Bruce Bechard, nephew of Bechard's Grille co-owner Richard Bechard, prepares a pepperoni pizza at the Caribou restaurant on Friday. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Keeping a restaurant going since the COVID-19 pandemic began has been tough, but the Aroostook County dining scene is returning.

Since late November, five new restaurants have opened in The County: Ferris BBQ and Rodney’s at 436 Main in Presque Isle, Sami’s Cuisine and Cocktails in Fort Kent, and DiOddo’s Pizzeria and the Evergreen Lanes/Rendezvous Restaurant in Caribou. A new coffeeshop, Ruska Coffee Co., is slated to open in Caribou in February.

It’s a tough climate for eateries. Landmark restaurants across Maine continue to close temporarily or permanently due to inflation and scarce workers. But in Aroostook County, an area where people pride themselves on their resiliency, two local restaurant owners are determined to persevere.

Fort Fairfield’s Boondock’s Grille reopened last month, though owner Steve Adams is proceeding with caution.

Bechard’s Grille co-owner Richard Bechard gets ready for the Friday dinner rush at the Caribou restaurant. Jan. 20, 2023. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

“I’d say my overhead costs have increased 35 percent,” Adams said. “I used to buy a package of 144 eggs for around $18 before COVID. Now that same package is $68.”

The Fort Fairfield business, with its hunting-lodge theme, has been a mainstay since 2009 for Aroostook residents and visitors from nearby Canada. Whether during snowmobile season or in summer, Adams had a full staff to handle the demand then.

The pandemic changed things. In September 2022, Adams closed Boondock’s temporarily because of low staff numbers. His restaurant went from 24 employees in March 2020 to eight that May.

After that, Adams saw at least 30 employees come and go. Just before closing last fall, he had a crew of 12. That made staying open difficult if someone called in sick or failed to show up at all, which Adams said happened often.

But the tide started to turn this fall. An increased number of job seekers, along with the continued expenses for the empty restaurant, spurred Adams to consider reopening. Ten of 20 new applicants had proper qualifications, so Boondock’s was back in business on Dec. 1.

He wants to hire more people, but utilities, rising food prices and the higher minimum wage keep him cautious.

“I have no backup. If two people end up sick, I’m closing,” Adams said. “I’m the head cook and there are only two other cooks. If one cook is missing from the line, that impacts the flow of food and the amount of customers we can serve.”

Adams had to reduce his restaurant’s hours to five days a week instead of six. He now opens only in the evenings on Wednesday and Thursday and in the afternoon and evenings on weekends, so long as illnesses and bad weather don’t stop him.

With fewer servers, Adams has kept Boondock’s seating capacity reduced to 16 tables compared to the full 38 he had before COVID. The 10-seat bar area has been unaffected.

In Caribou, Richard and Sandy Bechard are fortunate to have Bechard’s Grille fully staffed with the same loyal crew since early COVID. That has allowed them to return to full seating and remain open for their normal hours Tuesday through Saturday.

But trying to expand upon that success is still a challenge.

In January, the Bechards opened applications for a new breakfast crew. They planned to serve daily breakfast for the first time and looked to hire four new employees to augment their crew of seven.

“Only two people applied,” Sandy Bechard said. “We’re lucky that the crew we have has stuck by us, but it seems like nobody else wants to work.”

For now, breakfast plans are on hold.

Bechard’s Grille opened in March 2019, just one year before COVID changed the way small-town restaurants operated.

The Bechards are shocked every time food prices increase and when certain menu staples are harder to find because of food shortages.

“A head of iceberg lettuce can be $3 to $5 now, but it used to be under $1. A dozen eggs costs $6,” Sandy Bechard said. “Random things like buffalo Tater Tots are hard to get, or any chicken products.”

Still, there is a silver lining.

Nearly 85 percent of the customers they saw before COVID are returning, and that motivates them to stay in business even as the post-pandemic world poses challenges.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Richard Bechard said.