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  • Caitlin DeLuca

Small Business Heroes: Nancy & Brianna Bigelow discuss running a safe restaurant during COVID-19

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.”

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