With stools stacked on the bar behind him, owner Ian Malin is seen through a reflection on a window of the closed Little Giant restaurant on Portland's West End. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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By 9:30 a.m. on most days, Ilma Lopez, co-owner of restaurants Chaval and Piccolo, has seen her 6-year-old daughter off to first grade. She starts her work at Chaval with a hot cup of tea, going through a mental list of how to prepare the restaurant for its 5 p.m. dinner service. 

Running errands, prepping food and overseeing menu changes are all part of the daily routine for Lopez and her husband, Damian Sansonetti, who co-owns both Portland restaurants.

Last week, however, the routine changed. Chaval and Piccolo were closed on Monday, and their staff was encouraged to apply for unemployment – a now industry-wide narrative to restaurants faced with growing concern about the spread of coronavirus through contact.

Chaval owner Ilma Lopez, right, and employee Kari Hodgens with tubs of food to be distributed to employees after the restaurant was forced to close. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

In Cumberland County, the foodservice industry is sustained by nearly 20,000 employees, according to last year’s data from the Maine Department of Labor. In the first three days of last week, 4,900 Maine residents applied for unemployment, according to Jessica Picard of the Department of Labor – more than three times as many applications than the first two weeks of March, and nearly double all of March 2019.

“If I have 26 people out of work, all the farmers, all the purveyors that grow around my little community are affected,” Lopez said. “I’m just one little person.”

Several other restaurants, such as Chaval, Cong Tu Bot, and newly opened Leeward, decided to close before Wednesday, March 18, when Gov. Janet Mills mandated that all restaurants and bars in Maine close to dine-in customers. 

Others, such as Little Giant, The Honey Paw and Drifters Wife, continue to operate for the time being with delivery or to-go options.

“We want to do what’s best for (our employees) and the way we work right now, we don’t have enough information and everything is just changing daily,” Lopez said. “The best I can do is tell you what I know when I know it.”

For new restaurant owner Jake Stevens, 34, who opened Italian-style Leeward with his wife Raquel two weeks ago at 85 Free St., the choice to close indefinitely was difficult to make and inconveniently timed. 

“We decided to close immediately and hold onto what operating capital we have so that hopefully when this blows over we’ll have the resources available and jobs for our staff,” Stevens said.

“We have a precarious opportunity to get ahead of this thing and mitigate its impact,” he said. “If we take drastic measures now, we can hopefully make it so the effect is not that bad.” 

Leeward has 16 employees, one of whom is salaried. They were all furloughed and encouraged to claim unemployment.

The staff sifted through the food and froze anything that could be used later. The remaining perishable foods were given to employees.

Ilma Lopez’s parents help pack food at Chaval for delivery to Ronald McDonald House. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

One employee, Colin Kennedy, who left his previous job to begin working at Leeward in early March, filed for unemployment that weekend.

Applying for unemployment was a straightforward process, according to Kennedy, who has previously applied for unemployment from the service industry. He said his expected weekly unemployment benefit is roughly half of his regular income.

“I’m privileged and fortunate enough that I have a family and partner that can help me if I need help,” Kennedy said. “If the restaurant were my only income, or if I were a single parent with a kid, or if I were a dishwasher, sending money back home, it’d be bad. Those are the people I’m thinking about.” 

At Cong Tu Bot on Washington Avenue, owners Vien Dobui and Jessica Sheahan are searching for ways to continue financially supporting their 17-person staff with a closed restaurant. 

“Our whole staff was stressed out to see how much exposure was in the room,” Dobui said, referencing the last day they offered dine-in service. “I felt horrible that I was exposing our staff to that and possibly contributing to the problem.”

The restaurant ran one day of take-out only service, before ultimately closing. 

Employees at Cong Tu Bot have benefited from paid sick leave since July, and were encouraged to stay home in recent weeks if they felt sick. 

“Putting people in a position where they have to constantly choose between finances and their health is a horrible system,” Dobui said. “My goal is to keep our staff paid during this time.”

To provide some financial relief, Sheahan created a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise money for their staff. In three days, the support fund received $3,400 of its $20,000 goal in donations.

Care packages of surplus food prepared for out-of-work employees at LB Kitchen. (Courtesy Bryna Gootkind)

Some restaurant owners are finding new avenues that preserve their business while supporting their employees. 

