I cannot remember a time when the hospitality industry wasn’t central to my life. As a little girl, I bounced around the dining room of my family’s restaurant in the Adirondacks, ferrying plates to the kitchen, collecting empty basket bottles of mediocre Chianti, doing trivial side-work for spare change “tip outs.” I was bewitched by the buzz of a busy service. Years later while working front-of-house in Vermont’s burgeoning natural wine scene, I was informed that if I had any serious aspirations, I needed to move to Portland, Maine, yesterday. With a decade of expertise and a passion for the beverage world that was no longer being sated in small towns, I jumped at the chance to be a part of the port city’s rise to fame.
By 2018, I was working at one of Bon Appétit’s “Hot Ten” best new restaurants in the country. That same summer, Portland was dubbed the magazine’s “Restaurant City of the Year.” It was a formative few months of my life, and the pressure to perfectly execute impossibly crowded services was tremendously exhausting. In that beginning phase of Portland’s ascendancy, the media praise was still exciting and made the initial onslaught manically viable.
Over the next few years the city exploded. Breweries spread like weeds; natural wine, already commonplace in metropolises but still a novelty to the average consumer, dominated restaurant menus and wine shop/bar hybrids. Local cocktail programs were given nods by Thrillist, Condé Nast, Vice, GQ, Punch, and Vogue. With an officially hip beverage scene, Portland was now the place to be — a sexy and exciting East Coast drinking and dining destination, NYC’s punk rock cousin up the coast.
And then, the pandemic hit. With the world on pause, the extinction of independent small businesses seemed imminent. However, when travel restrictions were lifted in July of 2021, a stampede of tourists hit the ground running, drawn to Maine’s natural beauty and itching to experience the hype. In that whiplash of a summer, a reported $2.5 billion was spent in Maine hotels, bars, and restaurants, with the state seeing 10 million visitors — two numbers that eclipse records previously set in 2019. The moment is nowhere near over. In fact, a handful of highly anticipated cocktail bars, restaurants, and breweries, some of which are affiliated with major hospitality players (like folks from Death & Co, and former managers of Per Se and Daniel), are slated to open this summer.
National accolades are a deserved testament to vision and diligence. However, to live here is to know that the glitzy and glamorous picture painted by fashionable magazine write-ups isn’t the whole truth. With the media craze came a shocking influx of out-of-state wealth, and landlords have seized the opportunity to capitalize on the choked marketplace. Prices easily paid by out-of-state visitors are unimaginable to the average Mainer. Expiring leases aren’t being offered for re-signing, and rents are increasing at insulting rates. Supply is shrinking as apartments are converted into short-term rentals and luxury condos. South Portland, Biddeford, Westbrook, and Falmouth — all historically affordable places to live with reasonable commutes to the city — have not been spared in the rental market assault.
Currently, 72 percent of homes in Maine are recreational, which means it has more homes vacant for some of the year than any other state in the country. In Portland, a little more than one-fifth of vacancies are for rent or sale, an astounding 11 percent lower than the national average. Lower than Boston. Lower than NYC. Meanwhile, the state’s Airbnb hosts reported $180 million in earnings in 2021.
In a region where tourism is the main economy, the intensity of this gentrifying wave is unsustainable for the working class, which is largely made up of hospitality workers. Where are they supposed to live? Who will work in that industry when those currently employed in it are priced out? A quick search reveals a staggering amount of restaurant, bar, and hotel job listings. The city is understaffed and can hardly keep up with the rising volume of visitors.
Still, the press promotions keep rolling in and hospitality profits are on the rise. But with minimum wages of $13 and $12.75 per hour in the city and state, respectively, little of that wealth is making its way to the folks who are its lifeblood. The prolonged spotlight comes at a lofty price, and ultimately, working class Mainers are increasingly unable to afford to stay in their homes. They cannot compete with seasonal out-of-staters who don’t flinch at $15 cocktails and the corresponding $2,000-a-week rentals. It all leads me to wonder: Who then does this recognition benefit in the long run? Certainly not the average F&B worker. They — myself included — are leaving the industry in droves, regularly citing high stress, workplace abuse, poor pay, lack of benefits, and inaccessible housing.
Any continued growth in Portland must be inclusive of protections for the working class. While records were being set and new developments planned, temporary hazard pay was promptly dismantled by a city council that operates overwhelmingly in favor of owners and tourists, and against the interests of the workforce that caters to them. Passed in November 2020 as part of a referendum to amend the minimum wage ordinance, hazard pay at the rate of 1.5 times the minimum wage is to be paid out for all work done during a declared emergency. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. The city council repealed the state of emergency on Jan. 3, while also voting to separate out and keep the mask mandate. After working in a state of emergency for over a year, Portland workers saw 10 total days of pay at $19.50/hour before being stripped of that compensation. Increases to the minimum wage, strengthening of renter rights, and strict regulation of short-term rentals are essential. Without such measures, hospitality workers will be forced to leave. With no one around to work, Portland’s lauded food and beverage scene will plunge into crisis.
The bubble will burst. Every vacation must come to an end.