Jim MacNeill, owner of the Maine Diner on Route 1 in Wells, would like to hire six more cooks and some dishwashers during the busy summer tourism season, but workers are hard to find. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Diner

Growing traffic backups on Route 1 mean robust business for Jim MacNeill, owner of the Maine Diner in Wells, but with 32 fewer workers this season, he has had to find new ways to keep business going.

For MacNeill, who worked at the iconic diner for 14 years before buying it in 2018, running a business during a pandemic and severe workforce shortage requires creative thinking and making do with less. He and many other Maine restaurant owners have come to the reckoning that the shortages may be permanent and they will have to revamp how they do business.

MacNeill bought a food truck that will allow him to extend his business hours till 8 p.m. after the diner’s 3 p.m. closing. He is boosting sales of frozen lobster pies and other foods he ships nationwide, a business already off to a good start with 1,100 orders shipped in 2020. And he is now under contract to buy a motel where he will rent to would-be employees as well as rooms not occupied by his workers.

That strategy meant to keep the workers he already has busy during slow times and to potentially attract new employees because he can offer housing and a variety of jobs.

“I’ve had a sign out front for two years that says ‘employment opportunities,’” MacNeill said. “At one point, if the sign had a pulse I would have hired it.”

Jim MacNeill, owner of the Maine Diner in Wells, has had his ’employment opportunities’ sign up for the past two years with few takers. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Diner

He has boosted pay to $20 or more per hour for line cooks and $15 to $17 per hour for dishwashers, rates he said are competitive with restaurants in the area. He also has learned to avoid applicants that might only last a couple weeks before leaving. One example was someone applying for a dishwasher position whose hands were sensitive to chemicals and who left his past three jobs as a dishwasher. Others left him scratching his head, including one who took 15 minutes to fill out an application but left without providing contact information.

The worker shortage caused MacNeill to eliminate the lucrative dinner business this year and focus on breakfast and lunch, but that will mean a 40 percent revenue decline this year, he said. Adding a food truck in the parking lot that will help fill in some of the gaps by offering food during the dinner hour and bringing in more revenue.

“We have had to rethink how to create cash flow,” he said. “There’s no longer a box to think outside of, because everything is outside the box.”

At MDI Lobster & BBQ in Southwest Harbor, Chef Mike Maguarosi said he has never been busier, with less help than ever. The eatery is advertising through social media and other means, he said, including out of state.

Despite worker shortages, it has decided to keep its full hours. It means workers in the kitchen, where staff shortages are most acute, are grinding out 15-hour to 17-hour days, he said. The restaurant has eight employees but needs two more in the kitchen.

“It’s way worse than last year,” Maguarosi said of the shortages.

The restaurant can offer a place for workers to live, he said. An extra challenge in hiring is that Southwest Harbor is at least a 20-minute drive from Bar Harbor without traffic. They also are considering opening year round rather than just seasonally to boost business.

Throughout the state hiring is better than it was last year, Matt Lewis, president of the industry group HospitalityMaine, said. But restaurants are  still struggling, and he expects to see more closures like landmark Rockland restaurant Cafe Miranda, which stopped serving for good in June after 30 years in business.

The Cafe Miranda in Rockland. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Bar Harbor also is seeing better staffing compared with last summer, especially at larger hotels and restaurants, Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said. Part of the reason is they were better able to plan because they knew how hard last summer was.

“But I don’t expect any more hiring sprees this summer,” Anderson said. “There are no more people to hire.”

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...