It’s been more than a week since Portland Phoenix ownership decided that, apart from our production team of one, we’d work from home. The news was broken to us gently, and as icky as it sounded, no one thought it was an overreaction.
Even so, it was unsettling. There were still limited personal hygiene paper products on the shelves at both Shaw’s and Trader Joe’s way back then. Spring break on the Florida beaches raged supreme and social distancing (oxymoron that it is) was the required repellent being poo-pooed en masse.
But now we all know better.
It doesn’t take Dr. Anthony Fauci’s translation of President Trump’s press conferences to understand this is a life-altering situation, and we’d better pull it together and stay home. So, while we wait for the government to duke out how they’re going to help Americans, my restaurant brothers and sisters are at ground zero for the economic fallout.
And it’s heartbreaking.
Marilyn Urbano of Westbrook is a 40-year veteran of Maine’s restaurant business.
“I started out cocktailing in Waterville, moved here and managed Mark’s Showplace. I worked at Bruno’s for 10 years, did some terrible gigs after that, and landed at Ricetta’s in Falmouth. It’s been 11 years now,” Urbano said. “For the first time in my life, I applied for unemployment. The process was confusing, and I have no idea where I stand yet. I’m going to be OK, but I’m really worried about the younger servers. You remember how that was. It’s table-to-table, night-to-night.”
Charlotte S. of Portland, 24, is one of many such servers.
“I’m screwed,” she said. “Rent is due next week. I have a car payment, a student loan payment, utilities. I know there will be some concessions, but I don’t know what yet or when. My landlord is a big company and I haven’t heard anything about skipping rent, or a grace period or anything. Just something about washing our hands. Not sure what to expect from the same people who have yet to replace smoke alarms in the lobby. My parents live in North Carolina. They retired last year and are freaked out about their savings and the stock market. I’m not about to ask them for money.”
“Who even knows if my job is going to be there when this passes, or if the restaurant will even make it,” said Sharon R., 28. “I live in a three-bedroom apartment in Portland with four other people. Two of them keep going out unnecessarily and bringing the exposure from who-knows-what or where back with them. We’re used to working all the time and being in such proximity is impossible. Forget the virus, I’m going to kill one of them. Wait, I’m just kidding. Don’t write that.”
Mark E., 33, of South Portland is a dish dog (always said with respect for this essential kitchen position) who looks at it a bit differently. “I haven’t had a weekend off in over a year. It’s all still new and I’m broke, but maybe this is a sign to go back to school. But what am I supposed to do about my child support? I’m not being a dead beat.”
He went on to say he’s been in recovery for three years and was supposed to get his celebratory Alcoholics Anonymous coin at an upcoming meeting that has obviously been cancelled. “We’re doing online AA meetings, but it isn’t as good. Not at all,” Mark said. “I have some friends I’m worried about drinking again.”
My dear friend David L., 41, is a full-time professional at Fore Street in Portland. After choosing to close altogether on March 17, the landmark restaurant sent out an email to staff saying they were cooking all the remaining food over two days, and staff was welcome to come and take some.
“The three head-of-the-kitchen guys were doing the cooking and there were tons of fresh produce to take as well,” David said. “I applied for unemployment this morning. We’ve got the dog on a schedule, are looking forward to getting outside, and will just do what we need to do.”
Urbano is of the mind that when things settle down, patrons will be ready to get back out and support their favorite restaurants beyond take-out and delivery.
“People are going to want to take vacations and spend money and sit at the bar and talk with other regulars,” she said.
I was unwilling to ask her thoughts about a recession in general, but I applaud her optimism.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be seeing established and grass-roots community response further support this financially vulnerable sector of Portland’s workforce that I so dearly love. In fact, I’m working on something myself that I’ll be sharing with you soon.
In the meantime, let’s all punch out and marvel at how weekends are somehow exactly the same as weekdays after all.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].