They had a business idea, invested months, or in some cases years, laying the groundwork to pull it off, and then came the pandemic.

And they opened anyway.

The immeasurable stress. The long nights. The kindnesses, and the joys.

We asked owners behind five new area businesses in 2020 how tough it was to open, advice they’d offer other entrepreneurs and what they’re most looking forward to in 2021.

Mu Noi Brunch, Auburn

Sayvepen and Elise Sengsavang opened Mu Noi Brunch in Auburn last summer. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Sayvepen and Elise Sengsavang followed up the success of their Bethel food trailer with Mu Noi Brunch at 1056 Center St. on July 8, serving “food we want to eat and is fun to cook.” Think plates like hash with lemongrass chili sausage and fried chicken sando.

Why 2020 for your new venture?

We had essentially already taken the leap into our first brick and mortar prior to the pandemic, drafting a business plan and securing a location and loan at the start of the year. It has been our dream to open a brick and mortar restaurant for more than a decade. When the opportunity and means presented itself, we jumped, not realizing that within a month of starting our build-out, our global community would be stricken with a pandemic that would require us to change the entire blueprint of our not-even-open-yet business.

Our initial idea was to have one long community table that people sat at all together; (but) communal gathering and socializing — a part of our vision for so long — was dashed as the idea of sitting next to a stranger and breaking bread was now a dangerous notion. The woodworkers (Purple Shed Woodworks) we had initially commissioned for our community table quickly adapted to our newly acquired needs to space out our dining area, and made the beautiful custom maple live edge benches that now adorn each of the only four tables we are allowed inside. One of our favorite Maine artists, Mattie Rose, created our mural featuring a mortar and pestle (a tool often used in traditional Lao cooking) and a variation of Southeast Asian herbs and peppers.

Were there extra challenges in navigating an opening and a pandemic?

There were many challenges to navigating an opening during a pandemic. We worked closely with the health department to make sure we ticked every single box. In a normal situation, a lot of people get caught up on small details and it can cause delays in opening. We couldn’t afford any delays. The health inspector was phenomenal! She gave clear directions, was pleasant to work with, tried to help us get ahead of anything we might need as a new business, and just overall, was kind. However, with the state of Maine’s physical offices closed and those individuals working out of their homes (and being stretched thin with COVID restrictions), what might have originally been a quick question on a phone call, now took two or three days to get an answer back and, in turn, would hold up a step. It was a frustrating problem that had no direct culprit and no immediate solution. This was the problem with every step of the process. Getting our sign approved; getting connected with a food purveyor; securing a licensed plumber; attaining waste removal services.

We also faced challenges on a more personal level. Our infant daughter (for whom our restaurant is named, Mu Noi, meaning little pig, a Lao nickname handed down from Dad) could no longer be dropped off with aunts, cousins, grandparents or any of the family-like friends who had been previously available as much-needed resources. Building walls and painting baseboards is not work that can be done while your child crawls around a working construction site. We have done every step of our business together, and being forced to divide and conquer put a strain on our dynamic. A big part of any past successes has been largely attributed to our ability to work well together and balance each other out. This. was. hard.

Molly Hinkle, a sous chef at Mu Noi Brunch, finishes an order of chicken and biscuits in the kitchen recently. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Any possible benefits?

Our landlord Jim Pittman expressed right away, with his own brand of charm and assurance, that he would give us a break and allow us to open and grow a bit before assuming all the financial obligations of the space. This kindness is the only reason we are still open right now; the only reason we felt comfortable taking on the build and moving forward in such an uncertain environment.

We met kindness in so many people in the process of trying to get our doors open. The electrician who came out on his day off to get us up and running, the professionals that came in and polished all the tile glue off the floor and refinished it beautifully and quickly so we could get on with our next step. The friendly and helpful folks at The Sign Store and Flag Center who made our beautiful street sign and waited patiently to install it until we finally got all the correct licensing for it. Once we were up and running, we met the same energy in the customers that graced our doors and called our number. This entire community is hurting from this pandemic, but to see the outpouring of support was, and still is, so wonderfully overwhelming.

