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‘Am I in a dream or a nightmare?’: Portland’s once-thriving restaurant scene struggles to hang on

David Turin, owner of David's Restaurant in Portland, prepared food on Friday afternoon. Turin, who owns three different restaurants in Portland, has experienced a massive downturn in business since the start of the pandemic.
David Turin, owner of David's Restaurant in Portland, prepared food on Friday afternoon. Turin, who owns three different restaurants in Portland, has experienced a massive downturn in business since the start of the pandemic.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — David Turin is wearing a long, drooping Santa cap in the hot, open kitchen of his downtown restaurant, where he moves nonstop with the clattering, body-twisting choreography of a chef at work.

It’s a Friday night, and normally David’s Restaurant would be full, or close to it. But these are not normal times, and only a smattering of the tables are taken.

“I still can’t believe it,” Turin said through a mask. “Am I in a dream or a nightmare?”

Across the city, Portland’s restaurateurs are asking the same question. Battered by pandemic restrictions, the city’s once-thriving dining scene is now in depressing straits, contracting in ways that were unthinkable before the virus hit in March.

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One-quarter to a third of the restaurants in the Portland area have closed after a sparse tourist season and might never reopen, industry observers said. And for those that have survived — so far, at least — revenue has shrunk to a small fraction of its pre-pandemic total, the workforce has been reduced to skeleton crews, and hopes for a turnaround next year are guarded, at best.

“I can only dig a little deeper and see what I’m made of,” said Heather LaRou, who owns Snow Squall Restaurant on the South Portland waterfront. “I’m just doing my best.”

Heather LaRou, owner of Snow Squall Restaurant in South Portland, prepared food.
Heather LaRou, owner of Snow Squall Restaurant in South Portland, prepared food.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Rory Strunk, a Portland media producer who is helping raise donations for the restaurant industry, offered a blunter assessment.

“What I see are guys who are very stressed out and entirely on the edge,” Strunk said. “We’re concerned that our restaurant culture will be gone forever.”

The impact of widespread closings would hit harder than simply losing a favorite place to eat. Once a culinary backwater, Portland has emerged over the past 15 years as a nationally known dining destination. The lively, eclectic restaurant scene has become an exclamation point of civic pride.

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“The vitality of the restaurants has had a cascading effect,” Strunk said. “Now, that is all in jeopardy. It took a couple of decades to build and a couple of months to crush it.”

One-third of Maine restaurateurs say it is unlikely they will be in business in six months if there are no additional relief packages from the federal government, according to a recent survey by HospitalityMaine, a trade association.

Nearly all the respondents, 97 percent, expect sales to decrease during the next three months. On average, sales were down 39 percent this October from 12 months earlier, the survey found.

David Turin (center), who owns three restaurants, stood with his chefs in his kitchen.
David Turin (center), who owns three restaurants, stood with his chefs in his kitchen.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Turin, who owns three restaurants in the area, said his revenue has plummeted 86 percent from a year ago. David’s Restaurant continues to serve customers indoors, but Turin has closed an adjacent, intimate venue called Opus Ten and offers only takeout at a restaurant in South Portland.

Turin, 63, shook his head as he looked around his namesake establishment, which he moved to Monument Square in 1998, when Portland’s culinary star had yet to rise. Since the spring, he said, “we had a lot of days with only two customers here for lunch.”

His staff has been cut to 16 employees, including part-time help, from 54 before the pandemic. During the first surge of the virus, that number was zero, Turin said.

Adjusting on the fly has become the norm for restaurateurs throughout the city, where 9 p.m. is the mandatory closing time. Turin turned to virtual cooking classes and offered takeout meals in the spring that varied by the day: meatloaf on Mondays, pizza on Wednesdays, and a $75, three-course dinner for two on Fridays.

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He even devised a way to move draft beer that sat unused, if not unwanted, in 10 big barrels at the restaurant. Turin offered to sell the beer in plastic containers for $5 a quart, eventually raising $5,500 that he used to pay medical insurance premiums for laid-off employees.

Generosity also has flowed the other way, from the community to the restaurants. One customer told Turin: “I want $500 worth of beer, and you can keep the beer.”

In April alone, he recalled, the restaurant sold $12,000 in online gift cards without promoting the purchases with advertising.

“It’s not like people could buy them and circle a date on the calendar,” Turin said. “People were just giving us money. I think it was them saying we just want you to flat-out survive.”

David's Restaurant, owned by David Turin, in Portland on Friday afternoon.
David's Restaurant, owned by David Turin, in Portland on Friday afternoon. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

A new federal stimulus package is expected to help the restaurant industry, partly through modifications to the Payroll Protection Program, which provides loans designed to help small businesses retain workers.

The bill, which President Trump signed Sunday, will offer “much-needed capital and create more time for us to work with Congress to create additional programs to save our independent inns and restaurants, which continue to be such an important part of our culture and Maine’s brand,” said Steve Hewins, chief executive of HospitalityMaine.

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LaRou has seen an outpouring of public support for the Snow Squall. From regulars who tip waitresses $100 when they pick up a takeout order. And from a Maine restaurant relief fund that gave her a $5,000 grant, which went straight to the landlord.

“The landlord is taking whatever I can give him,” LaRou said.

Her business is down 50 percent, the staff has been cut to eight part-time employees from 25 full- and part-timers, and the Snow Squall is closed Mondays through Wednesdays. Last month, LaRou said, the business made a total profit of $132.

The $5,000 grant is one of 23 that have been distributed across the state by ReUp ME, an initiative launched by the HospitalityMaine Educational Foundation in collaboration with restaurant leaders and O’Maine Studios, the media-production company founded by Strunk.

The relief campaign has raised $140,000 so far, bolstered by a virtual cook-along show on Sundays that features some of Maine’s top chefs and restaurateurs. The 90-minute webcast on www.tastemaine.com is interactive, with chefs answering questions from call-in donors, mixology recommendations, and profiles of Maine farms, aquaculture businesses, breweries, and distilleries.

“There’s a lot of places in Maine where $5,000 can go a ways. Every little bit helps,” said Turin, a HospitalityMaine board member.

The state also is funneling financial help to restaurants. On Nov. 30, Governor Janet Mills announced that $40 million in federal coronavirus relief approved earlier this year would be used to support restaurants during the difficult winter months, as well as to help bars, tasting rooms, lodging establishments, and small retail shops.

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LaRou is bracing for the pain ahead, particularly because Maine’s restaurant business generally has its toughest months after the holidays, she said.

“Running a restaurant is like having a baby. You can’t ever tell anyone what to expect,” LaRou said.

For now, it’s all hands on deck for the few workers left at the Snow Squall. The chef didn’t come back after the virus hit, LaRou is now doing the cooking, and her son is washing dishes.

Asked whether she expects the business to survive, LaRou leaned back and flashed a smile.

“Oh God, yeah. All I’ve done is work and save, work and save, for the last 21 years,” LaRou said. “I’ve paid my dues, and I still love my job.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.