Whistle Stop waitress Crystal Michaud (right) walks past one set of diners in an otherwise empty restaurant in Fort Kent on March 1, 2021. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Carroll Ann Oakes reopened The Whistle Stop diner in May 2020 after nearly two months of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. But she soon found herself in a staffing crisis that the Fort Kent restaurant has not recovered from.

“When we shut down, we had 15 employees,” Oakes said, as she prepared spaghetti in the Whistle Stop kitchen recently. “When we reopened, two employees came back. Right now, we have five employees, not including my husband and I.”

Stories of pandemic-related staffing shortages have become common, with restaurants across Maine struggling to maintain normal hours of operation. While workers’ reasons for leaving vary, the effects on restaurants largely are the same: fewer workers means less opportunity to serve customers and keep businesses afloat.

For Aroostook County, a rural region that was already suffering from the effects of population loss on its workforce and where dining options are limited, fewer workers means decreased hours for small, locally owned restaurants that serve as community hubs.

The experience of eating at a local diner is especially important to Oakes’ senior citizen customers, who often live alone and eat where they can chat with friends and neighbors.

Now operating with a skeleton crew, The Whistle Stop is open four days a week instead of seven, and Oakes closes the restaurant mid-afternoon for the day. Fewer hours and rising COVID-19 cases in the St. John Valley have greatly reduced the number of customers the restaurant serves daily.

The diner’s most faithful regular customers have stepped up to help during the staffing shortage, Oakes said.

“I’ve seen people get up and clean tables, pick up the phone, take a customer’s order or refill a coffee,” Oakes said. “In our darkest times, it’s our customers that have brought light to us.”

Frederick’s Southside owner Michelle Hanson prepares a pizza order. Hanson is one of many restaurant owners in Aroostook who have struggled to hire more workers during the pandemic. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Star-Herald

In Caribou, Michelle Hanson has owned and operated Frederick’s Southside since 2012 after the death of her husband, former Frederick’s owner Ralph Hanson. Prior to the pandemic, Michelle Hanson maintained a steady crew of at least 20 employees and said she never struggled to hire enough people.

Now, Hanson operates Frederick’s with 10 people, half the number she had before reopening in May 2020. To get by, she opens the restaurant at lunch instead of breakfast and typically closes it at 7 p.m. A lack of staff due to COVID-19 exposure has forced her to close early several times.

Though the people returning job applications are few, the work required to run a restaurant never stops. Hanson often delivers pizzas to customers, washes dishes or helps staff prepare food in the diner’s kitchen.

“Ideally, I would like to hire at least five to eight more people,” Hanson said. “Fewer people means more work for the employees who are here. I worry about burnout.”

Hanson said that unemployment benefits, schools in remote learning and higher-paying jobs have kept many recent employees from remaining at Frederick’s.

Frederick’s Southside employees Sheana Caron (right) and Ethan Burgay prepare salad during a recent afternoon at the Caribou diner. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Star-Herald

With the rising costs of food and propane, Hanson has had to raise menu prices, all while hoping customers continue to be supportive. Though she pays workers above minimum wage, the pandemic has left her with a tight budget that only complicates her ability to find help.

One silver lining might be that customers have supported restaurants with take-out and dine-in orders throughout the pandemic, Hanson said.

The Irish Setter Pub restaurant in Presque Isle is as busy as ever, weekdays and weekends alike, according to owner Deborah Gustin.

Thus far, the Pub has retained most of the employees who were there prior to the pandemic, with 14 servers, three bartenders and six kitchen staff, most of whom are part time. But even Gustin has had difficulty finding another part-time cook.

“Not many people have been applying and it’s been a month now,” Gustin said. “We could always use more help, but that was true even before COVID.”

The Irish Setter Pub in Presque Isle. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Star-Herald

Recently customers have been affected the few times the Pub was forced to close early due to a lack of staff. Many servers have school-aged children who were quarantined after exposure to COVID-19, she said.

Gustin’s decision to close the Pub on Mondays and Tuesdays is temporary in order for her to focus on her own health and well-being, she said.

“I was working 60 to 70 hours a week,” she said.

Though Gustin welcomes the increased business, she said that higher prices for food and other expenses and national food shortages have presented challenges that did not exist prior to the pandemic. For now, she is grateful to have an adequate number of staff to keep the restaurant going.

“We have a great staff and the community has been supportive,” Gustin said. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been.”