Maine’s restaurant labor shortage intensifies as student employees return to school

These days, it seems as if every week someone is working their last day at Terlingua, the popular restaurant on Washington Avenue that serves Texas-style barbecue.

Lots of high school and college students worked there over the summer, many of them in the crucial supporting roles of hosts, bussers and food runners – and now, one by one, they are leaving to go back to the classroom. The departures represent about a third of the restaurant’s front-of-house staff.

“Everybody’s stressed out,” said Pliny Reynolds, who owns Terlingua with his wife, Melanie, and has been forced to rethink how he serves his customers. “Everybody’s working harder just to keep up with all the tourists who seem to keep heading our way. It’s been kind of a brutal summer.”

Restaurants and other hospitality businesses had already been struggling through summer, thanks to an ongoing labor shortage that has left them with fewer hands to serve customers during one of the busiest seasons in memory. Now the late summer-early fall exodus of student workers back to the classroom is putting even more of a strain on the employees who remain, and on the ability of the businesses to keep their doors open.

The back-to-school departures are forcing many restaurants and hotels to cut back on services or close their doors some days, so they don’t let quality slip and burn out the rest of their staff.

Maine restaurants rely on young people for “a substantial share of their summer staffing,” says Glenn Mills, deputy director of the Center for Workforce Research at the Maine Department of Labor.

In July 2019, before the pandemic hit, more than 7,400 jobs in the state’s food services industry were held by 14- to 18-year-olds, census data show. That’s about 14 percent of the total food service jobs that were available. And another 14 percent, just over 7,300 food-service jobs, were filled by 19- to 21-year-olds.

Erin Fralley, a 21-year-old student at the University of Maine who is studying tourism and hospitality, has worked at the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport for five years and has become known as the resort’s “pinch hitter,” she said. “I just go where I’m needed.”

Justin DeWalt, general manager at Terlingua in Portland, delivers food to tables during a rush last week. Pliny Reynolds, who owns Terlingua with his wife, Melanie, said, “Everybody’s working harder just to keep up with all the tourists who seem to keep heading our way.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

But this season, as other students have quit to return to school, Fralley has stepped into that role in a big way. Fralley usually works about 40 hours a week during the summer; last week, she worked a little over 65 hours. Every day she checks to see which department is hurting most, and heads there first. Usually eight employees are required to run the breakfast buffet on a busy day, for example. Last week, Fralley said, there were two. Even managers were pouring coffee in the mornings.

“I’ll start my day off doing breakfast,” Fralley said. “Sometimes I’ll go up to the office and do some sales work first, then I’m off and going to other departments like housekeeping or the front desk, or helping out with lunch or dinner service.”

Jean Ginn Marvin, whose family owns the resort, said the business hires about 50 students every year. The past couple of years, because of COVID, the ongoing hospitality labor shortage has been worse because there are no foreign workers coming into the country. And now it’s even more challenging, Marvin said, because local schools started classes last week, before Labor Day, which is earlier than usual and “a complete disaster” for the resort. She said the high school kids who used to work in the Nonantum’s family activities programs have all gone back to school, and she’s having to ask upper-level managers to pitch in teaching art classes and organizing bike rides.

“Everybody’s working way too many hours every week,” Marvin said. “Something that I really strive for is to give my people a work-life balance, and I’m just not able to do it right now, and I feel terrible about it. I know a lot of people are working way too many hours just to keep things afloat.”

And for the first time in more than two decades, the Nonantum has closed all of its dining venues two days a week. On Sundays and Wednesdays, Marvin makes sure that guests have a list of Kennebunkport restaurants that are open, along with information on whether they take reservations or deliver. She invites food trucks onto the property. The resort’s fine dining seafood restaurant, 95 Ocean, usually stays open until at least Columbus Day, but this year it will close on Sept. 16.

Less than a mile down the road from the Nonantum is another tourist favorite, The Clam Shack, which has a business model that largely relies on hiring high school and college students, along with – in normal years – J-1 visa holders. Steve Kingston and his wife, owners of the seafood shack, also own Aunt Marie’s, an ice cream shop on Ocean Avenue; Satellite Doughnuts on Spring Street; and The Sugar Shack, a candy store on Western Avenue. Every year, among all the businesses, the couple hires 60 to 70 students. Most, about 40, are employed at The Clam Shack. These are jobs that cash-strapped high schoolers covet: Kingston pays them $16-$25 an hour.

Server Georgia Herr delivers food to a table at Terlingua in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

This summer has already been difficult because of the flood of tourists pouring into town – Kingston estimates that the crowds are 25 to 30 percent larger than in 2019. Mondays and Tuesdays have been particularly busy because those are the days many of the year-round restaurants are closed.

