For many Ellsworth area residents, Finn’s was a place — maybe the place — to go after a long day’s work or on a summer night too hot to cook at home. It took the best of the Irish pub theme — good beer and good company — and didn’t get heavy-handed with the gimmicks. Sure, you could have a Guinness, but why not try Orono Brewing Co.’s Tubular?
Great staff, food and atmosphere for years made the restaurant a success story in one of the toughest industries around. But the COVID rollercoaster followed by a tight labor market proved too much. The business closed suddenly last month and is for sale. It will be greatly missed. Not only as its own establishment, but as part of the downtown business ecosystem and the community as a whole.
The closure may be portent of more to come.
“Finn’s story is happening over and over in the restaurant business, since the start of the pandemic,” lamented Gretchen Wilson, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t matter what state or part of the country, the restaurant industry is still not back to pre-pandemic staffing, hours or menu items. Staffing has certainly been the largest issue; however, supply chain and the double-digit increases in food, containers, services has cut days/hours, menu variety and of course prices.”
“Expect higher costs, more closures as seasonal worker shortage strains Maine restaurants,” proclaimed a headline in the Portland Press Herald.
Not being able to adequately “staff up” and keep pace with seasonal demand can be the death knell for restaurants in coastal Maine. Café Miranda in Rockland closed this summer after nearly 30 years in business because of staffing issues. After shuttering and slashing staff early in the pandemic, many businesses have been unable to build their employee rosters back up. According to the Maine Department of Labor’s June labor report, Hancock County had an estimated 2.8 percent unemployment rate compared to 4.5 percent in 2021. Competition and limited housing options have hindered hiring.
Eating and drinking establishments added a net 40,800 jobs across the U.S. in June, according to the National Restaurant Association. However, that remains 728,000 jobs below the pre-pandemic peak.
The industry group’s surveys indicate pessimism about the months ahead. In June, just 18 percent of restaurant operators said they expect economic conditions to improve in six months. Forty-three percent said they believe conditions will worsen in that period. It was only the second time in the 20-year history of the group’s tracking survey that over 40 percent of operators had that negative expectation. The first time was in 2007 at the cusp of the Great Recession.
“Restaurant operators are on the front lines of the U.S. economy and are often the first to notice any changes in consumer behavior or economic conditions,” wrote the association’s economist Bruce Grindy. “While operators’ growing economic pessimism does not guarantee that a recession is imminent, it has risen to a level that requires close monitoring in the months ahead.”
Finn’s and other restaurants may be the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Or the closures may just be the challenges of the past few years coming home to roost. Either way, diners can expect to see higher prices as restaurants work to keep their doors open.