Navigating through COVID-19: Boat House Bistro and Mine Oyster

Part 3 in a series on Boothbay region restaurants
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 7:45am

    This is the third part in a series on how our local restaurants are navigating state regulations on health and safety concerning COVID-19. We are doing our best to be inclusive, but with so many restaurants, we may not be able to get to everyone.

    However, we still want to hear your stories: How have regulations changed the way you do business? How has creative thinking made the best of your situation? Do you plan on making any permanent changes even when regulations ease? How can customers and the community help as you continue adapting to a new business model? To share your story, email:

    For most restaurants and businesses, making it through the peak season of mid-June to mid-September isn’t the problem, it’s making it through winter after a poor peak season.

    “We bank on 10 weeks to carry a whole year and we’re operating on less than half … and half is not going to cut it,” said Boat House Bistro and Mine Oyster owner Ralph Smith.

    When restaurants were limited to to-go orders on March 18, Smith decided to close the Bistro altogether. On April 1, Smith reopened it for curbside service for seven nights a week until restaurants in rural counties were allowed to reopen on May 18. Mine Oyster opened around the same time for indoor and outdoor seating.

    “Luckily Mine Oyster is a large restaurant and we have plenty of room to social distance. Everything is six feet apart already … But we chose not to do night life, here. It hurts because for entertainment, we are pretty high profile.”

    Smith has canceled all performances for July and expects he will need to cancel all of August’s.

    Mine Oyster still has entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights, from to 6 to 9 p.m. with no dancing. “We actually have dinner tables on our dance floor so people don't dance.”

    Smith sees few silver linings to this season. Most customers tip well and are following the mask wearing and distancing rules; however, even as business picked up for the Fourth of July weekend, people seemed to be simultaneously becoming more comfortable being out and cautious enough of growing cases around the country to continue staying in.

    “I'm happy for the guests that we're having and I'm happy for the staff that we do have. People are patient with all the rules … and have been generous, very generous on to-go orders.”

    Because the Boothbay region runs on tourism, what hurts one area of business doesn’t bode well for other areas: From fishermen to retail and hotels to destination activities, everyone is suffering, said Smith. His businesses also cater events and, of the 60 planned, only four are moving forward and even those have been limited to the 50-person maximum allowed.

    “Losing the catering is a topple down effect: They're not only not doing that event, but they're not here for the dinner before, they're not here for the lunch after the event, they're not here for the late night, they're not going on the boat to see whales, they're not staying in the hotels. That 50 or less has been a big, big, big deal … I'm extremely worried about Gardens Aglow. If they cancel Gardens Aglow, that is another nail in the hospitality coffin.”

    Except for two employees who opted not to come back to work due to proximity to loved ones with preexisting conditions, Smith was able to hire everyone back. But the businesses are hurting for help. “We need dishwashers, food runners, prep people. I always brought in 16 people a year between the Bistro and Mine Oyster to work summers, but we didn't get them because of the virus … We've been closing the restaurants two days a week for the mere reason we don't have staff to open seven days a week … Between the cost of overtime and the strain on the people I have, then asking them to work 60-70 hours a week? It's too much to ask.”

    Smith said getting the Paycheck Protection Program has helped somewhat, but it has made clear that businesses will not survive without at least another round despite Congress having extended the deadline for applications until Aug. 8.

    “I don't think anything in 2020 has worked out so far. It's one thing after another. The virus is being blamed on restaurants and bars. The restaurants and bars aren't the ones spreading it, it's the people in them not doing what they're supposed to.”

    The hospitality industry needs to be open to keep states like Maine and towns like Boothbay Harbor afloat, Smith said, and the lasting effects from the damage won’t be felt until next year. “I think I'm going to be fine, I'll find a way to be fine, but it's going to be challenging even for me … But a lot of places are not going to make it. They're just not going to make it.”