Peter Bissell at Bissell Brothers
Peter Bissell, co-founder of Bissell Brothers Brewing, walks past fermenting vats in the company's brewery on Thompson’s Point in Portland. He said food and hospitality businesses have learned the hard way that success depends on making employee health and safety a priority. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Despite surging coronavirus cases, record hospitalizations, and shortages of everything from COVID-19 tests to cream cheese, Peter Bissell is surprisingly upbeat about the prognosis for the hospitality industry.

“Going into 2022, I’m optimistic. I do think this is wrapping up,” the co-owner of Bissell Brothers Brewing Co. at Thompson’s Point said last week.

Bissell and others in the industry who have successfully navigated the uncertainty of the pandemic for the past two years said there is one crucial ingredient: taking care of their staff.

Bissell Brothers kitchen
Activity in the kitchen at Bissell Brothers Brewing on Thompson’s Point in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“I do think that plenty of establishments that were being mismanaged and not treating their employees well got their worlds rocked a bit,” Bissell said in an email. Those who have survived, he said – owners, managers, and employees – learned to grow and evolve.

While widespread access to vaccines and a renewed mask mandate provides an environment with improved health and safety for Portland restaurants, some owners have gone the extra mile to ensure employees are getting the support they need to keep working and stay healthy.

One of them is Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, a bar and restaurant on Market Street.

Then and now

Hunt & Alpine fully closed in March 2020. When it reopened the following month, its minimum wage was bumped to $15 an hour, there was subsidized health insurance, and employees were offered paid time off. 

Co-Owner Briana Volk said she’s now searching all over for rapid COVID-19 tests to make sure employees can test twice a week; they check in on Mondays and Thursdays and report their results to ensure everyone is safe to work.

Early in 2021, Volk said, the restaurant was restricted to takeout without a proper method in place to offer outdoor dining. They didn’t want staff to have to serve outside in the cold, and they didn’t fully reopen for indoor dining until everyone was vaccinated in early June.

Now, Hunt & Alpine is one of only a handful of Portland restaurants that require proof of vaccination for customers who dine indoors.

The goal is to treat staff “like the professionals they are,” she said.

Volk said conversations about COVID-19 strategies still occur daily, and people regularly reach out to her for advice on how to navigate working in the pandemic environment.

She acknowledged that having more information and more tools to keep people healthy, like vaccinations, are important. But things are still very different.

“We’re doing everything we can do to get back to that great feeling (from before the pandemic) and also to be better and learn from these past two years,” Volk said.

‘We’re at a critical point’

Matt Lewis became president and CEO of the Hospitality Maine trade group last February. He came from California, and was familiar with what state-ordered closures looked like; hotels and restaurants there were largely shuttered when he came to Maine. 

Despite positive steps within the industry and in COVID-19 mitigation, Lewis said most members of Hospitality Maine feel the same uncertainty at the start of this year that they did a year ago.

Charity Priscilla at Ri-Ra
Charity Priscilla, front-of-house manager at Ri-Ra in Portland, said a proof of vaccination requirement would protect her staff “both physically and financially.” (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

But he agreed with Bissell and Volk that successful businesses have prioritized the health and safety of their staff.

Owners and employees of more than 40 Portland restaurants even signed a virtual petition organized by Big Tree Hospitality – the parent company of Eventide, Hugo’s, and The Honey Paw – suggesting that Portland should take precautions a step further than a mask mandate. The petition calls for requiring proof of vaccination to enter indoor spaces, including restaurants.

The petition expresses concern about the upward trend of COVID-19 cases in Maine and the Omicron variant’s rapid spread. The threat of being forced to do only takeout or fully close down due to staff members missing work is at the forefront of concern.

Charity Priscilla, front-of-house manager at Ri-Ra on Commercial Street, said the proof of vaccination requirement would protect her staff “both physically and financially,” further mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in the restaurant and also making sure employees can continue to work safely.

She said the petition shows restaurant owners and employees doing what they feel is right to avoid another shutdown.

“That’s where we are,” Priscilla said. “We’re at a critical point.”

Staff safety was also Catherine Rasco’s top concern when she signed the virtual petition. Rasco, president of Arabica Coffee Co., said her employees were nervous about the recent rate at which COVID-19 was spreading in Maine.

She said she thinks restaurant employees are worried, and there was a tension between staff and the public that wasn’t there before.

Joe Christoper at The Porthole
Joe Christopher at The Porthole in Portland says the market should determine what strategy restaurant owners use to succeed during the pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

So Arabica implemented a proof-of-vaccination requirement for patrons who sit down and linger in the coffee shop, still allowing people to order to go without showing their vaccination card. Rasco said adding the limited mandate was just a small change she could make to help her employees feel safer.

Not everyone, however, believes mandates are the way to go.

‘Let the market decide’

Joe Christopher, CEO of Upward Management Group, said it should be up to business owners to decide what’s best for their businesses. 

Christopher said he admires the choices owners have made in the interest of public safety, but no one should tell other owners what they have to do. “Let the market and the guests decide,” he said.

Upward Management’s portfolio includes Three Dollar Deweys on Commercial Street, the Inn on Peaks Island, and the Saltwater Grille in South Portland, and it recently acquired The Porthole Restaurant & Pub in the Old Port.

Three Dollar Deweys had to close for a few days at the start of the year due to COVID-19 cases among staff members. Christopher said the temporary closing was in the interest of public health, and that at this point COVID-19 is a reality businesses just have to face.

That reality marked the time to move on for Ken McGowan, former owner of The Porthole. He said the industry used to be fun for him, but the two years of the pandemic changed everything.

Lewis, at Hospitality Maine, said his organization would support a vaccination mandate over forced business closures, but the mandate would be a burden on many restaurants.

He said recent experience in New York City shows that blanket mandates don’t alleviate all problems, particularly since restaurants may not be prepared to provide enforcement.

Nonetheless, he said the “typical Maine resiliency” and Mainers’ hard work and dedication are reasons why he has a positive outlook on the industry. He said surveys show 97 percent of those who have recently traveled to Maine expect to return, and he expects that pattern to produce another strong summer this year.

Christopher said 2021 was a great summer for Upward Management’s restaurants, and he anticipates another one this year, especially with Porthole in the mix. While it’s been a tough two years, he said establishments that have survived will be stronger than they ever were.

Peter Bissell doesn’t think the restaurant industry is going anywhere, either.

“Public houses of food and drink are essential to the human experience,” he said.