Crispy Gai, the new restaurant owned by Mr. Tuna founder Jordan Rubin, opened last month at 90 Exchange St. in the former Eaux space. It is one of several Portland restaurants that have moved into new locations as the pandemic wanes. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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The economic hardship brought on by the pandemic the last year and a half forced several Portland restaurants, bars, and stores to close permanently.

But as public life resumes, some businesses are seizing the opportunity to move into spaces made available by the closures.

One change that generated buzz last October was the temporary closure of The Holy Donut’s Exchange Street storefront. 

Jeff Buckwalter, co-owner and CEO of The Holy Donut, said July 12 that his business made the decision to move out of the Old Port space due to the pandemic’s impact on guest traffic, and ultimately decided not to renew its lease when it expired in March of this year.

Portland’s second location of The Holy Donut is set to reopen in the former Commercial Street location of Bill’s Pizza later this month after the donut shop closed its Exchange Street spot last fall. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

But The Holy Donut plans to reopen later this month at 177 Commercial St., the former longtime home of Bill’s Pizza. Buckwalter said the location has been on The Holy Donut’s radar for several years.

“It’s a great location for us as we gained some much-needed additional and safer space for our team to work in and for our guests to have a better, more on-brand experience,” he said.

Bill’s Pizza eased operations in the Old Port on Feb. 28. It remains open in Old Orchard Beach. 

Port City Music Hall, the popular concert venue that had operated at 504 Congress St. since 2012, announced its permanent closure last July. But the space will be occupied again when Arcadia National Bar moves in this fall.

Arcadia owner Dave Aceto said he hopes to reopen on Congress Street by Sept. 1. The bar, which gives patrons the opportunity to play arcade games while they drink, was previously at 24 Preble St. for six years.

Aceto said the uncertain nature of the pandemic forced him to make “business-altering decisions” based on the assumption that capacity limits might be in place for bars for a long time. He said he realized that without the ability to serve large numbers of patrons the business would not be viable, so he began looking for a larger space.

“When the former Port City location became available, we saw it as a great opportunity to save both the arcade and a venue that is important to the community,” Aceto said. 

Once the bar is up and running again, he added, he hopes to also offer music, comedy, and art. For now, he has had to renovate to accommodate the arcade with new wiring and is also building a new bar. He is also hopeful, Aceto said, that the city will allow him to install what he called “open-air windows” to create better airflow.

“We hope the city and the Historic Preservation Board (take) into account the changes that businesses have to make to adjust to post-pandemic times,” he said. “Open-air is a big part of that.”

For other business owners, efforts to move in recent months have hit roadblocks. Bam Bam Bakery, for instance, which Tina Cromwell in January said she planned to move to a new space on Anderson Street, now has a home at 1054 Brighton Ave.

Cromwell said via email July 10 the Anderson Street spot fell through in March. After cleaning out the Brighton Avenue storefront, she is now focusing on wholesale and shipping out of the space, and does not plan to resume retail sales right away.

Another food establishment that fell victim to the competition for space is Cajun restaurant Eaux, formerly at 90 Exchange St. It has yet to reopen after closing last year; chef/owner Evan Richardson recently opened Cafe Louis, specializing in Costa Rican and Caribbean fare, on Ocean Street in South Portland.

Richardson earlier this year said he planned to move Eaux before the pandemic, but did not want to discuss where the restaurant would end up. He recently said the search for a spot for Eaux is continuing after a lease arrangement fell through at the last moment.

In Eaux’s former location, however, is the new fried chicken restaurant Crispy Gai, the brainchild of Mr. Tuna owner Jordan Rubin and his business partner and chef Cyle Reynolds.

Rubin last week said he and Reynolds have been friends for a while, and Crispy Gai was inspired by Reynolds’ time living in Thailand. “Gai” means chicken in Thai.

The pair began by serving food at pop-ups and were shocked at how well it did.

“We were doing a pre-order type thing and it sold out in 30 minutes or something,” Rubin said. “I was like oh my God, what is going on? I know people like fried chicken but this is crazy.”

Crispy Gai was initially sold and prepared at the Public Market House on Monument Square, where Mr. Tuna is housed. They opened the new eatery on Exchange Street on June 30 and now operate Wednesday-Sunday from 4-10 p.m.

The owners of Crispy Gai are also dedicated to giving back to the community, and each month will have an item on their menu for which a dollar of the proceeds will be donated to a different community organization. Funds raised in June and July will be sent to the nonprofit Unified Asian Communities, and in August they will be donated to Black Owned Maine.

Despite bad weather on opening night, Rubin said, a line of about 15 or 20 people waited outside and the momentum has persisted in recent weeks. 

“It’s definitely everything we hoped and dreamed for,” he said.