Island Candy Co. owner Melinda Richter (right) with cousin and longtime employee Megan Smith. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
Harpswell businesses are reporting a strong season, despite challenges that include an unreliable supply chain and an unrelenting labor shortage.
A candy store, a construction company, an inn and a restaurant all spoke of excellent numbers and supply anomalies during interviews in mid-October.
“It was our best season ever,” said Melinda Richter, owner of Island Candy Co. on Orr’s Island. The candy store is in its 21st season.
While Richter was sorry to see several nearby businesses struggle to find workers, the changes at those businesses drove customers into her store “because there were no other shopping opportunities out here,” she said.
Morse’s Cribstone Grill closed in August, saying in a Facebook post that it had “a dozen people doing the work of 30.” Cook’s Lobster & Ale House closed for the second half of August, citing a lack of kitchen staff, then reopened for Labor Day weekend. Other businesses cut their hours.
Richter was able to stay open thanks to long-term employees, including family members.
The candy business did not escape interruptions in the supply chain. Ice cream dishes and straws were hard to find at times, as well as a crucial ingredient: chocolate. The store needs about 220 pounds of chocolate a month for its homemade confections.
Island Candy Co. will remain open on weekends through the last day of its season, Christmas Eve. November hours are noon to 6 p.m. Friday-Sunday. The store will reopen April 1, 2022.
At R.A. Webber & Sons Inc., a construction business on Cundy’s Harbor Road that specializes in septic service and site work, “demand is really, really strong,” General Manager Perian Haslam said.
The coronavirus pandemic has increased that demand. More time at home means more use of home septic systems, which means more calls for both routine and emergency septic service. The boom in home construction during the pandemic means more demand for site work, like building driveways and clearing lots.
The business has many long-term employees, but could use more laborers and truck drivers. And “supplies are a huge problem,” Haslam said. Culverts and PVC piping are hard to find and prices for some items have doubled or tripled.
R.A. Webber operates year-round and is currently preparing to provide another of its essential services: plowing and sanding Harpswell’s roads.
On Bailey Island, the nine-room Log Cabin Inn was full all season.
“We could have filled 50 rooms as much as the phone rang,” said Matt York, son of proprietor Sue Favreau.
People were so desperate for a place to stay, they would rearrange their vacation plans to coincide with the inn’s few available dates. On the way out, many were making reservations for next year.
“It was a great year,” York said.
The family has owned and operated the inn since 1980. “We’ve always been pretty busy,” York said, but the 2021 season was “one of our best.”
York attributes this to a combination of regulars who come back year after year, as well as a boom in tourism after the pandemic shut people in last year.
Like the candy store, the inn was able to avoid the staff shortage plaguing many Harpswell businesses.
“Fortunately, we have a small crew who’s been here for years,” York said. His wife, Aimee, works alongside him at the inn. In addition to the three family members, the business has three long-term employees.
The Log Cabin serves a free breakfast and offers dinner for an extra charge. With Bailey Island restaurants closing or cutting hours, the inn fed a lot more guests than usual.
“We’re tired. It’s been a long season,” York said. “We’ve been able to keep up, but we’re ready for the end of the season to come.”
The inn will close Oct. 31 and reopen for the 2022 season around the first weekend of April.
On Harpswell Neck, business at The School House 1913 restaurant was “absolutely nuts” from the Fourth of July through Labor Day, co-owner Christopher Gardner said.
The School House opened in November 2019 and the pandemic hurt business last summer. After almost two years, it was “awesome” to see the restaurant full, Gardner said.
At the same time, “The back end was a complete and total nightmare,” he said, due to a lack of staff and supplies.
About 10 people worked at the restaurant this summer, when it could have used double. The restaurant wanted to add lunch, but couldn’t, and it recently had to halt Sunday brunch, too, although brunch will return in November.
Every time a truck arrived to deliver a food order, it was a “game of roulette as far as what would show up,” Gardner said. Gaps in each wholesale order would send Gardner and co-owner Joe Arena scrambling to fill them at farmers markets and grocery stores.
When they could find supplies, costs were up. Gardner estimated that the wholesale price of meat and seafood has risen an average of 30%.
Gardner worries about what next year holds. Problems with the supply chain are growing worse, he said, and he sees no end to the labor crisis in sight.
Arena, the restaurant’s chef, believes The School House has yet to show its full potential. “I’m proud of what we’re doing,” he said, but he knows they can reach another level. He needs two line cooks, a prep cook and a dishwasher for the kitchen to operate at full strength.
The School House 1913 will remain open through the holidays, then close for about six weeks. The restaurant serves dinner beginning at 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Sunday brunch will return Nov. 14 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.