Portland Lobster Co.
Part of the lunchtime scene at Portland Lobster Co. on Commercial Street in Portland's Old Port last weekend as the tourism season got off to an early start, aided by summer-like weather. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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The second Thursday of May is still very much a part of spring, but with temperatures reaching the 70s and tourists enjoying Portland’s Old Port under sunshine and blue skies, it seemed more like a typical summer day. 

Some places, like DiMillo’s on the Water, were still easing towards their busiest days, when business will be double what it was on May 12. The Holiday Inn by the Bay on Spring Street, meanwhile, was expecting its busiest day in a year, with everyone on staff fully engaged.

Regardless of when it really starts there’s a consensus that it’s going to be a big summer – and it’s coming up fast, whether or not Portland’s hospitality industry is fully ready.

Johnny DiMillo
Johnny DiMillo said finding kitchen staff has been the biggest challenge for DiMillo’s On the Water, but the iconic Portland restaurant still hopes to hire enough cooks before the busiest part of the tourism season in July. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

Behind the scenes, the city’s tourism-dependent businesses are still coping with pandemic pain and a workforce that remains at less than optimal size.

DiMillo’s, for example, has struggled with staffing even though it has a returning workforce of veteran cooks and servers. At one point before the pandemic, the iconic restaurant had more than 200 people on staff; now it’s down to just over 110, according to social media manager Johnny DiMillo. He said finding kitchen staff has been the biggest challenge, with employment down as much as 40 or 50 percent from its peak.

The restaurant isn’t ready for full summer capacity yet, and if they can’t hire enough talented line cooks – they’re about five or six short – they won’t be able to open the Bow deck that overlooks the water, DiMillo said.

“Nobody’s looking good right now (staffing-wise),” he said.

As a result, DiMillo’s remains closed on Sundays, a practice that began during the pandemic that he said is a huge morale booster for employees and an advantage for hiring.

Manager Steve DiMillo said other Old Port restaurants are likely doing the same, just closing on different days.

“There are not many restaurants open seven days because they just don’t have enough staff to man it,” he said.

But some establishments, including J’s Oyster and Portland Lobster Company, are going to try to brave the summer storm and operate seven days a week.

Carissa Fifield, general manager at Portland Lobster Company, said the restaurant is prepared for the tourism season, but could use perhaps five additional full-time kitchen employees. 

As a seasonal business, Fifield said closing for a day hasn’t been on their radar as a potential solution.

Christian Myers
Christian Myers, kitchen manager at J’s Oyster on Portland Pier, hopes to be “as ready as possible” to remain open seven days a week this summer, despite not being fully staffed. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

“We make changes in other places,” she said. “Maybe people have to wait a little bit longer, or cut our preparation time in the kitchen. We explore all avenues before closing for a day.”

Christian Myers, kitchen manager at J’s, said it’s all about being “as ready as possible” for the busy season in spite of the challenges restaurants are still facing – and it’s not just staffing, but the cost of food, too. Rising food costs mean higher menu prices, Myers said.

J’s is going to try to be open seven days a week with the limited staff they have, he said, although they might have to dial it back if it becomes too much of a challenge as business ramps up.

Both Fifield and Myers were positive about the business they expected from the return of cruise ships to Portland, as was Shayna Jaques, manager of retailer Cool-As-A-Moose on Fore Street.

The store is open year-round, but Jaques said they definitely get their biggest spike in business starting in June and throughout the summer. Cool-As-A-Moose is hiring now, she said, as part of its ramp-up to summer.

Cary Tyson, executive director of Portland Downtown, said retailers are facing the same staffing challenges as restaurants and hotels. With fewer applicants, he said, shops in the Old Port have had to increase salaries – in one case starting at $20 an hour – to attract employees.

Retailers are also gearing up to operate seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. “You have to admire that,” Tyson said. “That’s just what it takes unfortunately, because staffing is still a little thin.”

