The energy at Broken Arrow on Congress Street on Valentine’s Day was palpable. Though it was a frigid Monday night in February – three strikes against any restaurant in Maine – by 7:30 p.m. the place was packed. No empty seats at the bar, which runs the length of the narrow railroad-style Portland restaurant, and no empty tables either. Candles flickered, glasses tinkled, forks clinked, Aretha Franklin serenaded, and waiters huddled at the far end of the bar and tapped, tapped, tapped orders into a point-of-sales terminal. Amid the loud buzz of a bustling restaurant, random phrases floated into the air and hung there: museum, Florida, bluefin tuna crudo.

The scene and the sounds added up to the ordinary happy hum of a restaurant in full swing. Nothing more normal. Yet two years into a pandemic that has strained restaurants to the limits and beyond, nothing more strange.

“Luck was on our side,” said Lyle Aker, who owns the 1½-year-old restaurant with his wife, Holly, while recapping Valentine’s sales the following week. “There was a little magic.”

Luck and magic. Also grit, flexibility, humor, optimism, resilience, very hard work – and hope. In uncharted times, these are a few of the qualities that saw three local restaurants – Broken Arrow and Old Port Sea Grill & Raw Bar in Portland, and Maine Street Steak & Oyster in Brunswick – through a second pandemic winter.

For restaurants in Maine, excepting a few normally reliable bright spots – holiday parties, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day – winter has always been the cruelest season. This winter, add to the usual insults (snowstorms, lack of tourists, bitter-cold nights), the accumulated exhaustion of restaurant staffers working the frontlines. Subtract government rescue plans that helped cushion the first pandemic winter and throw in a highly contagious COVID-19 variant or two. Taken together, the winter of 2021-22 was a season that some in Maine’s restaurant industry had grimly predicted could close many dining rooms for good.

But as spring returns, for these three restaurants at least, hope is in ascendance.


The most recent data the National Restaurant Association has for restaurants that closed during the pandemic, either permanently or long-term, dates back to May 2021 and puts that number at 90,000 nationwide, almost 14 percent, including chains. The organization does not keep state figures, and nonprofit trade group HospitalityMaine doesn’t have them, either, but even just in Portland, the closures didn’t end then. They have since have included Greek restaurant Emilitsa and ramen spot Ishi Ishi. Fine-dining Hugo’s and the celebrated Miyake have yet to reopen, and popular Chinese restaurant Empire is still only offering takeout. At the same time, others have opened: Regards, Friends & Family and Crispy Gai, to name a few.

These days, HospitalityMaine President and CEO Matt Lewis says he hears more from his members about staffing concerns than about the pandemic, though the two are obviously related. Still, he wasn’t pleased earlier this month that money to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund had just been dropped from an omnibus spending bill before Congress.

“This is a major blow and will likely result in more closures nationwide,” he wrote in an email.

In mid-March, the nonprofit James Beard Foundation was tallying results from its latest post-winter restaurant survival survey, for which 162 restaurants around the country responded to questions about revenues, continuing challenges and possible remedies.

“The struggle is definitely not over,” said Anne McBride, vice president of programs at the foundation, summing up the survey’s findings. “Restaurants need help. Programs from the government, whether local, state or federal, to help support restaurants as they find their new footing are really crucial.”

In response to a question about their biggest challenges, the surveyed restaurants listed higher operational costs (77 percent), staffing (72 percent) and omicron (59 percent) – the survey went out before the latest COVID-19 variant, BA.2, was in the news. A small majority (52 percent) reported they had higher revenues this winter than the last, but many said their costs were higher, too.

“At this point, we realize we are going to have to live with the scenario for a while,” said Kim Lully, who owns Maine Street Steak & Oyster with her husband, Sunny Chung. “Back in 2020, every couple of months, we were thinking, ‘It’s almost over! It’s almost over! It’s almost over!’ We are finally realizing it isn’t going to end abruptly one day. We are going to live with it, and hopefully make the best of it.”

Over three months this winter, we periodically checked in with Broken Arrow, Old Port Sea Grill and Maine Street Steak & Oyster. These are their stories.

MAINE STREET STEAK & OYSTER: One door closes, another reopens

At Maine Street Steak & Oyster, owner Kim Lully receives two orders of steak frites for delivery to a table from her husband, chef and partner Sunny Chung. They’ve had to raise the price of the dish in response to rising food costs. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine Street Steak & Oyster opened, as bad luck would have it, on Jan. 28, 2020, barely seven weeks before COVID-19 shut down the state. A partnership of Kim Lully and her husband, Sunny Chung, and chef Tony Pastor and his fiancée and fellow restaurant professional, Sarah Gabrielson, the 40-seat restaurant served an abbreviated modern steakhouse menu in an inviting space with pale blue walls and blond wood.

