Maine Restaurant Week ended Sunday with a coffee and dessert pairing at Coffee By Design in East Bayside, Portland. For the eighth year in a row, the dining marathon held March 1-12 was the catalyst Portland restaurants needed to get through the slow season.

Restaurateur David Turin of David’s in Monument Square sold out for 12 nights straight.

“It’s really an amazing thing. It’s not a discount event, it’s a value-added event,” he said. “A real celebration of the restaurants in Maine.”

Except, beyond greater Portland, Maine Restaurant Week has only limited and sparse participation. Drive north to the Queen City of the East, and you find a growing restaurant scene where Maine Restaurant Week almost didn’t arrive at all this year. The same can be said for Brunswick and Bath.

With only two Bangor restaurants participating versus 40 in Portland, it begs the question: if this really is Maine Restaurant Week, why weren’t more restaurants north of Portland involved this year?

A statewide event?

“Since day one it’s been Maine Restaurant Week,” said Jim Britt, co-founder of the event. “We don’t think of Maine Restaurant Week as a Portland event, and it’s not treated that way from a marketing and advertising stance.”

For $495, Maine Restaurant Week participants are promoted via social media, stories in print, radio and on TV, at MaineRestaurantWeek.com, and on an iPhone app and Instagram. The restaurants also are encouraged to partake in breakfast, dessert and cocktail competitions held in Greater Portland, and they have access to marketing material such as posters.

During the event, customers dine out at participating restaurants, which offer multi-course menus for a set price. Lunch starts at $15, and dinner ranges from $25 to $55.

“There are no strings attached,” said Britt. “We also offer scholarships, discounts for restaurants to give it a try.”

This year, six restaurants in Lewiston and Auburn got involved. However, Bangor only had two — Sea Dog Brewing Company and Celebrity Bar & Grill.

Britt said that Bangor restaurants involved in the past, including Blaze in West Market Square and The Fiddlehead Restaurant on Hammond Street, were contacted about participating but declined.

For Laura Peppard and Melissa Chaiken, owners of The Fiddlehead Restaurant in downtown Bangor, which features a seasonal menu that changes every few months, the event didn’t fit with their business model. Cost also was a factor.

“I think we only did it one year. We were tickled to be invited,” Peppard said.

After participating, they chose not to again because of a combination of the cost, what the event offers and the fact that they “like to showcase the whole [menu]” to customers, rather than a more limited three-course selection.

Plus, for Queen City restaurateurs, there are other ways to get customers through the door.

“We don’t do any advertising because we’re firm believers in the New England word of mouth tradition,” Peppard said.

And it works.

One-size doesn’t fit all

Portland’s varied, prolific and high-wattage dining scene attracts a natural built-in audience for such events. During the restaurant week, many Port City participants echoed Turin’s statement that it’s among the busiest weeks of the year.

“Portland is the restaurant epicenter of Maine,” said Britt. “It’s a straight numbers situation.”

But for other communities, a statewide restaurant week isn’t as appealing as a local one.

“I think that no one would argue that Portland is the epicenter of the culinary scene in Maine,” Tanya Emery, director of community and economic development for Bangor, said.

Emery pointed out that good food can be found throughout Maine.

“There is a really amazing food scene all across the state,” she said.

In Biddeford, a scrappier, community-focused restaurant week kicked off March 13. Participation in Biddeford Restaurant Week is free, which appeals to the city’s cluster of small culinary businesses.

“It’s not a great climate for taking risks on marketing,” said Delilah Poupore, economic director of Heart of Biddeford, the nonprofit that runs the event. If restaurants and cafes had a guaranteed return on investment that would be different.

“It’s hard to tell what marketing angle yields what results,” she said. “A direct approach in a small town works.”

Emery has been a part of a conversation amongst the Bangor community about creating an event dedicated to local cuisine.

“I’m a huge fan of Chop Chop in Saint John,” said Emery.

Chop Chop Winter Restaurant Week in Saint John, New Brunswick, is a weeklong event that took place in February. Restaurants offer unique menu options and special pricing, similar to Maine Restaurant Week.

“It’s phenomenal and hyper-local,” Emery said.

“I would love to see Bangor do something similar to that and learn from our friends in Canada,” she said.

Emil Rivera, chef of Sur Lie is thrilled Portland’s restaurant scene is so robust, but as a Brunswick resident, he wants to see restaurants outside of Maine’s largest city get into the game.

“Brunswick has a mini restaurant scene, and I’d like to see what’s going on in my town and in Freeport,” Rivera said.

With restaurant week deals at upscale places such as Portland’s Timber, located on Exchange Street, where a ribeye is priced at $62, the unattainable becomes attainable. Prix fixe pricing and packed rooms creates a buzz that carries into the spring.

“I can only assume that people see the dining scene in Portland as a fantasy, and this is an excuse to try Portland,” said Rivera. “They have an excuse to splurge.”

‘Good for the brand’

Matt Haskell, owner of Blaze in downtown Bangor, also opted out this year but for a different reason.

“Honestly, I’m so busy,” Haskell said. “I’m straight out with all my businesses.”

As the owner of Blaze in Bangor, Blaze in Bar Harbor, Finback Alehouse in Bar Harbor and Blaze’s new mobile trailer, he simply didn’t have the time. Usually a snowbird, Haskell didn’t winter in south Florida this year to stay and work on two upcoming projects in Bangor and Bar Harbor.

“I just basically was too busy to do it,” he said. “It wasn’t because I don’t think it’s worth doing.”

In the past, Maine Restaurant Week generated “exposure” and “was good for the brand,” said Haskell, adding that it spurred creativity. Dishes created for Maine Restaurant Week at Blaze in the past, such as scallop tacos — pan seared scallops, kimchi, orange plum salsa, gochujang aioli and fried wonton strips — are now on the everyday menu. Haskell plans on participating again in the future and has been happy with the event outcome in the past.

Though Haskell enjoys participating in Maine Restaurant Week, he suggested that it may be useful for Bangor to take on its own event targeted at restaurants in the area.

“I’d like to see more Bangor restaurants get involved or possibly do our own,” said Haskell.

Restaurant week for Bangor?

Britt wants to have better representation in Bangor and other parts of Maine.

“We love Bangor,” he said. “We wish more restaurants would participate.”

To make that happen, Britt is going to drive up to Bangor, walk into establishments and introduce himself to proprietors.

“After this year’s experience it’s clear, we don’t know each other well enough. There is not enough understanding of what we do to drive customers into restaurants,” he said.

To become more inclusive, next year’s event will likely include events outside of Cumberland County to “move it across the state.”

“We have kicked the idea around of running a Bangor Restaurant Week or a Midcoast Restaurant Week to focus on individual markets,” he said. “But it’s so much work to create this one every year, that that idea frankly scares us.”

For now, the question on Britt’s mind is simple: “What do we need to do to get more restaurants in Bangor involved?”

But the answer remains elusive.

Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.

Shelby Hartin

Shelby Hartin was born and raised in southern Aroostook County in a tiny town called Crystal, population 269. After graduating from the University of Maine in May 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in...