IN THE NEWS

Small businesses make up 99 percent of Maine’s companies, and employ 60 percent of our private sector workers. They are the backbone of our communities, and are crucial to keeping Mainers healthy. Even so, many have struggled during this pandemic due to limited resources and support, and a shortened tourist season.


Mainers for Working Families reached out to some of those local small business owners who have been taking innovative approaches to protect our communities and keep their businesses afloat, to discuss what they’ve done to keep their doors open and our communities safe.

Nancy Bigelow has been the owner of Broadway Deli in Brunswick since 1988. The restaurant business has been a family affair for Nancy. She runs the Deli alongside her daughter, Brianna, and her sons and daughter-in-law run Sweet Pea’s Cafe and the Cup Coffee Shop in Bar Harbor, and Vivo Italian Kitchen in Bridgton.


Prioritizing the health of their staff and community was a paramount for Nancy. Her son Jacob is a cancer survivor, and is immunocompromised.


“Speaking with my boys in Bar Harbor, we were absolutely vigilant... just because of what our family has been through with one of my kids having survived a really horrible form of cancer, so we weren't willing to take any chances whatsoever,” said Nancy.


The restaurant business has been a lifelong passion for Nancy, and when the pandemic hit, she and Brianna were determined to keep their doors open in a way that would keep their community safe.


“My philosophy is I serve my higher power by serving my fellow man. And I feel that food is one of the driving forces of comfort for many of us,” said Nancy.


In the beginning of March, Nancy and Brianna shut down the Deli for two weeks, and had to learn to adjust their business. In the beginning, they kept their staff at home, and focused exclusively on carryout orders.


“For the first six weeks, it was just mom and I. She did everything start to finish in the kitchen, and she didn't have any contact with the public, and still doesn't,” said Brianna.

Brianna and Nancy relied heavily on feedback from their customers, and experimented with their layout and food options.


“We have changed almost daily or weekly what we have been doing – going from serving dinners, to staying open later, to offering alcohol for the first time in this capacity for a while,” said Brianna.


They heard the feedback from their customers, and tested out different ways to run the restaurant.


The Broadway Deli is open every day, except Tuesdays and Wednesdays. They open from 8 AM to 2 PM, providing a variety of breakfast and lunch options. Originally, customers ordered from the front door, which was protected by Plexiglass. They can then take the order to go, or sit at one of the designated outdoor dining tables, which are cleaned between every customer.


Now, Broadway Deli has opened up indoor dining at half capacity. There is Plexiglass between every table. Despite the change, most of the customers are still relying on takeout options.

Face masks are required not just for everyone ordering food or working, but even for the delivery drivers who provide them with their products.


“We had a little pushback in the beginning, so mom decided that for price reasons and for safety reasons, she switched distributors because they weren't wearing facemasks inside [the restaurant].”


Due to the pandemic, they have limited the number of employees coming in to about five. When an employee feels uncomfortable working with people, or if they have an immunocompromised family member, Nancy and Brianna worked to find something for them to do that kept them relatively safe from exposure.


“Our employees are extremely flexible… sometimes they would come in and they would just clean, and we would give them whatever we could and they would do whatever we asked.”


Nancy and Brianna have worked hard to make sure that they balance the costs of staff, food, and disposable paper goods, so that they don’t have to raise the cost of their food astronomically.


“A pandemic is not a time to raise prices,” said Nancy.


They’ve found ways to show their customers support and keep things fun, between offering free cookies at lunchtime, to a pajama party for Brianna’s birthday.


“I think that it’s a balancing act between how do you make this place special and obviously how do you keep your doors open and make a profit?” said Brianna.


When it came to making decisions about their business, the state guidelines provided by the CDC proved especially helpful, as has the grant money that Gov. Janet Mills made available through the CARES Act funds.


“I want the state of Maine to continue to guide us, and as far as this $200 million that she’s put out there for possible grants, I think that’s awesome. I just, I don’t have any complaints about what we are doing as a state,” said Nancy.


As Maine and its small businesses focus on rebuilding from this crisis, Brianna and Nancy have made it a policy to support other small businesses where they can.


“One thing that we have done and that I encourage other businesses to do it, if there are small businesses in town that have such a niche market, like for us [in Brunswick] we have a small family owned gluten free bakery. In the last year, we were really expanding our gluten free baked good options… but ever since this started, we have not wanted to take any business away from that bakery,” said Brianna.


