Why a former waiter predicts a disastrous future for Maine’s restaurant capital
PORTLAND, Maine — Jessica Slattery, 29, got her first taste of the restaurant business at age 14, when she landed a job serving food at a restaurant in her hometown of Lake Placid, New York. York.
Slattery loved it, from the start.
“I was mesmerized by the buzz of a busy service,” she said.
Continuing that buzz into adulthood, Slattery found herself working at hip natural wine-themed joints in Burlington, Vermont a decade ago. There, someone told her that if she really wanted to be where the action was, she needed to move to Portland — fast — and she did.
In 2018, when Bon Appetit magazine named the town the best foodie destination in the country, Slattrery here delighted to be a part of the shiny and buzzing food and drink scene.
But it’s over for her now. The magic is gone.
Faced with stagnant wages, exploding housing costs, and a frightening, chaotic, and dangerous pandemic, Slattery left it all behind. She left town for cheaper digs elsewhere, started a family, and ditched the ever-stressful restaurant business for a more stable job, selling wine at a retail outlet.
This summer, as she was leaving, Slattery posted a cautionary essay on Vine Pair, a national food and drink website, predicting the eventual collapse of Portland’s famed food scene — and all of it. outside money that comes with it – if the city can’t find ways to pay fair wages to restaurant workers and ensure there’s affordable housing available for them to live in while serving tourists wealthy.
We spoke with Slattery, who now lives in Topsham, about his grim predictions.
Q: Your article, titled “National Media Hyped My City’s Bar Scene. The locals are losers”, in Vine Pair is quite disastrous. You predict that the whole scene will eventually collapse because the low-wage workers needed to keep the restaurants humming will soon all be forced out of town, with its skyrocketing rental costs. What made you sit down and write it?
A: It basically started as a conversation in a bar. We were all talking about it, talking about how bad the situation was, how badly it was affecting all of us – and only listening to the perspective of business owners or managers, and not a lot of the working class, renters . One of the people had a connection to Vine Pair who said they would be interested in posting everything. This is my first published work since my university studies.
Q: And you’re saying you’ve seen this kind of collapse happen before, in Lake Placid?
A: Yes. There are a ton of wealthy people who have bought properties, moved in, and turned their seasonal homes into full-time homes. These same people have turned many single-family homes, apartments and duplexes into short-term rentals to accommodate the tourist boom. He chased away all the inhabitants. All the manpower, for hotels and restaurants, has disappeared. Now there are businesses struggling to keep their doors open, serving the wealth of tourism. I see the same thing happening in Portland.
Q: You were here in Portland at the height of the foodie scene, just before the pandemic, right?
A: I was working at Drifters Wife at the time when [in 2018] it was named one of the top 10 restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. Our world was rocked that summer. It was crazy, and we only had a small crew. I remember running my miles, with my phone in my apron. I walked 10 miles in this shift.
Q: It’s such hard work. Was there ever a time in a restaurant when you felt like you were being paid fairly?
A: [Sighing] Man, I’d say there was one in Burlington, Vermont. They paid an hourly rate above the minimum wage with tips and they got all the benefits.
Q: Looks like they considered service as a profession?
A: Yeah. Many servers have the potential to make decent money, but with the huge caveat of being totally disposable. There are no real protections for them, and it’s the same in the back room too. There is no leverage. The underlying message is: we can just replace you.
Q: Was it difficult to find accommodation when you lived in Portland?
A: Yes. It was a struggle to find apartments in the area of affordability for me. The last apartment I lived in – which was doable – the rent went up $800 a month after I left.
Q: Many restaurants in Portland have already reduced their hours or closed, saying they couldn’t find workers. Has the collapse already started?
A: As labor is harder to find, businesses and hotel groups that already have more access to capital will essentially be able to pick up the slack. This really hurts small family businesses that don’t have the cash to compete with higher rents and wages.
Q: In other words, foreign companies will own the scene here and it will no longer be grown locally?
A: Yes. Already successful, tourist catering groups will continue to develop and open second, third or fourth projects. Part of what makes Portland so unique as a dining destination is its incredible diversity for such a small city. A move towards more upscale bars and restaurants that cater more to wealthy tourists than locals would be sad and eat away at the heart and soul of the current scene.
Q: The Portland City Council just agreed that voters should consider a referendum for a minimum wage of $18 an hour by 2025. If this passes in November, will that help?
A: By 2025, this will no longer be the case. It’s too slow to have an effect. It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t see the difference of three dollars being huge in three years.
Q: So what will it take to save the city’s food scene?
A: We must consider battening down the hatches when it comes to short term rentals. It’s a good place to start and needs to be tackled immediately – and further push for minimum wage increases as well. These two things, in tandem, are the most important. It’s at least a triage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read Jessica Slattery’s full article on Vine pair.