage in 2020, the ongoing challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting labor shortage has led to this less knee-jerk, more forward-thinking phase of adjustment, which for the restaurant industry has meant everything from simplifying menus, reducing operating hours, or moving to counter service to increasing prices and wages.
B&M Baked Beans – The iconic baked bean company that for more than 150 years served as a source of pride for the state, in its place both on the Portland skyline and at Saturday night dinner tables, announced in August it would cease production at its waterfront factory and sell the property to the Roux Institute for a planned technology graduate school, research center and business incubator.
Customers – For decades, the restaurant customer, no matter how rude or unreasonable, was always right. Isn’t that the meaning of hospitality? These days, though, with a pandemic that shows few signs of abating, restaurant workers still on the front lines and restaurants painfully understaffed, that dynamic is shifting. Restaurateurs counsel customers to show patience and kindness to their staff and to please respect the host when she tells you masks are required. Or else.
Dairy farmers vs. Danone – In August, after food conglomerate Danone North America said it would drop 14 organic Maine dairy farms from its roster, the farmers – already battered by slowing demand, alternative “milks” and increased costs – responded that they might be forced to sell their herds and leave farming altogether. In mid-December, Danone, parent company of Horizon Organic, gave them a six-month reprieve. Stay tuned.
Edibles – Throw a stone these days and you’ll hit a recreational, adult-use cannabis dispensary. Hungry? From marijuana-infused caramels, blueberry jam and gummies, to sodas, Rice Krispies treats, and so much more, you can stock up. But remember, these treats are not for kids.
French, Erin – had yet another busy year. First, she wrote a memoir, “Finding Freedom,” published in April by Celadon. Then, 18 parties bid to option the book for a movie; producer Bruna Papandrea’s Made Up Stories and Endeavor Content ultimately acquired the rights. This fall, Season 2 of “The Lost Kitchen,” a series based on her restaurant of that name in Freedom, premiered on Discovery Plus and Magnolia Network.
Gluten-free beer – Maine’s first dedicated gluten-free brewery, Lucky Pigeon in Biddeford, opened in August. Brewer Scott Nebel, formerly of Maine Beer Co. and Sebago Brewing, uses millet and rice in place of the traditional gluten-containing grains to brew a variety of styles, including pale, blonde and brown ales and a New England IPA. And in the related there’s-a-beer-for-everybody category, in March, Kittery’s Woodland Farm’s Brewery released Pointer, the state’s first non-alcoholic beer, while KITna Brewing, a Portland brewery exclusively devoted to non-alcoholic beer, opened in December.
Hard seltzer – Another popular option for the gluten-averse, hard seltzer showed up on tap lines at breweries all over the state this year, which saw an opportunity to capitalize on the craze started by national brands like White Claw and Truly and to expand their customer base. Local hard seltzers are also widely available in cans, including those made by Après, a craft beverage maker with a seltzer focus that opened this summer in Portland’s East Bayside.
Inoculation policies – Among the small group of Maine restaurants and bars that have adopted policies that require patrons to bring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative COVID test result are Friends & Family (where unvaccinated but masked customers may shop, but not eat), Hunt + Alpine, Jewel Box, and Maine & Loire, all in Portland, as well as Magnus on Water in Biddeford and Nina June in Rockport. The trade group HospitalityMaine does not keep statistics on the number of hotels, restaurants and bars across the state with such policies.
Jamaican food – Even if a tropical vacation still feels beyond reach, options for island flavors became more abundant this year, with the opening of Caribbean Taste on Broadway in South Portland and Go See Tyce on Route 1 in Saco.
Knightville – The pandemic couldn’t stop the continuing culinary renaissance of this South Portland neighborhood, which welcomed BenReuben’s Knishery in May, Costa Rican and Caribbean spot Cafe Louis in July and retailer SoPo Seafood’s market and raw bar in September – all along a short stretch of Ocean Street. Just up the road, Taco Trio moved in October from its longtime home into a bigger space, originally but briefly occupied by Big Babe’s Tavern, a couple blocks away.
Lobster – High prices (in May, as much as $18 per pound for live lobster and, in October, wholesale prices of more than $11 per pound) and Haddie, a cotton-candy colored one-in-a-million lobster caught in Casco Bay. And who could forget that the Chinese media blamed a Maine lobster shipment for setting off the pandemic?
MOFGA – Founded in 1971 by Maine’s previous wave of back-to-the-landers, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association marked its 50th anniversary in August. The nonprofit – staunch champion of organic farming, mentor to beginning farmers, organizer of the state’s beloved Common Ground Country Fair (virtually, alas, for the past two years) and much more – has almost 4,200 members.
