Nick Lucas / September 28, 2019
Over the last decade, Portland has become one of the premier food cities in the United States. Tourists and food connoisseurs from all around the country are traveling to Portland for its distinguished restaurants. The recent explosion in the food scene has triggered a call for new restaurants that emulate eateries such as Eventide Oyster Company or Empire. Trendy, vibrant establishments are attracting locals and tourists, the catalyst for a revamped dining scene. It begs the question: should veteran restaurants, ones that have been in business for decades, change with the scene?
Portland’s restaurant scene has become extremely competitive, which has led to the closing of many restaurants. Four restaurants closed in the summer of 2019; however, according to Steve Hewins, CEO of Hospitality Maine, it was not due to a lack of business. While increased competition has been a driving factor for the closing of many restaurants, it’s not the only quandary the industry faces.
Brian Boru in the Old Port, Lolita on Munjoy Hill, Scattoloni Bakery in Monument Square, and Silly’s in East Bayside have either closed or announced they have plans to shut down. Some owners cite fatigue as their reason for closing. Maine has seen a labor shortage in many industries across the board, an issue from which the restaurant industry has suffered intensely. Owners are burnt out and flustered from continually looking for help. High rental rates for housing in Portland have also had an impact on staff retention; younger workers are choosing to live and work in the suburbs where rent is affordable.
The minimum wage increase that occurred in 2019 is also making it difficult for more affordable restaurants to stay afloat. Many of these establishments will likely have to increase the prices on their menus. Will this persuade owners to change their style? They may now need to attract the trend-seeking customer that is willing to pay for a fancy cocktail and seared scallops.
There is no doubt that Portland’s food scene and culture have transformed dramatically. With the demand for trendy dining experiences combined with the labor shortage, restaurants—even Portland mainstays—may continue to close down. This shift could be positive for the city. Downtown vacancies could present new opportunities for entrepreneurs, perhaps leading to a new retail landscape with new eateries and unique concepts. Will there be more speakeasies and rooftop restaurants and bars to come? Whatever the outcome, the restaurant scene in Portland will look very different ten years from now.