Dave Aceto’s top advice for doing business during a pandemic: don’t try to move more than 100 arcade games across town.
“Your body will feel it,” Aceto said.
Aceto, who co-owns Arcadia National Bar with Nicole Costas-Trujilo, moved the arcade bar and restaurant from Preble Street to the former Port City Music Hall space on Congress Street during the pandemic. It was a move he said came out of necessity, and was not without challenges – not the least of which was trying to guess where the state of things would be at any point during the pandemic.
“You make the best decisions you can make,” Aceto said. “There are no right answers.”
Now, two years after the start of the pandemic that experts had once predicted would last only two weeks, Aceto said he’s glad his business is open – especially when he looks back on the days he was paying rent for space where he couldn’t have customers.
“It’s much nicer to see some money coming in and not all the money going out,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, Portland’s bars and restaurants were challenged at every front. From closures that lasted several months to jockeying for federal assistance and learning how to be nimble and change plans on the fly, owners found ways to pivot and get by. Now, with spring around the corner and the number of new COVID-19 cases continuing to drop, there is a sense of optimism in the industry.
At Arcadia, Aceto learned to accept things as they were.
“There came a point where it was like we did whatever we could do, and you can only worry so much before you don’t have it in you to worry anymore whether the business is going to survive,” he said. “There are only so many obstacles you can take until it’s not worth your time and energy to worry about it. I got close to that.”
He said there was a lot of “throwing ideas at the wall” during the height of the pandemic to get people to support the business and remain interested. For example, Arcadia did a few outdoor events, including partnering with the former A&C Grocery on Washington Avenue for an outdoor pinball arcade.
Aceto said the goal was to make sure people could come and have fun, but find a way to do that within the constraints of the pandemic.
“You look for creative solutions,” he said. “I saw a lot of other businesses looking for creative solutions. And for the most part, there was leniency with things that were not normally allowed, like shutting down streets for outdoor dining. It was nice to see the city get behind that.”
Now, 24 months after the start of the pandemic, Aceto said there is a sense of optimism among bar and restaurant owners as the calendar turns to spring. He said business during the summer of 2021 was actually quite good, and there’s no reason to expect anything less in 2022 now that most if not all citywide COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.
Arcadia, however, is still operating with some restrictions: Patrons are required to show proof of vaccination to get inside, and while masks are not required they are “encouraged and appreciated.”
The right direction
Several blocks west of Arcadia is another bar and restaurant, Wayside Tavern, that took a chance during the pandemic.
Co-owner Siobhan Sindoni said when the business – a wine-centric bar and restaurant at 747 Congress St., next to the Francis Hotel – opened last summer it was already facing different circumstances than those that had opened in 2020 “when everything was so new.”
“We had a little bit more understanding of the restrictions in place and what we were getting ourselves into with the world of masks and social distancing,” Sindoni said.
She said one of the biggest challenges has been staffing, especially when Wayside opened. The supply chain also became a challenge.
“Throughout that entire time, being in management, being a leader in the restaurant, we were trying to be empathetic to everybody’s different varying levels of comfort,” Sindoni said. “The people that were incredibly afraid of COVID probably didn’t come in.”
Looking ahead, she said it feels like there is optimism in the industry as Portland heads into spring with COVID-19 case numbers and transmission continuing to drop. She said she doesn’t like to use the term “light at the end of the tunnel,” since the world “has changed forever,” but it does feel like things are headed in the right direction.
“We sort of felt this way last summer, and we know what happened,” Sindoni said. “You’re hesitant to say things are nearing the end. But there is a sense of optimism … just a different feeling … People are feeling more comfortable.”
She said she expects different levels of comfort among Wayside patrons going forward, acknowledging that even with the declining case counts, some percentage of the population still won’t be comfortable going into a crowded bar or restaurant. And she said there is good reason for the hesitancy, since the last time the state saw tourism numbers rise it coincided with increased cases of COVID-19.
‘Some sense of normalcy’
It was two years ago this week that Josh Miranda was waiting for the final city inspections at his nascent Dana Street restaurant, Via Vecchia. Two days earlier, City Hall shut down, signaling the beginning of the pandemic. He said he had staff already in training who had to be let go.
“To open a restaurant is hard enough, to open a huge one is harder,” he said. “To open a restaurant during COVID is really difficult.”
Miranda, who also owns Blyth & Burrows bar at 26 Exchange St., said Via Vecchia didn’t qualify for any of the federal grants to help restaurants and bars, which only added to the hurdles the business had to leap before it could open.
“When this thing first happened, people were scared,” he said. “… So much was unknown it was scary, (staff) didn’t know if coming to work was putting themselves in danger.”
Flash forward to today, and Miranda said he is extremely optimistic about the spring and summer ahead. He said last summer was good, even though they faced staffing shortages with people either afraid to go back to work or deciding to get out of the hospitality industry.
They had to adjust, which resulted in closing the new restaurant an additional night each week. But Miranda said he’s excited to see what happens this summer, since Via Vecchia has never had a summer where it could operate at full capacity.
“There’s still a percentage of the population that doesn’t feel comfortable,” he said. “We still get requests for outside seating. There is that population that doesn’t want to come in. But the people that want to come in, they want to be here. They want to be around other people, they want to get some sense of normalcy.”
