Arundel, Maine’s Kristie Sibley, 31, can score any table she wants in Kennebunkport: No, she’s not a scion of the Bush family. She’s director of food and beverage for the Kennebunkport Resort Collection, home to hotel restaurants like The Boathouse, Earth at Hidden Pond, and the brand-new Via Sophia by the Sea, where her husband, Luke, is executive chef. Next year, she’ll open the KRC’s sushi spot, Rosella, at the Grand Hotel in Kennebunk.
What are the challenges of running seasonal restaurants and designing menus for such a cross-section of people? I imagine you’re catering to visitors from all over.
It’s kind of funny. Depending on the time of the year, you have different clientele. We kind of have to think about who’s coming into our restaurant and offering something for people to come at all times of the year. So we kind of shift our mind-set: Even though we are coastal and seasonal, we do see a lot of year-round [customers] — much more so recently, especially since COVID, because a lot of people moved out of cities.
Our goal is always to be busy, year-round. So, as far as some of the challenges, staffing is our biggest challenge. And, when people are on vacation, they want to eat outside. So we’re looking at what our outdoor dining spaces look like and knowing that they’re going to be just as important as what the indoor dining spaces look like.
What do people want in terms of the food?
It’s interesting to look at the dining trends. I think people are getting away from white tablecloth, long, multi-course meals. They want to go out for a good meal with consistent service where the portion size is going to be adequate, where they’re going to leave full, and they’re going to feel like they got their money’s worth, especially right now with how high-priced everything is. Kennebunkport isn’t a cheap town to vacation in. And so, for me, it’s important that we’re making sure that what we’re giving the guest is worthwhile. Was the experience a little bit mind-blowing? [We] want them to come back because they’re craving that pasta that they had or craving that chicken dish. I don’t go out to eat much, just because I work in restaurants. When I do go out to eat, it’s somewhere that I’m craving.
Have you ever really taken certain feedback to heart, where you realized you needed to change something?
Oh, totally. We were talking about that a lot at Via Sophia and at the Boathouse, which we opened in 2018. We had an Austrian red grape, a Zweigelt, on the menu, and nobody would buy that wine. We had to change it: At the end of the day, we have to give people what they want. And we can say, if you love Malbec, you’re going to love the Zweigelt, but it’s just not the same. Everybody wanted Malbec. My mind was blown. We put a Malbec on the menu, and people loved it. And it was one of our best red wine sellers. It was a good decision. Sometimes you just have to be open-minded. We also went into it thinking we weren’t going to sell domestic beers, but everyone wanted Miller or Bud Lite.
With Via Sophia, in pre-shift, we ask the staff: “What are the guests saying that they want?” And we want their feedback.
What do you think is different about serving people on vacation versus a restaurant in the city?
They take their time! They relax. I actually grew up in New York, so it’s totally different. When I came here, I was serving tables, and the person who was training me said, “You’re moving too fast. They’re relaxing. They’re taking their time. You have to give them that experience and just slow down.” It was like a light bulb went off.
How did you get your start?
My parents told me to go get a job when I was 14. I was a bus girl at my parents’ friends’ Italian restaurant in Poughkeepsie. I’ve always worked in restaurants. I went to the Culinary Institute of America for pastry, managed restaurants in the Hudson Valley, and met my husband there. I was working in Portsmouth, for the Island Creek and Row 34 restaurants as a server and a wine steward. They’re fabulous. But the drive was just very long once we purchased our home, and I had to make a change, so I applied at the Kennebunkport Resort Collection.
Being a bus girl is a tough job. Any lessons learned?
That I can work just as hard as the boys and to be careful not to drop knives that are covered in butter on a woman wearing black.
How hard it is to find staff in a resort area?
It’s challenging. And it’s interesting because we’ve recently had managers come in who are from big cities, and you kind of have to look for people who want to learn, and you train them from the ground up. It’s great to have servers and people who are experienced, no doubt, because they can help set the tone — but it’s also great to be able to take people who don’t have any experience and want to learn and teach them the correct way of doing things and see them almost blossom. It’s a strange approach to staffing, but that’s kind of the approach that we’ve taken: You know, take a shot on people and give them a chance.
Where do you find them?
We have incentives for current staff to give recommendations; they’ll get a gift card or something if the person stays longer than 60 days. We have ads out through Indeed and ZipRecruiter. But the most success we’ve seen is by word of mouth or people who come in and say, “My friend works here and said it’s a great company to work for.”
Where do you go when you’re not working?
I am such a homebody when I’m not working! Old Vines is great. Bennett’s has really good sandwiches.
My favorite beach is actually up north at Popham Beach, which is in Phippsburg. But, locally, I would say Drake’s Island in Wells. It’s sandy — the other beaches are kind of rocky and have pebbles.
Quick questions: Lobster roll with butter or mayo?
What’s your favorite fried seafood?
Whole belly or no bellies?
Any tips on scoring a table on vacation? Any secrets?
Always try to go early; if they’re open for lunch and dinner, go at mid-afternoon.
“The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.