Tina Cromwell had become used to business being slow at Bam Bam Bakery last spring when she got the call of a lifetime.
Her gluten-free bakery was only getting sporadic orders because of the coronavirus pandemic, so when the phone rang that day she let it go to voicemail. On the other end was a television producer asking if she wanted to be featured on “Good Morning America.”
“I (was like) this has got to be a joke,” Cromwell said last week.
Bam Bam was ultimately featured in a May segment about small businesses in the U.S. operating during the pandemic. Instead of flying to New York to do the show in person, Cromwell recorded herself baking on her iPad and communicated with the hosts remotely.
The TV segment not only gave Bam Bam nationwide exposure, but it also led to a partnership with Goldbelly, a mail-order company that allows consumers to order food and other goods from small businesses nationwide.
Now, as more Portland food businesses have buckled under financial strain, Cromwell is doing the opposite. She is reopening Bam Bam in a new location on Anderson Street after her Commercial Street bakery closed last year.
Some other local restaurateurs are also moving forward with plans to open new businesses in the coming months, while others are changing their business models to better navigate the pandemic after a year that saw the U.S. lose more than 110,000 restaurants, according to a recent study by the National Restaurant Association.
Food delivery is one industry that has surged during COVID-19. According to a November report from MarketWatch, the nation’s top three food delivery apps – DoorDash, UberEats, and GrubHub – saw their revenue soar by $3 billion collectively during the second and third quarters of 2020.
Cromwell had been hoping to connect with Goldbelly prior to her 15 minutes of fame, and joining other local businesses that use the company for delivery will be helpful after a year she said was “wracked with challenges.”
Before the pandemic, she planned to use her Commercial Street bakery for retail after opening the shop on Anderson Street. But the forthcoming Bayside bakery will serve both purposes, and provide space to ship orders.
“There are some businesses that I have been like, ‘wow guys, rock on,’” Cromwell said last week. “It’s been interesting to watch everybody with their challenges and how they come out on the other side.”
Breaking new ground
Cromwell hopes to have Bam Bam’s new spot up and running by May. Although she signed the lease in November and initially planned to open by Valentine’s Day, the city has yet to approve her permits.
She was told recently the documents would not be approved for at least eight more weeks.
“It’s out of my control, it’s so crazy,” she said.
Delayed licensing is the latest issue in a series of business hurdles Cromwell has experienced in recent months.
After her Commercial Street shop was shuttered, she had to find somewhere to bake through the holidays. But as a gluten-free business, she could not lease space in a shared kitchen due to the risk of cross-contamination. She ended up finding space and has paid what she called an “outrageous amount of money” for it.
She said even for businesses that received Paycheck Protection Program loans during the pandemic, the money “doesn’t even come close” to make ends meet.
Small Portland businesses always get “completely wiped out” between January and March, Cromwell said, and rely on a boost in springtime, which is why last year’s lockdown was devastating for so many.
“I’m trying to hold on to my house at this point,” she said. “People are like ‘oh that’s too bad that they’re closed,’ and I’m like ‘this is people’s lives.’”
With a new Bam Bam on the horizon, however, Cromwell said it feels good to know customers are excited for her business to return.
On Cove Street, Nick Bonadies and his business partners are also waiting for the city to approve their licensing.
Bonadies and his wife Katie are preparing to open BelleFlower Brewing with business partners Zach Page and Melissa Page. BelleFlower will occupy the former Brewery Extrava, which closed permanently last October, according to Portland Food Map.
BelleFlower’s owners hope to open in early spring.
Zach Page is currently head of production at Lone Pine Brewing Co. on Anderson Street and met Bonadies when they were both working for Trillium Brewing Co. in Boston.
Bonadies said it has been their dream to open a brewery together since 2013, and while it is coming to fruition in the midst of a global pandemic, they hope the vaccine rollout will shorten the timeline to when people can congregate again.
They purchased all the equipment from Brewery Extrava, and plan to utilize the space’s existing outdoor seating when they are able to open. Although entering the market during coronavirus is concerning, Bonadies said he believes “there’s always going to be more room for craft breweries” in Portland.
Chef Evan Richardson, who recently closed the Exchange Street restaurant Eaux, is also planning to reopen in a different location. But in the meantime, Richardson, a South Portland resident, is also in the process of opening Café Louis in Knightville.