For Lully and Chung, who owned Yobo restaurant in Portland, the new project was meant as retirement insurance, of sorts. In their early 50s, the couple was thinking a decade ahead. They’d dedicate more of their energy to Yobo, where Chung cooked homey Korean dishes and Lully ran the dining room – a staff of two – and hope that, once established, Maine Street Steak & Oyster would offer them a nest egg. For now, they’d supply more of the money, and young, strong, energetic Pastor would supply more of the kitchen muscle.

It didn’t work out that way.

For almost two years, Lully and Chung “bounced back and forth” between the restaurants, as the pandemic blew hot and cold, and the restaurant labor shortage blew steadily hot. “All of a sudden, we were trying to work full time at two restaurants, which was just impossible,” Lully said.

Last fall, Pastor was approached about taking the job of head chef at the storied Fore Street restaurant in Portland, a singular opportunity, and likely more security, for the 32-year-old chef. Lully and Chung encouraged him.

“We are sitting in the middle of a pandemic. Week to week, you have no idea,” Lully said, and told him, “Tony, if you don’t take the job, I’m going to have Sunny take that job.’ ”

By January, Pastor was piloting the Fore Street kitchen.

If the pandemic has taught those in the restaurant industry anything, it is how to pivot. Lully and Chung quickly reassessed: They bought out Pastor and Gabrielson’s one-third share of the restaurant partnership, and made the painful “100 percent pandemic-related” decision to close the six-year-old Yobo.

“I can’t say we were happy,” Lully said. “We are just dealing with every situation the best way you can and constantly trying to keep moving forward.”

Owner Kim Lully surveys a full house on a March evening at Maine St. Steak & Oyster. Her hope for the rest of 2022 after two years of pandemic challenges? “Just no changes, actually. We are just starting to come out of it so we feel normal. No more changes. No more news. No more anything. Just slow and steady.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Over December, Maine Street Steak & Oyster closed for construction. When the couple reopened it in late January, the menu was slimmer, the tables were fewer and the hours were reduced – Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only. Also, the prices were higher. Inflation meant that salads once priced at $13 to $14 now cost $14 to $15, while steak frites had gone from $29 to $33. The staff numbered two: Lully in the front of the house, Chung in the kitchen.

The following week, on Lully’s first day off in two weeks (she confessed she never got out of her pajamas), she reported cheerily on the reopening. “We were there until midnight Saturday night washing dishes. Oh my God, we’re too old for this! But in this business, you realize very quickly that the restaurant doesn’t survive unless you are willing to do every last job yourself.”

The new setup did simplify a few things. “Scheduling,” Lully laughed. “Because there are only two people to schedule. Payroll. Payroll is really easy nowadays.”

Fast-forward two weeks. Valentine’s this year fell on a Monday, an evening many restaurants, including theirs, are closed. But like a number of others this year, Maine Street Steak & Oyster opted to take full advantage of a rare bright spot in the slow winter season. Lully and Chung figured some couples would celebrate early, with a special dinner on Friday or Saturday (could any meal be sexier than steak and oysters?); for those sticking with the traditional date, they opened specially on Monday. Among the items on the Valentine’s menu: caviar service, a long-boned Tomahawk steak for two, and Chung’s famous deep-fried bread pudding.

It was a good weekend. “The restaurant was full. Everybody was smiling and happy. Other than the fact people were walking in with their masks, the rest of the night felt pleasantly ordinary,” Lully said, adding that they sold “a ridiculous amount of oysters, a ton of oysters.”

As is usual now, it was just the two of them, though they’d like to hire.

“We have been running want ads since we reopened the restaurant in summer 2020, but there is just nobody out there,” Lully said. “Right now I would take a breathing body that is upright.”

But the staff she does have couldn’t be better. “The two best employees on the planet,” she said, giggling, referring to herself and her husband. “We never call in sick. We never complain. We do what we are supposed to do.”

Lully and Chung met when she worked as a sales rep at a TV station in New Hampshire, where he and his parents ran a tiny Korean restaurant. He grew up mostly in New Hampshire. She grew up in Caribou, also in a restaurant family. Her parents ran Reno’s Family Restaurant for 55 years; several months after the pandemic began, they closed the place and retired.

Lully and Chung have been together, and mostly worked together, for some 23 years. After the last table left on Valentine’s, they celebrated their partnership. “We cracked open a half bottle of really nice Champagne,” Lully said. “We had some oysters and some caviar, and took 45 minutes to an hour before we looked at the crazy mess and dove into the dish pit.”