The No. 1 absolute best thing we have collected from this process has been the team we have assembled to make Mu Noi what it is. These are people you want to come to work with, laugh with, create with.

Two or three lessons learned this year that you’d share with other entrepreneurs?

Know your health inspector and check in with them when you have questions about policies or licenses. Don’t guess! Mistakes in interpreting or missing something all together can cost you money and will definitely cost you time. Plus, there are few things in life as frustrating as having to do the same job more than once because you didn’t realize the pipes had to be a certain size or a door had to swing a certain direction.

Get to know the people who are taking care of the details. They are human beings and deserve to be treated as such, and they will often do better work and let you in on little tips and tricks you didn’t know.

Be flexible. Brunch is all about relaxing, sitting down and being spoiled, having a drink, hanging out with a group, catching up with someone you haven’t seen in a while — not exactly a great business plan for a world fighting off the plague. We have had to adjust our menu to be more takeout friendly, lose seating and, because of the wait time and cost of the liquor license, we have had to forgo that part. Even in normal circumstances you have to be flexible, but during a pandemic, you have to be willing to bend in several different directions, at the same time, while wearing a mask.

Most looking forward to in 2021?

As we begin the process of vaccinations and head into warmer months, we believe we will begin to be able to utilize more of our space. Right now, we are not sure if we are going to make it to that point. We are truly on the brink of closure, even with all the support from a generous landlord and the love we have felt from the community. Our hope is that we have just enough to weather the worst of this storm and then build our success from there, but we simply do not know. We look forward most in 2021 to finally knowing, because the stress of being on the edge of failure is draining and unfair to a beautiful Mu Noi family we love so much.

The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Farmington

Bonita Lehigh stands in her store, The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in Farmington. She opened the nonprofit with several students in July. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

High school teacher Bonita Lehigh and her students opened The Center for Entrepreneurial Studies on July 17 at 156 Main St. mixing retail and aspirations. The nonprofit’s goal: Working to inspire business ownership and drive economic development.

Why 2020 for your new venture?

We started the business formation in 2018-2019. When the downtown community lost The Calico Patch and Sugarwood Gallery in January of 2020, we decided to fill a need and at the same time get word out about our plans to open a larger organization that worked similar to a Boys and Girls Club, however the focus would be entrepreneurship, which can change lives. The opportunity opened when 3D Games relocated into the former Calico Patch site.

CES works with people to identify their strengths, weaknesses, interests and values. We then help the individual dip their toe in the water to see if their idea is a hit or miss.

Bonita Lehigh straightens out the wedding display in her new store. “Many people told us to retreat right away (when the pandemic struck), but we were passionate that systemic change for youth and families had to take place in Franklin County,” she said.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Were there extra challenges in navigating an opening and a pandemic? Any possible benefits?

The challenge was right out of the gate because we agreed to rent the space the first week of March just as the pandemic was commencing. Many people told us to retreat right away, but we were passionate that systemic change for youth and families had to take place in Franklin County. The benefit to opening during the pandemic was that the need for such a place was painfully apparent given the current state of education and remote learning.

Two or three lessons learned this year that you’d share with other entrepreneurs?

1. Entrepreneurship during a pandemic is much more challenging.
2. We would do it all over again because our work was described as “a shining light in a dark time.”
3. Be sure to have family support and make them more aware of the challenges and work you need to put in to make your venture a success.

Looking forward to 2021?

Partnerships and collaborations that allow for business and individual growth.

Dolce Amici, Norway

Lourdes Rubio, one of the co-owners of Dolce Amici in Norway, in front of the gelato case. Rubio and her partner opened the cocktails and gelato shop in 2020. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Co-owners Elizabeth Cook and Lourdes Rubio opened Dolce Amici at 427 Main St. on May 15. The name means “Sweet Friends” in Italian and the menu is plenty sweet, serving artisanal gelato, specialty and classic cocktails and more in a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant.