Commercial Street shoppers
Shoppers on Commercial Street last weekend in Portland’s Old Port. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Matt Lewis, president of the HospitalityMaine trade group, said his members are being pushed to the brink.

Even with the financial benefit of another very successful season – which he expects to beat last year’s numbers – Lewis said restaurants and hotels across the country are still struggling. 

While a lot of restaurants were aided last year by federal Restaurant Revitalization Funds, even more restaurants applied than were able to receive the funding, he said.

The House passed another bill last month that would provide $40 billion more to the RRF, but it has yet to receive support from the Senate.

“It only exacerbates the fact that there are still restaurants really struggling to stay afloat,” Lewis said.

Hotels are in slightly better shape than restaurants, he said, but are dealing with similar staffing woes.

Lewis said many of HospitalityMaine’s hotel members are solidly booked for the summer, albeit without “their optimum staffing levels.”

That’s the situation at the Aloft Hotel on Commercial Street, where there has already been an uptick in business this year, general manager Chris Tanzer said.

For the new hotel, which opened last September, being busy now is a great sign, Tanzer said – although they don’t have the number of employees they hoped for. As a result, Tanzer has helped housekeeping staff get rooms ready for guests.

“If I’m making beds six hours out of my day it’s what we have to do to get the properties ready for the visitors,” he said.

Stephanie Benton and Chris Tanzer of the Aloft Hotel
Managers Stephanie Benton, left, and Chris Tanzer said the Aloft Hotel on the Portland waterfront is already seeing an uptick in business this year, but they don’t yet have an optimal number of employees. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

The hotel has hired outside contractors for some tasks, which Tanzer said has helped, but that gets to be more expensive than using their own employees.

Manager Stephanie Benton, who has 20 years of experience in the industry, said Aloft is doing the best it can with the staff it has available, and is maintaining typical COVID-19 protocols, meaning only cleaning rooms after checkout unless requested otherwise.

Despite the staffing challenge, Tanzer said they’ll have to keep doing what they can to meet guests’ expectations – which are increasing along with room rates.

“It definitely seems like rates are getting more aggressive in this area,” he said, “especially when it comes to summertime.”

Lewis agreed and said price hikes come down to demand and customers’ willingness to pay.

“To most ears (room rates today) would be incredibly expensive,” he said. “But they don’t bat an eye about it. They book for four or five nights and don’t give it a second thought.”

A typical room at Aloft last weekend was going for around $450. It will be closer to $500 a month from now, and $600 a night on the weekend before the Fourth of July.

The AC Hotel on nearby Fore Street, which is part of the same ownership group as Aloft, has rates of $700 a night in June and water-view rooms at over $800 in July.

Less-expensive hotels like Holiday Inn by the Bay or the Hilton Garden Inn, with rates hovering around $400 a night, are already fully booked on most Friday and Saturday nights throughout the summer. 

The Portland Regency Hotel still had rooms available the weekend of July 9, for just under $500 a night. The typical room at the Regency is closer to $200 a night, although its advertised rates are in the $500 range for weekends throughout the month of August.

Lewis of HospitalityMaine said the market’s willingness to pay higher rates gives hotels the ability to climb out of the deficit they’re still facing from the pandemic.

The coronavirus is at least one thing the hospitality industry now seems accustomed to managing – despite the recent surge of COVID-19 transmission in Cumberland County and throughout Maine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

On the precipice of another successful summer, with COVID-19 in the background, Matt Lewis said the struggle isn’t over; he expects more closures by the end of the summer and fall.

Regardless, Portland’s waterfront restaurants and hotels have no choice but to focus on what’s ahead. A busy day on May 12 was followed by a beautiful weekend as the calendar gets closer to true summer days.

At DiMillo’s, Johnny DiMillo said they’re getting ready like they have been for 30 years. Even with Cumberland County in the middle of another COVID-19 spike, he was optimistic.

“(Maine seems) to be in the middle of it now,” DiMillo said, “and it might actually be beneficial to us if we get it out of the way now and then in July and August we’re past it, hopefully.”

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