Now hiring – Pretty much everywhere. If you’ve ever fantasized about working in food service, you don’t have worry about your lack of experience – your warm body will be more than welcome in many kitchens, dining rooms and sandwich shops right now.
Openings – Astoundingly, even in the middle of a world-wide pandemic and a severe labor shortage, new restaurants, bakeries and coffeeshops in Greater Portland continued to open their doors and their kitchens. Among newcomers we welcomed in 2021 were Cheese Louise, Coveside Coffee, Crispy Gai, Falafal Time, Flores, Friends & Family, Helm, Norimoto Bakery, Ruby’s West End, and Sarah’s Farmstand Kitchen, all in Portland; Caribbean Taste and BenReuben’s Knishery in South Portland; and Jackrabbit in Biddeford.
Plastic bag ban – Grocery store workers throughout Maine had to rewrite their script when a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags took effect in July. The ban is intended to reduce waste and litter, protect marine life from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic, and curb the use of a material which even after hundreds of years doesn’t break down. So when you fail to bring your own reusable bag, be prepared to hear, “Paper (5 cents), or are you just gonna carry that?”
Quitting – For a long decade or three, restaurant work looked glamorous. America was in love with eating out, and chefs catapulted to local and national fame. The pandemic has changed the lens. Many restaurant employees have taken stock of their 80-hour weeks, late hours, weekend shifts, low pay and lack of health insurance. The result? When restaurants opened up again, some workers did not come back.
Right whales – versus Maine lobstermen. Scientists estimate fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remain, victims of ship strikes and lobster line entanglements. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes them as “one of the world’s most endangered large whale species.” Lobstermen argue that they’re the endangered species. The fight between the lobster industry and conservationists went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court this year.
Supply chain – Whether it’s a local school lunch program that can’t secure juice, Monte’s in Portland unable to procure pizza boxes or the popular Blue Hill eatery El El Frijoles failing to get its hands on rice, supply chain issues have disrupted the local (and national) food industry.
Tourists return – Ongoing pandemic or no, they’re back. In the first seven months of the year, patrons spent more than $2.5 billion at Maine restaurants and hotels, almost $1 billion more than in the same period in 2020, and also higher than the $2.3 billion spent during those months in 2019. The data comes courtesy of Maine Revenue Services. And just try getting a reservation at a trendy restaurant last summer.
Unalienable right to food – Voters in November passed a constitutional amendment giving Mainers “a natural, inherent and unalienable right to food, including the right to save and exchange seeds and the right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” Just what does that mean? Some say it’s a commitment to a fair food system and local suppliers, while others believe it opens the door for unsafe practices.
Vietnamese breakfast – Cong Tu Bot switched to breakfast and found (more) fame in the pages of the New York Times, which listed the Portland restaurant among the “50 places we’re most excited about right now.” Reporter Priya Krishna wrote, “A meal here is an extremely compelling argument for the superiority of Vietnamese breakfast food.”
Wares – Sure you can buy food and drink at restaurants, breweries and the like. But that’s so 2019. You know what else you can buy? Merch. Lots of merch. Branded hats, shirts, hoodies, onesies and lots more are all the rage at food businesses around the state. To show your support for a local business that’s no doubt struggled mightily during the pandemic, wear your love.
Xed out – Sadly, everything has a season, including restaurants and other food businesses. Among those we said goodbye to in 2021 were Bill’s Pizza, Emilitsa, Figgy’s, Little Giant, MJ’s Wine Bar, Mt. Desserts Pie Company, Other Side Deli (West End), Pigeons (to this place we said both hello and goodbye), all in Portland; 158 Pickett Street Cafe in South Portland; Biscuits and Co. and Yeto’s in Biddeford; Pearl Kennebunk in, yep, Kennebunk; Grand Central Wine Bar in Gorham; and the Stonewall Kitchen Cooking School in York. Also, Botto’s Bakery in Portland, which once had cases brimming with classic Italian-American cookies and pastries, stopped its sweets production, although it still sells bread.
York Hill Farm – In September, in the Maine Cheese Guild’s first ever Maine Cheese Awards, the Washington creamery won Best in Show for its fresh Green Peppercorn and Nutmeg Roll. Altogether, 20 of Maine’s 65 registered creameries entered 105 cheeses into the competition. “We want to provide the real exposure and recognition our cheesemakers deserve,” Cheese Guild President (and Portland’s Broken Arrow co-owner) Holly Aker said about the inaugural awards.
Zen out – Chefs have had to find ways to do it among all the stress, from constantly Adapting (see A). They meditated, exercised, signed up for therapy and gardened. Kind of like all the rest of us.