A few weeks earlier, when omicron numbers in Maine were still quite high, Lully said that while she worried about exhaustion, “being able to keep it going,” what kept her up at night was fear the pandemic would keep customers away. On Valentine’s weekend, with omicron numbers steadily dropping, she could, for now, lay that fear to rest.

OLD PORT SEA GRILL: Making it work

At Old Port Sea Grill, Chef Jason Murphy puts the finishing touches on a plate of grilled salmon for Maine Restaurant Week. Derek Davis

From its prime spot on Commercial Street, Old Port Sea Grill serves a reassuring menu that has something for everyone, from lobster rolls to lobster pad Thai, seared salmon to grilled pork chops, falafel sandwiches to oysters. Laura Argitis opened the place 20 years ago.

Seven years later, Maine Restaurant Week was born as a way to promote the state’s restaurants during the slow season. But last March, the depths of the pandemic, marked the first time Old Port Sea Grill signed up.

It was a financial calculation, and it was a no-brainer. The $495 participation fee was waived: in exchange for that fee, restaurants get a lot of marketing and presumably a lot of customers, too. Before re-upping for this year’s event, Old Port Sea Grill General Manager Justin St. Louis took into account the “deeply discounted” pandemic pricing ($100), ran the numbers from the previous March and decided that, all in all, it was again a good deal.

“It might not be a ton of money for the restaurant themselves because you are giving discounted prices just to get people in the door,” he said, “but it’s really helping to sustain the workers who are the core of the restaurant.”

Executive chef Jason Murphy, who started at Old Port Sea Grill last April after layoffs at the Boathouse Restaurant in Kennebunkport at the start of the pandemic, drew up the special $55 menu: fried oysters with yuzu tarragon remoulade, grilled salmon with harissa roasted vegetables, and lemon basil pudding, a preview of dishes to be added to the regular menu later in the spring. Looking forward to summer, St. Louis, who is a certified sommelier, paired each course with the quintessential summer quaff, rosés, for an additional $25.

St. Louis had good reason to be looking forward. Though staff shortages meant the roomy, 108-seat Old Port Sea Grill was open just five days a week last year in high season, it was the restaurant’s third busiest summer ever. “Incredible. I’m banging my head against the wall. I really want to get more cooks and open two days more a week,” recalled St. Louis. “We just smashed the numbers.”

But as the summer of 2021 faded and COVID-19 cases soared, the ping-pong of pandemic impacts yet again put restaurants in Maine and around the country in a state of high anxiety.

“I had booked a bunch of holiday parties in December,” St. Louis said in a January interview. “Usually December is a pretty tough month. Those parties really help, particularly for our front-of-the-house staff. Once the omicron variant started taking hold, I saw those parties cancel, one after another after another.”

Meanwhile, Murphy faced his own problems in the kitchen, where staff shortages have become a wearying fact of life. Despite masks and vaccinations, many on his staff got sick, though, thankfully, not seriously ill. Still, the absences took a toll.

“That was when the exhaustion of it kicked in,” he said. “Oh cool, Tim is out today. Oh cool, Veronica is out today. One person, then one more person. You thought you were getting caught up, but then somebody else was always out.” Murphy left his job at Old Port Sea Grill in mid-March; he and the restaurant declined to say why.

A group of diners gathers at the Commercial Street restaurant in Portland, where a hopeful Justin St. Louis, the general manager, says: “People are acclimating to the new world we are in and learning to move forward.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In January, the normally buoyant St. Louis admitted to anxiety. “Every day is an unknown. What if there is a new variant that is resistant to the vaccine? That is a really scary thing that I think about.”

But he quickly recovered his composure. “People are acclimating to the new world we are in and learning to move forward. You have to look at situation and say, ‘I cannot change the circumstances, so what can I do to roll up my sleeves and get through this?’ ”

St. Louis rolled up his sleeves. He offered the canceling partygoers a deal. If they rebooked for February or March, he’d knock 10 percent off the rates (there were no takers). He focused on better days – weekends, typically, and New Year’s Eve.

A week before Valentine’s Day, St. Louis’ goal was “just to break even. I’m just looking for a little injection.” Reservations, so far, were “fine,” he said. But after the holiday, his face lit up as he talked about business: “Valentine’s Day was crazy! It felt like summer all over again.”

About the same time, St. Louis invited some 30 bar staff and front desk people from nearby hotels to a happy hour networking event. He wanted to thank them for sending business his way and to familiarize them with Old Port Sea Grill, so they’d recommend it to their guests.