Why 2020 for your new venture?

2020 was an unfortunate coincidence in timing. Opening a gelato shop and cocktail bar was our dream. We had looked at acquiring property in Norway. In July 2019, we enrolled in Carpigiani Gelato University in Chicago to try our hand at gelato making and see if it was the right fit for us. It was a positive experience, so we decided to move ahead with our plans. Woodman’s Sporting Goods shop was for sale and we purchased the building in August. After obtaining the necessary permits, we started renovation on the building in November. It is a perfect location! We had no idea that a pandemic was coming.

Were there extra challenges in navigating an opening and a pandemic? Any possible benefits?

After getting permits and plans, our contractor, Mark Ramsdell of Ramsdell & Sons in Hebron, spent all winter renovating the building. Just as the finishing touches were getting done, the severity of the pandemic was becoming apparent. Restaurants were ordered closed. We opened May 15th, for takeout only, and then soon after, we opened for in-person dining at half-capacity.

During the summer months, we expanded a patio and obtained town permission to expand our dining room to our patio and the sidewalks. This gave us additional seating through the summer and fall. It is a challenge to be a new business, even more so when social distancing and legitimate concerns keep people at home. We follow all Maine CDC guidelines and keep up with changes and updates. It was not a surprise that everything was more complicated and took longer than expected. You know that going in, but experiencing it is another thing.

For benefits, we have had time to figure out our new business at a slower pace. We learned the benefits of online ordering, curbside pickup and takeout ordering, as well as social media, which has become our lifeline to customers. We have been supported and encouraged by the business community in downtown Norway and made friends along the way. Other established restaurateurs in the area have given us valuable advice and encouragement.

Candace Gomez, right, brings out a Dolce Amici to-go order to customer Sarah Hibert recently. Gomez is the manager of the cocktails and gelato store in Norway. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Two or three lessons learned this year that you’d share with other entrepreneurs?

Our advice is to surround yourself with a good, experienced and trustworthy local team: a lawyer, an accountant and an expert in the field. Mentors are great. We had a wonderful mentor, Jessica Oloroso, of Black Dog Gelato in Chicago.

Also: Whatever the dollar amount you think you will need, multiply that by two. Expect that it will take longer than you think and cost more than you expected. Take delays, and hiccups, in stride.

Most looking forward to in 2021?

I think we join everyone, everywhere, in hoping for an end to the pandemic and having COVID-19 as a fading memory. We look forward to being able to use all our space and have guests enjoy their gelato, cocktails and food up-close and personal without fear. We are grateful to our dedicated staff and loyal customers for a great start, despite it being 2020. We have great ideas for 2021, new gelato flavors, new events, and look forward to continued health and success in 2021!

The Station Grill, Lewiston

Kathy Lebel opened The Station Grill Restaurant in the historic railroad depot in Lewiston in 2020. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

With decades in restaurants already under her belt, Kathy Lebel opened The Station Grill at 103 Lincoln St. in July serving American foods like burgers, seafood, steaks, soups and homemade chicken tenders out of a historic downtown train depot.

Why 2020 for your new venture?

My husband, David Lebel, and I opened Schemengees Bar & Grille in 1998 and it was only a pool hall with very limited food menu. In 2007, we had to relocate. We moved Schemengees from 15 Lincoln St. to 551 Lincoln St. In that move, my husband and I decided to expand from being a pool hall to managing a full kitchen and bar. At the beginning things were running smooth with my husband managing the kitchen and myself managing the bar, staff and pool room. As the years went by, I started to notice my husband struggling to manage the kitchen. So that’s when I jumped in the kitchen and decided I’m gonna help and learn everything that I could about cooking.

