BAR HARBOR — “You don’t survive 20 years in this industry by being a quitter,” West Street Cafe owner Kevin DesVeaux said earlier this week as he, wife and co-owner, Jessica, and their general manager worked to rearrange the restaurant to prepare for a Memorial Day weekend opening.
Typically, at this time of year, businesses are preparing to open for the season. Unfortunately, this is anything but a typical year for most entrepreneurs on Mount Desert Island.
As Governor Janet Mills works to reopen some aspects of the economy after nearly two months of sheltering in place to lessen the spread of COVID-19, some businesses are assessing how to open while following the proper procedures put in place, and others wonder if they will be able to open at all.
Over the last two decades, business owners have ridden the waves of 9/11, a recession in 2008, Main Street construction projects, business expansions and, then, over the last two to three seasons, significant economic growth.
“The last three years have continually been really, really big for us,” said Scott Worcester, owner of Sawyer’s Specialties in Southwest Harbor. “We’ve now surpassed where we were before ‘08… 2008 was awful. We just fell off a cliff.”
Though he did not have exact numbers, Worcester estimated sales were down 25 percent that year for his wine store.
“It took eight years, or so, to get back to where business was before ‘08,” he said in an interview with the Islander this week. “We do 60 percent of our annual business in two months, at least prior to 2020.”
DesVeaux bought West Street Cafe in September 2000. A year later, two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City.
“I felt a great deal of uncertainty,” he recalled watching it with employees on television. “I had just purchased a restaurant and it felt like the world was coming to an end.”
While the event took an emotional toll on DesVeaux and the rest of the country, the end of the 2001 season finished strong for West Street Cafe.
“It turned out we weren’t affected by it because people stayed local in traveling,” he said. “We ended up fine that year.”
Seven years later, a recession hit the country. Many businesses experienced a loss in revenue through 2009 because the majority of the country’s population no longer had ‘disposable income’ with which to vacation.
“I had a drop in sales that year, but it wasn’t a significant drop,” said DesVeaux. “We didn’t really struggle with ‘08 the way a lot of people did.”
An expansion of the restaurant in 2017 was one of the toughest times for West Street Cafe. Construction of the space started off the season, and the DesVeauxs were not able to open their doors to the public until July 27.
“Think about the financial impact that was,” said Kevin DesVeaux, noting that time is what Jessica relates the upcoming season to. “We didn’t think we were going to survive it, but we did.”
This season is the 24th for Ralph and Frances Reed, owners of Quietside Cafe in Southwest Harbor. Even though they have been serving takeout since April, Ralph Reed said earlier this week that business has been up and down.
“We had the 2008-09 era, and then the time when they tore up Main Street for two years,” he said. There were times customers couldn’t get in their door because of the construction, he added. “It takes quite a lot to keep going.”
This season will be bittersweet for the Reeds; Ralph anticipates it may be their last.
“We’re facing more than COVID this year,” he said, explaining they have a new landlord who is making changes. “We’re facing an eviction too. We’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into this place.”
Their restaurant is small and normally has a few tables inside for customers. Once they begin to let customers into the restaurant, there isn’t, realistically, enough space to have indoor seating.
“What’s bothering us is the six-foot rule,” said Reed who says the eviction takes effect at the end of this season. “We’ve got plexiglass up all the way around the front of the counter… We’ll still run it as a takeout.”
But takeout containers and the accoutrements that go with them are an extra cost. “It’s cheaper to wash dishes than it is to do takeout,” he said.
Last year, the price for each container doubled, according to Reed. They have had to adjust prices on their menu for that and also to reflect shortages in the supply chain. Recently the price of ground beef doubled because of a shortage, he said.
For that same reason, West Street Cafe will be giving paper menus to their customers that reflect what they can offer. DesVeaux anticipates some ingredients may not be available.
“Part of the problem is we have an extensive menu,” he said. “This is a unique situation this year. If we attempt to open up with a full menu (with only a portion of their dining room open to seating) within 48 hours you’d have to throw a lot out.”
Pine Tree Market in Northeast Harbor, a year-round business, was having a strong winter season, until March. Two things have hurt the business at the beginning of this year: COVID-19 and the Main Street revitalization project.
“They are literally right in front of my store right now,” said owner Aaron Gray about the road construction crew. “So, you can’t even really access my store without tripping over stuff. The construction has really been a challenge.”
Returning seasonal residents have buoyed his business in the last month or so.
“A chunk of summer folks are here, and we’re doing a lot of curbside business,” said Gray. “People are calling in asking us to leave their groceries on the ground outside the front of the store or on the doorstep in the back. That’s been good because we can only have five people in the store at once.”
Foot traffic is what the market is missing these days.
“We were doing really well, and then COVID hit and, all of a sudden, ‘Bang!’ My
workers’ crowd just dropped,” said Gray in a conversation with the Islander this week. “They’re working at home or not working at all. The lack of work traffic has really hurt.
“Normally, this time of year, there are a lot of workers around getting people’s
houses ready and gardeners out, just more traffic around,” he added. “Usually, it’s the kitchen that kind of carries the store, and now it’s the groceries.”
Although sales for Worcester’s wine shop have been up nearly 100 percent since the beginning of this year, he fears the summer months may tell a different story.
“Alcohol sales are up 100 percent at the retail level,” Worcester explained, adding that he and his wife, Jennifer, also own the restaurant Sips on Clark Point Road. “They are down 100 percent at the restaurant level.”
For the summer season, a different frontier for social gatherings will surely have an effect on his business.
Weddings on MDI have been pushed out a year, Worcester explained. Lobsters on the Sound, an annual fundraising event for Harbor House Community Service Center, is questionable, he added, explaining wine for that event is provided by Sawyer’s Specialties. There are other organizations in the community that contract with the store for their public events and many have been canceled.
“What we’re experiencing now is people cooking at home and enjoying really nice bottles of wine,” said Worcester. Largely because people are not entertaining and providing wine for big crowds, they are going for the more expensive stuff. “We’re even seeing an uptick in quality.”
Many business owners reported last year was one of their best yet. Some were unable to find enough employees to adequately meet demand. According to President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address in January, the economy was the strongest it had ever been. While that may be a grand statement, the economy was still in a state of expansion, 10 years after the bottom fell out in 2009.
It is still unclear what the true effect COVID-19 will have on the United States economy, but a recession is part of the natural economic curve. Unfortunately, not even the best of economic forecasters could have seen the coronavirus coming to brace for it.
“When you are a seasonal restaurant, you, in essence, are starting a new restaurant every year,” said DesVeaux, who provided some safety nets for long-time employees. “It’s not an easy industry to be in, even in a good year. I swear, every year you’ve got to reinvent yourself.”