LB Kitchen’s West End location closed on Saturday, March 14, and the East End location on Congress Street soon followed, laying off all its employees.

“We’re in the hospitality industry and it feels so strange to hit the pause button,” Lee Farrington, co-owner of LB Kitchen, said last week.

When they announced closure, Farrington and business partner Bryna Gootkind ordered food to supplement their remaining perishables and filled crates with salads and grains for their employees.

Five employees, plus Farrington and Gootkind, were re-hired this week to run a new operation, ‘LB Kitchen x Home,’ from the East End location. The special take-out and delivery menu features bulk-prepared meals from their menu and select beverages.

The restaurant is well-equipped to run to-go services, and take-out operations normally constitute 15-20 percent of LB’s business, according to Gootkind.

“For us, we’ve tried to make decisions that come from our heart, protecting our staff and community,” Gootkind said. “All of these decisions have been really hard.”

Lopez and Sansonetti also began offering a limited take-out menu at Chaval on Sunday, but have not yet rehired any of their staff for the new operation. 

On the other side of town, Little Giant on Danforth Street has continued to run take-out and delivery service, alongside a limited grocery selection of dairy, produce and grains, keeping its employees employed and its purveyors in business.  

“What we’re trying to do is figure out what’s the right thing for society in terms of our role,” Ian Malin, owner of Little Giant, said, adding that only three employees remain working from his 15-person staff. 

“We have a commercial kitchen and professionals who know how to provide food. We have an obligation to figure out the best practices to prevent this spread, so we’re doing the best to meet the balance,” he said.

Little Giant owner Ian Malin: “What we’re trying to do is figure out what’s the right thing for society in terms of our role.” (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Finding the balance of running an economically viable business, continuing to financially support staff, and prioritizing health and safety for employees and guests rests on a precarious scale. 

Restaurant owners are confronting questions of social responsibility daily — when public knowledge regarding safety and policies changes rapidly, what is the best way to continue supporting the community?

For some, it’s deciding to close and prioritize social distancing. For others, fundraising or donating food to employees or local nonprofits are options. 

Restaurant owners and staff from Chaval, Piccolo, LB Kitchen, Tipo, Little Giant and Mr. Tuna came together last week to work with Full Plates, Full Potential to provide 3,400 meals to Portland public schools.  

The action came after Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana announced schools would close, creating a potential lapse in meal coverage. Full Plates, Full Potential, a nonprofit that tackles food insecurity in Maine, stepped in to fill the gap with the assistance of the restaurants.

“When school is disrupted, it could be a snow day or vacation week, it puts the idea of connecting a child with a meal they need at risk,” John Woods, co-founder of Full Plates, Full Potential, said. “If you can’t get that lunch or breakfast that you’re depending on, you go hungry that day.” 

By 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Ian Malin and his staff delivered 480 meals at Deering High School, including yogurt parfaits, granola, sandwiches and fruit. 

The school food service staff set up a drive-through in the bus circle so that parents could pick up meals between 10 a.m. and noon. A similar procedure occurred at public schools across the city.

“It felt like a really cool way to close the restaurants down. It feels so terrible, and the only thing that would make us feel better is to continue to give,” Gootkind said.

Ben Paulus’ staff care package from Chaval. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Before temporarily saying goodbye to her employees at Chaval, Lopez gathered all the food in-house and laid it out in the kitchen for them to take home. 

Ben Paulus, 28, a prep cook at Chaval for nearly two years, arrived in the afternoon and was excited to take home some Puy lentils. 

“This is the first time I’ve ever been let go,” Paulus said. “(Applying for unemployment) was the first thing I did when I found out.”

Homemade brioche buns, dried black beans, frozen meats, extra toilet paper and any extra mise en place from that week filled fish tubs to tide people over, hopefully for at least a few weeks. 

As trying time as it’s been, it has also exposed slivers of humanity that reveal acts of selflessness amidst a pervasive crisis. The food industry and its 20,000 workers have illustrated resilience, creativity and flexibility in their dedication to keep Portland, and Maine, running.

“The way I see it is that all of us are facing this uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Lopez said. “Every day we’re fighting for our rights—for what we’ve worked so hard for, for our team, for everyone.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen is an assistant general manager at Hugo’s in Portland. She filed for unemployment this week.

Updated March 25, 2020, to correct that Ian Malin is the sole owner of Little Giant, where 12 of the restaurant’s 15 employees had been laid off.