That’s when I found out how much I enjoyed cooking. I never wanted to put out anything that I would not be proud of. I wanted everything to taste great and if we can make it from scratch, that’s what we do. Then that’s when life hit us with another challenge. My husband got diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. That explained a lot to me on the reasons why he was struggling doing just the simple things. As things got harder for him, I started to manage everything and was determined to make it work. Running the business is great, but seeing people enjoy your food is the best.

It was always a challenge to get new customers at Schemengees for a sit-down meal. Most people thought of Schemengees as a bar or a pool room, not a place that you could get really good food. Don’t get me wrong, once they came in and tried our food, we would gain a new customer. I started to talk about opening a restaurant to get more people to try our homemade foods. But that is when life threw us another challenge: I got diagnosed with breast cancer. Now I was in a fight for my life. I had an extremely aggressive form of cancer called inflammatory breast cancer. I went to Boston to see a specialist to help me fight this cancer. I had to slow down and rethink: What do you really want to do? I decided if I can get through this I will go for my dream and open up a restaurant. So four years later, in June 2019, I found this great location in Lewiston with so much history.

The moment I walked into the Grand Trunk, I knew this was the perfect place. We worked on a business plan and did our research on the location and the possible clientele. Our plan was that lunch time would be extremely busy because the mill was full of office workers and was still growing with more business to come. So with all the people and foot traffic in that area, we felt like this location had great exposure and the news about Station Grill would get out there. I also had no worries about running a business or managing employees, I was already doing this for years. So with all the research and planning, everything looked so promising. I was ready to move forward and get this restaurant opened.

On Jan. 1, 2020, I signed our lease and made it official. Our plan was to open on April 1, but as we all know, March 17, everyone was now in a pandemic. All office workers at the mill were now working from home and most of them were not coming back. With all my planning and research, a pandemic was never something that crossed my mind. Now I thought to myself, I have a lot more questions and I don’t know how to get the answers. How am I going to get through this challenge? How do I keep Schemengees going and how do I get Station Grill started? Schemengees has been in my life for over 20 years and now I have my new restaurant that hasn’t opened yet and don’t know if it is going to open. All I had was questions and no answers. I have always been a problem solver, but this problem was bigger than all of us.

Bethany Welch puts the “open” sign out at The Station Grill Restaurant in Lewiston. “One benefit we did get out of this: Most restaurants like to do a soft opening to work out the kinks,” said owner Kathy Lebel. “I feel like we have been going through our soft opening from the beginning and we are ready to kick it up a notch.” Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Were there extra challenges in navigating an opening and a pandemic? Any possible benefits?

There were so many challenges to opening during a pandemic. Following the CDC guidelines, making sure that the staff was ready and understanding of all the safety measures and protocols, like wearing a mask, washing their hands and sanitizing, and so on. We have to make sure that customers are social distancing and we are limited to how many customers can come in. We had to take tables out to keep the restaurant in compliance. I have no problem with any of that, but all of these rule and regulations all have a cost and it effects the bottom line: Cost of training of staff, masks, gloves, extra menus and the loss of dining table and customers. How do you recoup?

There were three things that I focused on: Making sure that we have safety and sanitation measures; get customers to spend money with us; and paying the bills this month. If we can just stay afloat and get through this, the profits will come. Normally breaking even is not good, but opening a new restaurant during a pandemic, breaking even is what you hope for each month.

One benefit we did get out of this: Most restaurants like to do a soft opening to work out the kinks. I feel like we have been going through our soft opening from the beginning and we are ready to kick it up a notch. There is another benefit: No matter how tough this has been, we have met great, supportive customers at the restaurant and also the ones that call us back and thank us for being open, drop off cards to our staff for going the extra mile. This really helps keep me and the staff motivated in moving forward. Thank you for your motivations.

Two or three lessons learned this year that you’d share with other entrepreneurs?

Anyone looking to open a business should have a clause in their lease that if a pandemic arises at any point during the term of the lease, that you would have a way out of the lease with no penalty.