“I’m starting at square one again,” he said. “I had spent years building up relationships and during the pandemic, so many (hotel staff members) left.”

Old Port Sea Grill General Manager Justin St. Louis serves salmon, from the Maine Restaurant Week menu, to customers Ryan Summers and Madison Bolduc, who are seated in the bar/lounge area of the restaurant. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

And he and the staff readied for Maine Restaurant Week.

On a Thursday early in the event’s run, Ryan Summers and Madison Bolduc sat at the bar, sharing the Maine Restaurant Week menu. “Phenomenal,” Summers rated it. “Awesome,” Bolduc agreed.

The two friends work as servers at Boone’s Fish House on Custom House Wharf just across Commercial Street. It was lunchtime, and it was quiet at Old Port Sea Grill without the many regulars from Wex, Covetrus and CIEE who used to come in until the pandemic sent office workers home. Despite the precipitous pandemic ups and downs that he’s witnessed firsthand, Summers feels hopeful for the future of restaurants. “I am,” he said, then amended his comment. “I mean, you have to be.”

Maine Restaurant Week – a misnomer really, as it lasts 12 days – ended with dinner on Saturday, March 12, a snowy, windy, typical March-in-Maine night. At 7:15 p.m., Old Port Sea Grill was a little less than half full. In the next hour, a steady trickle of customers came through the doors – a young couple, a large party, a group of raucous women who sat at the bar ignoring the Kansas City Red Hawks game on the TVs overhead. Over the 12-day stretch, the restaurant sold a total of 24 Maine Restaurant Week deals. It’s not a big number; even so, taken together, the extra business, the new customers and the chance to try out a new menu are enough to make St. Louis likely to participate again next year, he said.

Meanwhile, he is looking forward to the summer, which he expects to be a repeat of last year, only better. “I just have to do extra jumping jacks to make sure my endurance is in top shape,” he joked. He also expects the cruise ships, which are returning to Portland this year, to help his bottom line. Though passengers typically take their meals on board, they often drop in at Old Port Sea Grill for signature Maine foods – lobster rolls, oysters and local beer.

After summer, who knows? St. Louis said he is more worried about a possible recession in 2023 – he read about it in the Economist – than he is about any lingering pandemic impacts. “When business is great, you have to take advantage of it,” he said, “because the sky could fall tomorrow.”

BROKEN ARROW:  This restaurant refuses to break

Lyle Aker, co-owner of Broken Arrow, looks over reservations on Valentine’s Day. “I am a goddamn cockroach,” he said about tenacity during a pandemic. “Restaurant people in general are. You have to have thick skin, and you have to embrace it. You won’t knock me down, and if I do fail, I will be right back up with the next place.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The sexy, buzzy, irreverent Broken Arrow on Congress Street in Portland’s Arts District was supposed to open in March 2020. But the state-mandated closure of restaurants and bars – initially for two weeks – wasn’t the sole reason for the seven-month delay.

Even as things started opening up late that spring, forget about getting a plumber, an electrician, anybody you need to build out a restaurant, including the city and state inspectors who had to give the OK before it could open, which it finally did that November.

Broken Arrow co-owner Lyle Aker jokes that the past two years “have been the longest two weeks ever.”

“We’re really proud of what we’re doing, even though we are only doing half of what we intend to be,” he said in January.

Jessie Robb, Broken Arrow general manager, on Valentine’s night. She has pandemic tales to tell of wildly generous customers, and ones who are less so. About the latter, she said, “Bad tips hurt worse because it feels more wildly taken for granted. I spent the last two years working through a global pandemic just so you could eat this bowl of pasta, and I am very sorry it took me two minutes longer than usual, but I have a 13-table section because nobody can hire workers because, again, global pandemic. Unless service is really, really terrible, gratitude is the appropriate response.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

No surprise, hiring was a huge challenge for the new restaurant. “The chef was in the kitchen alone most nights because I could not find anyone else to work. I could not find a dishwasher, even at $20 an hour, for months and months,” he said. He and his wife, co-owner Holly Aker, washed the dishes themselves. So did the chef. “I worried about that, too,” Lyle Aker said. Beyond risking their lives with COVID, would he kill them from overwork?

Actually, Broken Arrow General Manager Jessie Robb, who started as a weekend server in February 2021, remembers those days almost with fondness. The Akers’ commitment to pay everyone on their staff at least $20 an hour is what drew her to the job. Also, in frightening times, she felt listened to. With such a bare-bones staff, “the only people making decisions about being open or closed were the people waiting tables and bartending. Every day, it’d be like, ‘How’s everybody feel about opening today?’ ” (In 2021, beyond scheduled closures, the restaurant closed for a total of five extra weeks, when staff was ill with or had been exposed to the virus.)

