It’s a dreary, overcast Friday morning. Pete Sueltenfuss, owner of the three Other Side Diner and Deli locations in Portland, sits in the almost deserted diner at 500 Washington Ave., off Bates Street.
“The delis have been open the whole time, we never had to shut them down at all,” Sueltenfuss said of his East Deering spot nearby on Veranda Street and the West End location on Vaughan Street.
The flagship diner, however, did close. Sueltenfuss – a longtime Portland chef who has worked at restaurants including Fore Street, Miyake, and the now-closed Grace where he was the executive chef – said the decision to close was made a few days before the state shut down dine-in services. He recalled the speculation at the time was that restaurants would be closed at most for two weeks before being able to reopen.
The diner didn’t begin serving dine-in customers again until mid-August and was limited to takeout orders throughout the spring and early summer.
The delis, on the other hand, have kept at it, Sueltenfuss said. He said both locations had the advantage of already operating on takeout models. They also added curbside delivery.
“We were already most of the way there,” Sueltenfuss said.
Part of the Other Side’s initial business model when the Veranda Street deli opened in 2015, in the former Quattrucci’s Variety, was selling prepared meals like lasagna for customers to take home and reheat. He said during the first months of the pandemic, they couldn’t keep those meals stocked because they were so popular. Now those sales come in waves, he said.
Sueltenfuss, who also previously worked in the butchering department at Rosemont Market & Bakery, said the Other Side locations are “small, neighborhood spots,” and were able to thrive early in the pandemic thanks to people in their neighborhoods who needed day-to-day essentials, but didn’t want to go inside a busy grocery store.
Now the three locations are coming off their busiest week of the year when there were lines of customers stretching down Veranda Street because of Thanksgiving. Sueltenfuss said this year customers bought prepared turkeys, sides, and pies, and they were lucky to have had decent weather leading up to the holiday.
He said he knows that luck won’t continue during the winter, although his shops will be launching their Christmas menu shortly, highlighted by the traditional 30-day dry-aged ribeye they do each year.
Despite the Thanksgiving success, and with Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” playing in the background on the diner’s sound system, the Boston native said he still has “grave concerns” as the pandemic lingers.
“Every restaurant is in the same situation,” Sueltenfuss said. “We’re all fighting for our lives.”
The diner celebrated its first anniversary while in lockdown – not the kind of celebration Sueltenfuss and his wife and business partner, Jessica, had planned. He said summertime, usually the lifeblood for restaurants, hasn’t been the best. In their first summer, the diner was still new, so tourists didn’t know about it. He also said the diner and the delis appeal more to regulars than they do to tourists. Last fall was good; this fall the best they could offer was limited capacity, but the restaurant was rarely busy.
He said Other Side was denied a recent round of grant funding, and the business has already taken on more debt than he wanted. While accumulating debt is part of starting a business, Sueltenfuss said, taking on more at a time when sales are cratering isn’t a traditional business strategy.
But these aren’t traditional times.
“Once we come out of this,” Sueltenfuss said, “any predictability and sales projection is just putting your finger in the air.”