Tighten up on everything and take care of business. You will have to work all the hours and be ready and willing to change. Customers will be very understanding if you have to adjust your hours based on business. You will also want to reduce your menu to save on cost and waste.

Most looking forward to in 2021?

We are excited to let customer know that we are opening for breakfast on Sundays. If this is received well, we will consider opening for breakfast all weekend.

Lexy’s Sweets & Bakery, Rumford

Alexys Duguay opened Lexy’s Sweets & Bakery in Rumford on Nov. 7. The 2016 graduate of Mountain Valley High School runs the bakery while attending college full time. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

College student Alexys Duguay opened Lexy’s Sweets & Bakery on Nov. 7 at 228 Washington St. in Rumford with the help of family. In addition to cookies and cakes, her menu offers sandwiches, waffles, pizza and more.

Why 2020 for your new venture?

I have been baking as a side hobby out of my home since 2018, where it all started as me just making some different flavors of cupcakes, and really branched out when people began asking me if I could make other things as well, which in turn led to them constantly mentioning that I should open a bakery here in town. To which I continuously responded that I would love to, but I’m not sure it’s something I could do anytime soon.

It was actually a very lengthy process for us that started almost a year ago, if not longer. We originally had no intentions of opening anything, but after my aunt opened a shop downtown on Congress Street, an opportunity came up to potentially open my business in the same building. From there everything just started to unfold for us with MANY obstacles including lots of time, effort and money put into getting part of this building ready to be moved into and food safe.

Just when we were nearing the end, and at a point where opening was in sight, that operation fell through and we were essentially at square one. At that point I had said I would just wait until I am out of school and start it then, but there were many people very eager and excited about the idea of us opening who had been patiently following our journey and asking about our opening. So the search for a new place began. Within just weeks of the fall-through at the old place, we found the amazing place we currently are operating from! It’s a cute little place that’s not quite as conveniently located as the other, but it’s our own building where we can be in control of what takes place, our landlord is the sweetest of them all, and it just really was the perfect place at the perfect time! Within a few months we had all we needed to get up and going (inspection, food safety, equipment, etc.).

Were there extra challenges in navigating an opening and a pandemic? Any possible benefits?

As far as pandemic-related struggles, we really didn’t run into any! We were pretty fortunate in that aspect. The only thing, if anything, would be delays in inspections, customers out of work slowing the flow of traffic coming into the store and, unrelated to the pandemic, would be that we are a little hidden and haven’t quite advertised much around other than Facebook yet.

Lexy’s Sweets & Bakery owner Alexys Duguay said she baked a lot at her home in Rumford before friends convinced her to open up a bakery. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Two or three lessons learned this year that you’d share with other entrepreneurs?

I would say there were too many lessons learned this year to mention them all, but I think had I done it all again, I would wait until this could be my one and only focus before opening, because right now I am juggling ownership of a business, working my other job as a pharmacy intern at Walgreens and being a full-time pharmacy student at Husson (College). We are managing just fine with A LOT of help from my grandmother mostly, but from all of my family! I am so blessed to have them all really, because without them all I don’t know how I’d come through sometimes!

I also think for others, I would just say to do LOTS of research into the business you are opening and be very cautious and wise with your spending for the business so you don’t lose more than you make. I personally wish I had taken the time right from the beginning to sit down and really organize my thoughts and ideas such as how I wanted to go about the small but really important details like dating and checking dates on products, my pricing from the beginning, how I would advertise best in the community, all those key things that you want figured out in advance because once you open, it truly is chaos for while! We are starting to slow down from the “new” rushes, so we are getting a chance to organize ourselves and get stuff really in place, but it’s been a process!

Most looking forward to in 2021?

I am just looking forward to seeing what the year brings both in general and for both my business and the businesses in the community! I hope for our business to really branch out into the community by mid-2021 and be well known and heard of throughout the community and outside of the community! I hope we can integrate into the other local businesses and work with them as well!

Editor’s note: Some responses were edited for space and style.


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