Lyle Aker hasn’t drawn a salary since Broken Arrow opened. Nor has his wife, who works a full-time job, another full-time job, he says, as a program manager at the Center for Women & Enterprise. (In all her free time, Holly Aker is also president of the Maine Cheese Guild.)

“It’s us trying to survive and make sure our staff survives,” he said, adding that he’s “emptied my savings into the restaurant” and borrowed $175,000 more than he’d planned to “keep our staff paid, and keep the lights on during the pandemic.”

Because Broken Arrow opened during the pandemic, it qualified for little government relief. The restaurant got a paltry $7,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program, Aker said, money that went straight into its bank account and “was gone in less than three hours.”

In late January, he seemed downcast. Broken Arrow had sold out for New Year’s Eve, but because of omicron, the celebration was curtailed — two seatings of 30 each instead of 50. Then came the canceled reservations. “Even the day of, there were lots of last-minute cancellations.”

“It was very subdued,” he said – this from a man who would seem to hardly understand the word. He signs his emails “Nightlife rabble-rouser, bourbon-soaked firebrand, instigator of riots, and provocateur of drunkards everywhere.”

“It was nice, but sadly it’s a night that a lot of restaurants depend on. You do a week’s worth of revenue in a single night. (The thinking is) ‘All right, it’ll be OK for the next couple weeks of January. We’ve got the cushion.’ On top of all the added closures throughout the year, it made things tight.”

Aker was second-guessing himself about the timing of an upcoming one-week winter break he’d scheduled for the restaurant, and he was struggling to get a handle on January numbers.

“It’s weird. Weekends are OK?” he said with a question mark in his voice. “The weekdays are pretty abysmal.” On the other hand, he was well aware that, for Maine restaurants, January is always slow. Was this that much worse than usual? “We opened up in the middle of this,” he said, referring to the pandemic. “I don’t know what the, quote/unquote, good days are like.”

The weather in January – two Saturday night storms – was no help: “It’s just one of those things, but when it’s your biggest night of the week in the slowest month of the year, it’s a big kick in the knee.”

But Valentine’s Day lay around the corner, and Aker was banking on it, hoping for bodies in seats in a spendy mood. “People come out and spend money and celebrate and do the whole thing. New hat, new shoes, fine food and wine.” Whereas customers spend $40 per person on an average night, he said, on Valentine’s, the figure shoots up to somewhere between $80 and $200.

Chris Pelonzi and Caitlin Charette of Biddeford dine at Broken Arrow on Valentine’s Day. After an “abysmal” January, the restaurant did great business on the holiday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On this, the restaurant’s second Valentine’s Day, arriving customers were greeted by a heart on the front door, posted by the city’s Valentine’s phantom, and an apt symbol of what Portland’s restaurants were in need of – some love – after a rough January.

In the kitchen, chef Josh Worrey was short-handed, and not for the now usual labor shortage or COVID reasons. The evening before, Aker’s sous chef phoned, mid Super Bowl, with bad news: Out walking his dog that afternoon, he slipped on the ice, broke his elbow and was now out of commission.

But Robb, the general manager, had faith: “Josh was alone in the kitchen for months,” she said. “His record night, he put out 275 plates by himself. He is a monster of a cook. He can crush a line.”

Valentine’s weekend, Broken Arrow did about 90 covers on Friday and the next evening some 120, then 150 on Monday, Feb. 14, itself. “Ninety to 100 people is about as crazy as at gets,” Aker said, explaining just how good those numbers were. “One-hundred-and-fifty is us busy at 5 o’clock and busy through 9 o’clock.”

For the restaurant itself, “crushing it” might be hyperbole, but business has picked up considerably since Valentine’s, and Maine Restaurant Week went well, too.

“It filled in any gaps I had,” Aker said. “I was busy Monday. I was busy Tuesday. I was busy Wednesday. On weekends, it filled in the 5 p.m. and the 8:30 hours. It exposed me to a bunch of new people, and 10 to 20 percent have made reservations for another time to come back.”

Even better, the brisker pace has continued, with reservations coming in at some 15 a day in January compared to 50 to 100 a day now. “I think the world has changed,” Aker said. “I think people have been itching to get out.”

Connor Montello of South Portland and his wife, Stephanie, stop for a drink at Broken Arrow on Valentine’s Day. He owns Maps bar in the Old Port, she is a nurse: “the two worst professions for the pandemic,” he joked. They’ve tried to eat out throughout the pandemic to support local businesses. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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