‘We’ll be ready’
Jordan Rubin knows a thing or two about opening a restaurant during a pandemic.
The owner of Mr. Tuna, originally a food truck that’s now expanded into the Portland Public Market, also opened Crispy Gai, a Thai fried chicken restaurant on Exchange Street, in July 2021.
He said he is applying the lessons learned from that experience as he and business partner Marisa Lewiecki get ready to open a 66-seat Japanese-inspired bar and grill called Bar Futo in the former Five Guys space at 425 Fore St.
“We have that experience that’s definitely helping us make decisions and know lead times on certain things,” Rubin said. “That’s a big part of it.”
He said the plan is for Bar Futo to open this summer with a tentative menu of skewers, and large cuts of meat and fish grilled over Japanese charcoal. The bar will have various sake options, wine, and craft cocktails.
“It’s a pretty lively area, and we want to add to that,” Rubin said. “Every time a new business opens it brings excitement to that area. There are already tons of great restaurants in the close vicinity.”
He acknowledged there are still challenges to opening a restaurant or bar at this stage of the pandemic, and said he and Lewiecki remain “cautious of what’s going on in the world” and will maintain safety measures for their staff and customers.
“I think we’ve done a good job of adjusting over the last couple of years,” Rubin said. “Having outdoor seating, we’ll have a nice patio at Bar Futo. We have additional outdoor seating at Crispy Gai and Mr. Tuna.”
He added Mr. Tuna still operates a food truck on the Eastern Promenade, which is a good option for those who remain hesitant about dining inside or going back to a crowded bar.
“We want to be able to accommodate the people who aren’t comfortable yet,” Rubin said. “And if they’re ready, when they are, we’ll be ready.”
Overall, he said he expects this coming spring and summer to be positive for his businesses and the industry in general for Portland. At times, last summer felt like things were “kind of back to normal,” he said, and although Crispy Gai was new last summer it did good business into the offseason.
“It’s always in the back of our minds, the safety, having a safe spring and summer,” Rubin said. “But we’re excited to get back to a somewhat normal life, after 2 1/2 years of a lot of ups and downs.”
Good news, bad news
Derek Miller, a partner at The Boulos Co. commercial real estate brokerage, said the spring forecast for bars and restaurants in the city’s Old Port is good – pre-pandemic good.
He said there was a time when things looked “bleak” for the industry, especially the winter of 2020. But he’s been “pleasantly surprised,” he said, by the turnaround the city and industry have seen.
Miller said vacancies are almost back to the levels they were in 2019 and early 2020, meaning available bar or restaurant space in downtown Portland doesn’t stay on the market very long.
“I’d say we’ve got five to six, maybe seven, options in downtown that would be suitable for a bar or restaurant right now. Which is what you’d expect by normal comings and goings of the marketplace.”
Miller credits the city’s efforts to prop up the industry during the pandemic as a reason for the quick rebound, citing outdoor dining ability and parklets – even if they weren’t perfect. For example, he said closing down Exchange Street in 2020 proved to be more problematic than helpful, especially for retailers.
“From that winter on, I think it’s mostly been on the positive side of things,” he said. “In the restaurant business, in the bar business, there’s always an element of location (determining) popularity … (but) like anything else, if the product is good enough, people will find you.”
Miller said it also appears that downtown rents are stabilizing again. While during the height of the pandemic landlords were willing to be more flexible with leases, or would take the opportunity to go without a tenant in order to renovate the interior of the building, the market has now seemed to bounce back.
He said thanks in part to federal and local aid programs, there wasn’t a “long enough stress period” to see rents decline in any meaningful way. “We never saw, specifically in Portland with a strong restaurant and bar scene, we never saw a decrease in pricing,” Miller said. “Going forward, I would expect that to continue.”
But Matt Lewis, president and CEO of the HospitalityMaine trade group, cautioned that while summer 2022 might be another big year for visitors to Maine, it could still be a significant challenge for restaurants, bars, and hotels that continue to suffer from a staffing crunch.
Lewis said this will create a “good news-bad news” scenario this summer. While 2021 was an “incredible year” for tourism, and he expects 2022 to at least rival if not surpass it, businesses that are accustomed to working with two dozen employees are making do with maybe two-thirds that number.
“I guess on my calls I don’t get an overriding sense of enthusiasm for summer because of outliers like staffing,” he said. “The expectation for business is there, and people are happy and grateful for that. But I don’t get an overriding sense that we’re back to normal, that everything is in sync and we have the staffing we need. That’s not what I’m hearing.”
Additionally, he said there’s not a fully rosy outlook for bars and restaurants. Places that have stayed open through the pandemic did so in many cases thanks to the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund. While it had been hoped a similar funding program would be available again, that isn’t happening.
“A number of restaurants are open today because they got money initially from the RRF. There’s no question about it,” Lewis said. “Since that time, restaurants had time to catch up, but there’s still a long way to go. There would have been hundreds of restaurant closures had that funding not been created.”
Businesses that missed out on the RRF will not get that lifeline in the future, he said, which almost assuredly means more places will close.
— Colin Ellis