In an interview last month, Richardson said Café Louis, at 173 Ocean St., will have a Central American influence and specialize in breakfast foods – baked goods, and rice, bean, and egg plates – in addition to dinner service and small plates.
Richardson, who is originally from New Orleans, is used to injecting his experience into the food he serves. Eaux served mostly Cajun fare, and the Latin American cuisine planned for Café Louis is a nod to his Honduran and Costa Rican heritage.
He said South Portland doesn’t have any establishments like Café Louis, and launching the new business will also give his employees an opportunity to “grow within the company.” The entire staff of Eaux will remain employed through the transition, he said, and he is glad to be able to be creative with people he has already worked with.
Opening Café Louis in South Portland had nothing to do with the increase in Portland’s minimum wage next year, according to Richardson.
“Everyone that works for me gets paid well,” he said. “That had nothing to do with any kind of move. Eaux is going to stay in Portland so we’ll adhere to that without question, if not better.”
Plans to move Eaux and launch Café Louis were already in place before the pandemic, Richardson said, although he did not want to discuss where Eaux may end up. He said he wants to be considerate of his fellow business owners.
“We’re ducking out of a really ugly winter,” Richardson said. “I can’t say how bad I feel for everyone in the city, it’s tough.”
Bring on the cold
While several Portland eateries have constructed igloos, tents, and huts to make outdoor dining viable during the winter, Ian Malin, owner of Little Giant on Danforth Street, has taken it a step further.
Malin recently transformed Little Giant’s gravel rear courtyard into a heated enclosure that will make outdoor dining possible year-round. The restaurant is currently not offering indoor dining and had outdoor tables with heaters set up on the sidewalk earlier this season.
The newly renovated space has heated concrete floors, and walls lined with mounted heaters surrounding six socially distanced tables.
“Right now it’s really just about survival,” Malin said. “This was a big leap, it was not cheap.”
The structure will, however, be permanent. Post-pandemic, he envisions customers renting the space for private parties or corporate events and said it is versatile enough to hang a projector and watch a game. It will also allow for more seating when Little Giant can safely host indoor diners again.
“I knew that if we pulled this off if I could do it financially, we would be only one of a few restaurants in 25-degree weather that you could actually enjoy out here,” Malin said.
He also recently launched Sugar Giant, a bakery operated out of his restaurant, after realizing he had all of the equipment at Little Giant to make baked goods and a period of time every day that it was not being used.
He hired baker Shannon Mahoney and has been selling the baked goods online, which customers can either have delivered or pick up at the restaurant on Saturdays and Sundays.
In Sugar Giant’s first two weekends of operation, Malin said, it sold out of everything. In the future, he hopes to expand to wholesale distribution.
Malin also planned to launch a venture called Boozy Giant this week, which will be a beer and wine delivery service.
Additionally, Malin and his wife Kate are the production and operations leads for Cooking for Community, a volunteer organization formed by local restaurant personnel during the pandemic. According to its website, the group raises money to hire local restaurants in need of work to prepare “healthy food” for Mainers who need it.
“I’d like to be like Redbull, where we can have a recording studio and sponsor mountain biking,” Malin joked about Little Giant’s various endeavors. “A true lifestyle business.”
Straight from the Lab
Fork Food Lab on Parris Street has also modified its business model in the pandemic and recently began offering delivery of some of its members’ products.
Executive Director Bill Seretta last week said that pre-pandemic, hosting events like cocktail parties or pop-up shops at farmers’ markets helped Fork’s diverse members sell their products.
After COVID-19 “wiped all of that out,” he said, Fork launched an online market offering curbside pickup. Seretta said the market did very well throughout last April and May, but saw business decline during the summer months after more outdoor dining options became available locally. The dip continued into the fall.
Fork’s response was to “double down” on the online market, he said, making it available six days a week and increasing its hours, as well as recently offering home delivery to customers in greater Portland. Seretta said only certain items are available for delivery from right now, including nonperishables like crackers and salsa.
Delivery to some nearby suburbs, like Yarmouth and Scarborough, he said, costs around $10, which he said is a “very fair price” considering the average total of an order from Fork is $55.
Although some of Fork’s members are now offering hot meals to go, Seretta said his business is not delivering them, since they require a more immediate delivery schedule.
He said he thinks demand for home delivery is only going to increase in the future, along with calls for more locally sourced food, and said implementing delivery is especially important this time of year.
“Anything you can do to backfill and have some income for the next two or three or four months is critical,” Seretta said.