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Why a former server predicts a dire future for Maine’s restaurant capital

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PORTLAND, Maine — Jessica Slattery, 29, got her first professional taste of the restaurant business at age 14, when she landed a job serving meals at an eatery in her hometown of Lake Placid, New York.

Slattery loved it, from the start.

“I was bewitched by the buzz of a busy service,” she said.

Chasing that buzz as an adult, Slattery found herself working at hip, natural wine-themed joints in Burlington, Vermont, a decade ago. There, someone told her if she really wanted to be where the action was happening, she needed to move to Portland — fast — and she did.

By 2018, when Bon Appetit magazine named the city the best food destination in the country, Slattrery here, thrilled to be part of the brilliant, buzzing food and beverage scene.

But that’s all over for her now. The magic is gone.

Jessica Slattery worked in Portland’s vaunted restaurant scene for more than six years before leaving the business and the city behind. Slattery recently published an essay predicting the foodie scene’s demise due to low wages and skyrocketing rents in Portland. Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Slattery

Faced with stagnant wages, exploding housing costs and a frightening, chaotic, unsafe pandemic, Slattery left it all behind. She moved out of the city for cheaper digs elsewhere, started a family and abandoned the ever-stressful restaurant biz for a more stable job, selling wine in a retail outlet.

This summer, as she departed, Slattery published a cautionary essay on Vine Pair, a national food and beverage website, predicting the eventual collapse of Portland’s celebrated food scene — and all the out-of-state money that comes with it — if the city doesn’t find ways to pay restaurant workers fair wages and ensure there’s affordable housing available for them to live in while serving wealthy tourists. 

We talked with Slattery, now living in Topsham, about her dire predictions.

Q: Your piece, titled “National Media Hyped My City’s Bar Scene. Locals Are Losing Out,” at Vine Pair is pretty dire. You predict the whole scene will eventually come tumbling down because the low-wage workers needed to make restaurants hum will soon all be pushed out of the city, with its rocketing rental costs. What made you sit down and write it?

A: It essentially started out as a bar conversation. We were all chatting about it, talking about how much the situation sucked, how much it was affecting all of us — and hearing only the perspective of business owners or managers, and not a lot from the working class, people who are renters. One of the people had a connection at Vine Pair who said they’d be interested in publishing it all. This is my first published piece of writing since my college days.

Q: And you say you’ve already seen this kind of collapse happen, in Lake Placid?

A: Yes. There’s a ton of wealthy folks who have bought up properties, moved in and made their seasonal homes into full-time homes. Those same people have turned a lot of single-family homes, apartments and duplexes into short-term rentals to accommodate the tourism buzz. It’s pushed out all of the locals. All of the labor, for the hotels and restaurants, has gone away. Now, there are businesses that are struggling to keep their doors open, to serve the wealth of tourism. I see the same thing happening in Portland.

Q: You were here, in Portland, right at the food scene’s height, just before the pandemic, correct?

A: I was working at Drifters Wife at the time when [in 2018] it was named one of Bon Appetit’s hot 10 best restaurants in the country. Our world was rocked that summer. It was crazy, and we had just a skeleton crew. I remember logging my miles, with my phone in my apron. I walked 10 miles in that one shift.

Q: It’s such hard work. Was there ever a time, in any restaurant, where you felt you were being paid fairly?

A: [Sighing] Man, I would say there was one in Burlington, Vermont. They paid an hourly rate above the tipped minimum wage, and they had full benefits.

Q: Sounds like they treated serving like a profession?

A: Yeah. A lot of 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-of-house, too. There’s no leverage. The underlying message is: We can just replace you.

Q: Was it hard to find housing when you lived in Portland?

A: Yes. It was a struggle to find apartments in the realm of affordability for me. The last apartment I lived in — which was doable — the rent increased by $800 a month after I moved out.

Q: Many Portland restaurants have already cut their hours or closed, saying they can’t find workers. Has the collapse already started?

A: As labor is harder to find, hospitality businesses and groups that already have more access to capital will essentially be able to take over. This hurts genuinely small mom-and-pop businesses that don’t have the cash flow to compete with higher rents, wages. 

Q: In other words, out-of-state companies will own the scene here and it won’t be home grown anymore?

A: Yes. Already successful, touristy restaurant groups will continue to expand and open second or third or fourth projects. Part of what makes Portland so unique as a food and beverage destination is its incredible diversity for such a small city. A movement towards more higher-end bars and restaurants that cater more to wealthy tourists than to locals would be a sad one that eats at the heart and soul of the current scene. 

Q: The Portland City Council just agreed to have voters consider a referendum for a $18 per hour minimum wage by 2025. If that passes in November, will it help?

A: By 2025 it won’t. That’s too slow to have an effect. It’s a step in the right direction, but I can’t see the three dollar difference being a huge deal three years down the road.

Q: So, what’s it going to take to save the city’s foodie scene?

A: We have to consider battening down the hatches when it comes to short-term rentals. That’s a good starting point and has to be addressed immediately — and more pushing for minimum wage increases, too. Those 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 piece at Vine Pair.

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