Pepino's owner Susan Stephenson gets ready to hand off a to-go order to a customer at the Bangor restaurant on June 12.

Editor’s note: This article was produced through a partnership between the Bangor Daily News and the Solutions Journalism Network, a national non-profit organization that supports rigorous journalism about solutions to problems.

About two weeks into Penobscot County restaurants being allowed to reopen for dine-in service after a nearly three-month closure due to the pandemic, many restaurateurs find themselves surprised by the positive response from customers as they adapt to a new normal.

They nevertheless plan to take things slow when it comes to getting back to normal. In many cases, they plan to delay a return to dine-in service in favor of expanded outdoor dining and collaborations with other restaurants and breweries for the short term. In most cases, they also plan to continue offering curbside takeout service.

Susan Price Stephenson, owner of Pepino’s Mexican Restaurant in Bangor, said she isn’t quite ready to open her eatery to dine-in service, though curbside service — something Pepino’s has offered since the start of the pandemic — will continue.

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“We never shut down. We are taking this as cautiously as possible, so both staff and guests are totally safe,” said Stephenson. “There’s no need to rush. We want to do it the best way possible.”

One thing Stephenson does plan to offer is some limited outdoor seating, starting later on in June, pending final approval from Bangor’s code enforcement department. She’s taking advantage of the city’s “parklets” plan, which will allow restaurants and retail establishments to use parking spaces for outdoor dining and sales. 2 Feet Brewing, located on Columbia Street in downtown Bangor, also has a parklet, and has been offering outside dining since June 2.

“I actually hope the parklets idea is here to stay,” said Stephenson. “The city has been extremely helpful in working with us to figure out everything. I think the outdoor dining idea is something I hope we can keep doing after all of this is over.”

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Many other restaurants have opened for dine-in, however. Local stalwarts such as Chase’s Family Restaurant in Bangor and Kosta’s Restaurant in Brewer both began offering dine-in as soon as they were allowed to on June 1. Nocturnem Drafthaus in downtown Bangor started offering it on June 9, after a two-week trial run of curbside service. Paddy Murphy’s, also downtown, opened on June 12. And The Fiddlehead Restaurant reopened for dine-in service on June 2, with a smaller indoor footprint and specific guidelines for customers.

“We ask people to exit and enter while wearing a mask, and yes, we’ve had a few people say respectfully that if they have to wear a mask, they’ll come back later,” said Fiddlehead co-owner Laura Peppard. “We just feel extremely fortunate to have really devoted customers. The response has been pretty amazing.”

In Orono, Abe Furth, who owns Orono Brewing Company with Heather Furth, Mark Horton and Asa Marsh-Sachs, said that he and his partners used the closure as an opportunity to do some major renovations at both OBC’s Margin Street location in Orono, and at Woodman’s Bar & Grill. Furth plans to reopen Woodman’s to patio dining later next week, with a dine-in opening date planned for later on in the summer. Woodman’s is still undergoing extensive renovations inside.

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OBC will reopen to outdoor dining by the end of June with a huge new beer garden, complete with fire pits, new landscaping and lighting and the ability to take all food and beer orders in an expanded outdoor beer hut. Numerous picnic tables will be spaced safely apart.

“We’ll have hosts that will bring you to your table, so it’s all controlled and people aren’t just milling around,” he said. “The goal was always to make our outdoor area a beautiful space, so this was the best opportunity to do that. People already want to be outside. And once we figure out how that all works, and it’s appropriate, we’ll open to inside dining.”

The closures have forced many restaurants to reimagine how they do business in fundamental ways. Stephenson, of Pepino’s, said she’d learned the value of collaboration, having purchased Portland Pie Company pizza to sell at her restaurant, in addition to the regular Pepino’s menu, and having planned beer takeovers with local breweries including Marsh Island Brewing and Bangor Beer Company.

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“As far as the restaurant industry is concerned, I think we’ve learned that we are all in this together,” said Stephenson. “We all have the same goal of serving good food and drink to our communities. It’s been really difficult, and certainly scary, but it’s also been exciting to collaborate and be creative.”

Peppard, from Fiddlehead, said her husband had made her a six-foot-long stick to measure spaces between tables, and that her restaurant was extra clean thanks to what she believes might be the biggest disinfectant sprayer in town. Fiddlehead’s capacity will be lower for the foreseeable future as it keeps social distancing protocols in place, but Peppard said it’s nevertheless been worth it to reopen.

“We had to remove our barstools, and we took out three tables, so we have 36 out of 48 seats,” she said. “But it is enough, and it has been absolutely worth it to reopen.”

Watch: Janet Mills announces changes to June 1 reopening phase

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.