Joe Arena, chef and co-owner of The School House 1913, tends his garden of edible flowers outside the restaurant as girlfriend Caroline Daniel looks on. Arena plans to grow more ingredients himself to make the restaurant more self-sufficient. (KELLI PARK PHOTO)

Last year, businesses were forced to pivot, over and over again, in the midst of a pandemic. Now, as the dust is beginning to settle, businesses are adapting for the ups and downs of the long term, with a labor shortage at the forefront.

“The tight labor market in Maine is not new,” said Jessica Picard, communications manager at the Maine Department of Labor. “The current labor market conditions are tight as a result of a combination of factors, some related to the pandemic and some unrelated.”

Restaurants have been particularly hard hit by the labor shortage. Joe Arena, co-owner and chef at The School House 1913, has been posting job listings two to three times a week since January and, at one point, went for almost three months without a single response. Instead of reverting to takeout meals, like they did when the pandemic forced restaurants to close, Arena and his business partner, Chris Gardner, decided to move forward with their mission, fully staffed or not.

“We asked ourselves, do we want to get back to doing what we came here to do? We want to make bold choices with our foods. It was time to get back to that,” said Arena, whose dishes include an Israeli-style crushed zucchini with yogurt mint dill and a braised rabbit leg with Parisian gnocchi, lavender and a pecorino broth.

“We want to bring people out of their shells. We want to give them bigger, bolder choices with niche items. That’s where we’re going,” Arena said.

How does this translate into the reality of being short-staffed? Arena, his business partner, and his sous chef have each increased their already full workloads by 20 hours a week, and the restaurant is only open Thursday through Sunday morning.

Billy (left) and Chris Saxton own The Dolphin Marine and Restaurant, on Basin Point. (KELLI PARK PHOTO)

That, however, is the nature of the business. “It doesn’t matter what year it is, if it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said Billy Saxton, who owns The Dolphin Marina and Restaurant with his brother, Chris. “It could be labor, it could be products, it could be patience. There are a lot of things that can be in short supply.”

“We’re here early in the morning and late at night. We wash floors, we do dishes, we haul boats, we serve drinks. We do everything shoulder to shoulder with our staff,” Saxton said. “That’s the way the place is run. That’s something I learned from my mom.”

Restaurant owners are no strangers to hard work. Perhaps more concerning, however, is the ripple effect of the labor shortage on the supply chain.

“We’re starting to see the trickle-down effect, which is even more glaring than we could have predicted,” said Arena, who has experienced shortages and delays from vendors. “If I can’t get food to my door, then I can’t cook food.”

Arena hopes to increase his self-sufficiency and reduce his dependence on suppliers by expanding the garden on the property to source as many ingredients as possible.

For some industries, the labor shortage is nothing new. According to “A Socioeconomic Survey of New England Lobster Fishermen,” conducted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the average age of a Maine lobsterman is 50. Maine ranks first in the nation for the highest proportion of residents over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The aging workforce alone is not to blame, however. The rising cost of property makes it difficult for young families to live near the coast, complicating their ability to work in the fisheries.

“There aren’t a lot of young families coming here to live, so we’re already up against that,” said Roger Allard, 45, a fourth-generation lobsterman in Cundy’s Harbor who has recently struggled to find crew. “There used to be people who came around the wharf looking for work, looking to get on a boat. Now you see them once in a while, but not like you used to.”

Tom Santaguida stands on his lobster boat at Lookout Point. Santaguida recently set 550 traps alone for the first time, as he could not find a sternman. (KELLI PARK PHOTO)

“I got a call from a 28-year-old from Montauk who’s been commercial fishing his whole life. He wants to move to Maine and fish up here. He came to Harpswell and had multiple offers for sternman positions,” said Tom Santaguida, 60, a local lobsterman who has been searching for crew for months and recently set 550 traps alone for the first time. “But he couldn’t find affordable housing.”

Santaguida, who has worked in the commercial fishing industry for 50 years, said that he has noticed a generational shift away from manual labor and the trades since the days when he and his friends would compete to see who could show up to the wharf first at 3:30 a.m. to make $100 working on a boat for the day.

Allard called lobstering “a young person’s game.”

“It’s hard work,” Allard said. “It’s a challenge to find someone who wants to do manual labor and show up at 4:30 a.m.”

“Thirty years ago, a lot of young people had the desire to work hard, save up, buy a boat and be a fisherman,” said Santaguida, who has spent time quahogging, dragging dredges for blue crabs, long-lining for swordfish, gilnetting, groundfishing off the Grand Banks and lobstering in Maine since 1980. “You just don’t see that level of interest in manual labor jobs anymore.”

That generational shift has resulted in a loss of cultural nuances that have been defined by the trades, according to Santaguida.

“Thirty years ago, everybody knew how to mend nets. It was an art, a knowledge, a skill that was required in the fishing industry,” said Santaguida, who has the skill. “We lost our net-mending when we lost our herring fishery and our ground fishery. There’s a whole generation that’s gone already. You can hardly find anyone who knows how to do it now.”

This phenomenon has become commonplace up and down the coast of Maine, as fishermen struggle to find their way forward. “There are people looking in every harbor. I heard that there were 25 out of 100 boats looking for crew in Friendship Harbor,” Allard said.

“All of the other boats are in the same situation. I’m not alone,” said Santaguida. He changed the way he set his traps this year so he can haul them alone if he can’t find help.

What, then, does the future hold?  

“Harpswell is in the heart of Casco Bay. It’s a real Maine town, where we’re all trying to take care of our core, our staff … that culture is everything,” Saxton said. “We’re all Mainers at heart. We all work so hard — maybe a little too hard sometimes.” 

Only time will tell, but, for now, the heart of Harpswell will thrive in the grit and spirit of the people who call it home.