Families flock to Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium on a recent night. Like many shops in town, the business has lost its student workers as the town heads into Labor Day weekend, though struggles getting sugar and chocolate have been a bigger headache. ISLANDER PHOTO BY ETHAN GENTER

Fall outlook: Tourists come, students go, staff search continues

BAR HARBOR — Hours have been cut, days have been dropped and business owners are looking for extra staff as the island heads into Labor Day weekend, largely without the helping hand of high school and college-age workers. 

“I’ve already heard of a few businesses that are closing or limiting hours,” said Alf Anderson, the executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “They just don’t have the number of workers to pick up the slack.”  

It used to be that sidewalks would roll up the Tuesday after Labor Day, but now the season continues well past the holiday, making it tough for businesses to manage continued crowds with the loss of the school-age workers.  

“Now everyone is well aware our season runs right through the fall foliage and then even a little after that,” Anderson said. “This year’s going to be tough with limited workforce for sure.” 

Several businesses bid adieu to their students in heartfelt goodbye messages on social media while at the same time announcing reduced hours.  

The Independent Cafe said farewell to about four school-age staff members, which made up a little less than half of his team, said owner Tim Rich. 

With the pandemic, he pivoted from an eat-in cafe to a grab-and-go sandwich shop and market. That’s helped in a summer where it’s been tough to find staff, but without foreign workers or the students, he’s expecting he’ll stop being open seven days a week. 

“We probably will have to close one day a week in the fall,” he said. “That’s a tough decision to make.”  

At Abel’s Lobster Pound in Mount Desert, owner Mandy Fountaine has seen a majority of her support staff of bussers, food runners and similar positions go back to school. 

The restaurant weighed how to best serve the needs of customers while giving the staff the rest they need, and Fountaine decided to close on Saturdays. Saturdays have been Abel’s slowest day, making it the obvious choice, but Fountaine said there’s no secondary workforce to tap into. 

“I haven’t found one,” she said.  

Even though they leave at the end of the summer, local students are a huge help for both store staffing levels and being great ambassadors of the island, said Todd Graham, the general manager of the Acadia Corporation, which runs several shops in town. Tourists love to pick their brains and learn about the island, he said.  

The company had between 10 to 12 students go back to school, but that was an expected dip and the shops were prepared for it.  

“We had a great season with our high school and college students,” Graham said. “They’re really important to us.”  

While the workforce is shrinking more from its already shrunken size, tourism doesn’t appear to be falling at the same rate. Anderson said the outlook for post-Labor Day was strong.  

“What we are seeing is most places are booked all week long through I think middle to late October,” he said. 

One thing Bar Harbor won’t have is the influx of cruise ship passengers that flock to the island in September and October. That may come as a relief to some, but Bill Coggins, the owner of Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, said that without cruise ships, he’ll see a 30 to 40 percent drop in business.  

“The cruise ships are the big difference,” he said. “They’re big spenders and they’re a nice crowd.”  

About three of his staff of 30 went back to school, making things even tighter, though getting supplies has been the biggest headache of the year. He’s had a hard time getting things as elemental to an ice cream shop as chocolate and sugar. 

“Anything you can think of has been really a struggle,” he said.  

Things are also tough on the Quietside.  

On Monday, Gott’s Store in Southwest Harbor announced that its school kids had left for the season, leaving the business shorthanded, especially at night.  

“We are very brokenhearted to say that tonight our hot/cold sandwich and salad station as well as the fried food stations will be closed,” the business wrote on Facebook. 

Gott’s only had one person in the kitchen and would only be able to serve pizza, said night manager Melissa Carter.  

Three seasonal workers from Jamaica and three high school students, about 40 percent of the staff, have all gone. Carter, the sister of the owner, is now recruiting family members to come in and help and has “help wanted” signs up and ads out to try and attract more people. 

Gott’s has been around for 77 years, and this season has been one of the toughest for staffing, according to Carter.  

“It’s never been as big of a problem as it has been this year,” she said.   

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.

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