ELLSWORTH — Take a local population thrilled to dine out after a year of COVID-19, add a staffing shortage and a record number of visitors, and the result is simple math. It’s been a wild summer for restaurants, owners and managers say.
“It’s been full-tilt boogie since the doors opened in May,” Ironbound operator Leslie Harlow said. She turns away 50 to 75 people each day between reservation requests and walk-ins and spends two to three hours a day just managing reservations.
“We’ve maximized every seat,” she said, serving up to 140 people each night, and turning tables two to three times. She said more rental properties in the area are bringing more customers and is looking at expanding the restaurant’s kitchen to accommodate more dinners — and diners.
With mid-August upon Downeast Maine, many Ellsworth-area eateries are just trying to hold on until Labor Day, when the number of visitors in Downeast towns suddenly drops.
“It’s been off the charts,” Provender Kitchen + Bar owner-chef Daron Goldstein said.
Goldstein said business is easily twice the volume as 2019 for the Main Street Ellsworth restaurant. And while reservation no-shows and cancellations are not an issue at Ironbound, Goldstein found the opposite to be true, with 30 to 40 cancellations a day.
So, he started a per-person deposit policy for all reservations.
“It’s working perfectly,” he said. “One person cancels, maybe. And we still turn 20 to 30 people away a day,” despite outdoor seating and two inside tables held for walk-ins.
To deal with reservation issues such as no-shows, Perry’s Lobster Shack just stopped taking them. The Surry seaside restaurant will still honor reservations already made, its answering machine message states, but as of the end of July, dining is first come, first served.
Union River Lobster Pot owner-chef Brian Langley never even started taking reservations.
“That ship sailed a long time ago, because people don’t show up,” he said.
Open seven days a week, he said the downtown Ellsworth restaurant is “crazy busy.”
“I think what’s happened is, with the workforce crisis and a number of places that have limited or shortened hours, it’s funneled people to place that are open,” Langley said.
Helen’s in Ellsworth is limiting reservations, owner Melanie Fox said. “It works much better. You’re not holding tables, you’re getting people through the door, and turnover is much more efficient.”
Helen’s has not had to turn anyone away, either, she said. “We turn over [tables] really fast.”
For Ellsworth Asian-style restaurant Shinbashi, it is pretty much business as usual. Hostess Leah MacPherson takes reservations for parties over six, but not for the same day they call.
“We’re very, very busy at the dinner hour,” she said, but do not have to turn people away. “It’s very rare that happens.”
Dining at the Crocker House Country Inn in Hancock is almost exclusively through reservations, “but in most of July, we were in such high demand, it was challenging. There really were no slow days,” part-owner and general manager Josh Noddin said. “We were pushing 70-plus people [per day] consistently. We’re not a big restaurant, we have a much slower turnaround time … It’s not an in-and-out kind of thing.”
On Sunday, he said, he gets the overflow from closed restaurants in the area. “They’re coming straight to us. And we’re already getting pushed to our limits to what we can handle.”
Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Gretchen Wilson has heard similar words this summer.
“Mondays in Ellsworth are a difficult time to dine, as many restaurants have taken Mondays as their other or only day off,” she said. “It’s a significant group and has resulted in long lines elsewhere.”
For smaller restaurants that serve course-style dinners, an increase in volume is not always feasible.
“We can’t keep up with 70 people [daily] for weeks at a time,” Noddin said. “It’s just not possible. We may have the people up front to handle it, but in the kitchen, that’s another story.”
His answer was to set a cap on reservations.
“We like to know exactly how many people are coming, so we can plan accordingly,” Noddin said.
Walk-ins are not usually taken, he added, and cancellations and no-shows, though not frequent, cause problems.
“It’s a balancing act,” Noddin said.