“It was almost like we were one of the only places where you could eat,” Kingston said. “A joke I was saying all summer long was 50 percent of the people wanted to be here, and 50 percent of the people had to be here.”

The Clam Shack, Kingston said, was opening every day at 11 a.m. with 50 people in line, and not closing until 8:30 p.m. – still with 50 people in line. The students stared at the line like deer in headlights, wondering if it was ever going to end, Kingston said. He worried about burnout. “I have to show some compassion too, right?” he said. “I can’t just worry about making money.”

So this year, on the craziest nights, he started going out to the line and informing dozens of would-be customers that enough was enough.

“This is the first year ever in my career doing this at The Clam Shack, that I actually turned business away,” Kingston said. “Those nights at 8 o’clock I simply stood out there and said, ‘I’m sorry folks, we can’t do this anymore.’ ”

Now it’s back-to-school time. Kingston initially lost about half his staff, and abruptly had to close the ice cream and doughnut shops in late August. The Sugar Shack is still open, but it’s now closed two days a week. A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in 20 years, Kingston started closing The Clam Shack two days a week “because there’s no way we can handle seven days of this volume.”

Last week, the staff was cut in half again as more students returned to school, bringing Kingston down to just 15 employees. “I’m just looking to get through the next six weeks,” he said.

Farther up the coast, things aren’t much better. Jen Charboneau, whose family owns Cook’s Lobster House in Bailey Island, said the restaurant was already “very short-handed” when student workers started going back to school in August. They had to close the restaurant for two weeks while they figured out what to do, and just reopened Thursday. “We needed the time to readjust and reorganize some things so we can survive through the fall and beyond,” she said.

In Bar Harbor, the number of visitors is up about 30 percent this year, said Tim Rich, owner of the Independent Cafe on Main Street. Rich and his wife split their time between an apartment in Bar Harbor and their home in Castine. What is normally an hour commute from home now takes two-and-a-half hours, Rich said, because of all the extra tourist traffic.

Rich hires both high school and college students, and has had the same difficulty finding workers this summer as other restaurants. He raised the starting wage by $3 an hour, and offered a guaranteed bonus of $1 an hour to employees who finish out their contracts. He also started offering profit sharing for the first time this year. Still, it’s been difficult. A lot of housing in Bar Harbor has been converted to Airbnbs, Rich said, and is no longer available for people who work in town. He lost one job applicant because the person couldn’t find anywhere to live.

Now, Rich has lost about half of his staff of 10 to school. Last week, he decided he would start closing the cafe on Wednesdays.

“It’s tough because we’re all still recovering from COVID, from the economic hit we all took,” Rich said. “It’s been an incredibly busy year in Maine as far as tourism goes, and now we’re going to have to be turning a ton of people away. In our peak season, we see upwards of 1,000 customers a day. Being closed one day a week, that’s a big hit.”

Brady’s Restaurant in Boothbay Harbor has been operating with at least 20 to 25 percent less staff this summer, according to owner Jen Mitchell, but said she is doing her best to work around the back-to-school issue, even with nights where there’s a five-page waitlist for tables. She’s been able to keep on some of her college students because they are still doing remote learning. One employee has left for college in Florida, but plans to return to work at Brady’s in December since her winter/spring semester classes will all be online, Mitchell said.

“My high schoolers, obviously I’m going to lose them (after Labor Day), but I’ll still have them on a couple of busy nights,” she said. “We’ve all worked really hard together to make it work.”

At El El Frijoles in Sargentville, on the Blue Hill peninsula, the restaurant has had a “ridiculously busy season, by far the busiest season we’ve ever had,” said Michael Rossney, who owns the place with his wife, chef Michele Levesque. “And we have been very fortunate that we were largely passed by, by the labor shortage. We had our entire staff contact us in spring and ask to come and work. So we had a full staff all summer. And we were able to give people breaks to go camping and backpacking and stuff. I didn’t even have to make my 12-year-old come to work except for a handful of times.”

Then, three weeks ago, two senior employees went off to college. The morning prep chef is leaving after Labor Day to go to his other job working in the kitchen of a school in Penobscot. So now Rossney and Levesque plan to take over the food prep duties, and instead of opening at 11 a.m., El El Frijoles won’t serve its first customer of the day until 3 p.m., after the last school bell rings and their high school employees can report to work.

At Terlingua in Portland, Reynolds saw the back-to-school issue coming and had time to plan. He ended up completely rethinking the restaurant’s service model, and transitioned to counter service.

Pliny said he doesn’t see the restaurant labor problem going away anytime soon.

“I think it’s exacerbated by the loss of a lot of college and high school age kids leaving, but it was a problem before they were available,” he said. “It was a problem in the spring, it was a problem in the winter. It’s just another in a long line of hits that this industry keeps taking.”


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