“I respect businesses right now that are staying in their lanes and doing what they do really, really well.”

Small businesses are the foundation of Maine’s communities and economy. Yet, many have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and face an uphill battle in their recovery.


Mainers for Working Families contacted local small business owners across Maine to talk about what they’ve done to keep their businesses running and their communities safe, and discuss what is still needed to help them through the winter months.

Emily Seymour and Bejamin Dorr, owners of The Curator

Emily Seymour and her husband Benjamin Dorr have owned and run Curator Consignment in Rockland since May of 2016. What began as a men’s consignment store has expanded to carry women’s clothing and accessories, as well.


Curator is open for ten months a year, and relies on Maine’s tourist season for heavy foot traffic. When the pandemic first hit Maine in early March, Curator was already closed, and Emily and Ben chose to keep it that way while they figured out the next steps for their business.


In early June, they opened the store back up, with limited capacity.


“We decided to open by appointment, because we wanted to feel a bit more in control of who we let inside... we would ask people if they were following CDC testing, quarantine or exempt regulations,” said Emily. “It felt like we were able to have a slightly better idea of who was coming to the shop instead of just opening the door.”


Emily and Ben continued their by-appointment-only structure until the end of the summer. Customers can now enter without an appointment. Masks are required, and they only allow eight customers in at one time.


They sanitize all surfaces frequently, and provide hand sanitizer for all of their customers. They’ve asked customers to not try on any clothes unless they’re relatively certain they would like to buy it, and they are required to wear masks in the dressing rooms as well.

In the earlier months of reopening Curator, Emily and Ben kept their staff at home, and managed the store themselves.

The Curator is located in Rockland, Maine

“I didn't want to put staff at risk of getting the virus when I barely felt comfortable in the beginning, let alone putting someone else in that position and potentially having them catch it in my business,” said Emily.


Now, they have two members of their staff come in on occasion to help cover some of the shifts. They want to ensure that most of their staff is still eligible for unemployment benefits, since the store is open for limited hours.


But Emily knows that so many other small businesses and their staff have been forced to shoulder the financial and health burden of this crisis.


“We’re in the financial position to be able to cut our hours back and take a loss this year. I felt so so bad that we all had to make [decisions] as small business owners, do you open to pay your rent and your staff and risk all of them, or do you have some level of control and make so much less?”


The pandemic has proved to be an ever-changing situation for business owners, and Emily hopes that more updates will be sent to small businesses as guidelines and regulations change.


“I think… even just an official Maine email that comes out that’s says, ‘the regulations have changed, now you can have this many people and now you can do this.’”


Emily and Ben have found Gov. Mills’s multiple grant programs have been a real help to small businesses, especially since federal aid hasn’t been forthcoming.


“We just applied for the latest grant from Maine. I do think that money is just so important because… it’s not coming from the federal level right now, and I really appreciate that Maine opened it up on the state level for grant funding,” said Emily.


“Nobody in the world knows what is going to happen, and it’s just very nice to have like grant opportunities available, to know that...will help us get through the winter with a bit of certainty.”


Since our conversation with Emily, Curator has received the grant money, which will help keep their business afloat during the winter months.


With so many small businesses looking ahead, Emily believes that they should be proud of the way they have kept their communities and staffs safe.


“To every small business that is trying their hardest to keep everybody working for and supporting them safe, this isn’t going to last forever, and they should be proud of the work that they're doing.”


Maine is currently facing an economic crisis, with a budget deficit that is projected to reach $538 million by 2021.


While this crisis was brought on by the economic impacts of COVID-19, it was also aided by tax cuts for the wealthiest Mainers and corporations that were provided during Governor LePage’s administration.


Working families and small businesses have been forced to shoulder an unfair tax burden compared to the wealthiest few.


According to a recent poll, Mainers overwhelmingly agree that enough is enough.


In this survey done by Data for Progress, Maine voters were asked their opinion about a wealth tax. Sixty nine percent of Mainers polled said that we should put a two-percent tax on individuals with a net worth over $50 million, while only 24 percent prefer our current tax system.


With a two percent wealth tax, we could increase our funding for essential services, like health care, education and infrastructure. We could also make sure that, as we recover from this crisis, working families aren’t forced to shoulder major tax hikes to pull us through.


Maine voters made their voices heard: it’s important that the wealthiest few pay their fair share in taxes.

© 2019 Mainers for Working Famililes