Maine college student Elora Griswold is directing a short documentary about Portland's famous foodie scene from the unique point of view of its waitstaff. The film "City of Servers" will be screened in May. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland tops the foodie destination charts on a regular basis, garnering multiple national nods and recommendations each year.

In 2018, Bon Appetit magazine named the city the finest food destination in the country. This year, it boasts James Beard Outstanding Bar Program and Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalists as well as three best chef semifinalists.

Local and regional media outlets dedicate countless column inches every month to covering the latest tasty trends, chic eatery openings and the celebrity chefs designing their innovative menus.

What we don’t hear so much about are the tipped minimum wage workers doing the unglamorous legwork of waiting tables, refilling drinks and clearing away the mess when diners are through with their delicious meals.

An interview subject sits in front of the camera for a new Portland-based documentary about restaurant workers called “The City of Servers.” Credit: Courtesy of Travis Harden

Maine student filmmaker Elora Griswold would like to change that.

Griswold is making a short documentary due out this spring called “The City of Servers.” It will tell the tale of her hometown’s foodie scene from the point of view of those who rely on tips to make a living in an increasingly unaffordable Portland.

“There’s a way Portland is marketed and there’s a way that it actually is living here,” Griswold said. “They’re not the same thing.”

It’s something she knows about, first hand, recently working a barista job in town. It was a difficult experience, with low pay and constantly shifting hours.

“We put a lot of money into promoting the food part of this city, the grandeur and all of the great things,” Griswold said, “But we don’t pay attention to the day-to-day grind and the people trying to live in this city who can’t afford to get to their job or park on the streets.”

Griswold is directing “City of Servers” through Southern Maine Community College, where she is in her final semester in the Communications and New Media program. Though it’s technically a student film, Griswold and her crew are getting real-world experience making it.

She first had to pitch the idea to a panel of professors and former students before it was greenlit and given a small budget. Then Griswold had to raise additional funds to pay expenses and some of the dozen-or-so crew members she’s directing on the project.

Director of Photography Bodhi Ouellette gets the shot on the first day of filming for a new Portland-based documentary about restaurant workers called “The City of Servers.” Credit: Courtesy of Travis Harden

Of the six student films given the go ahead at SMCC this year, Griswold’s is the only documentary. She’d like to work in journalism someday.

“I’d like to become an investigative journalist,” Griswold said. “That might involve some documentary film work or some photography work — maybe a mixed media approach.”

She’s already a frequent contributor to her college’s student newspaper, the Beacon.

“The City of Servers” will follow four current food service workers of varying political beliefs as they navigate demanding jobs, unstable wages and housing costs in a gentrifying city. In-person interviews will touch on quiet quitting, the post COVID-19 food world and bosses who gaslight employees

Griswald is dramatizing some scenes to protect her sources.

“I started the anonymous tip line through my Instagram page,” Griswold said. “It’s tough and I don’t want anybody’s job to be in jeopardy or anything. That’s why we’ve also taken that approach.”

Several anonymous sources spoke about working conditions.

“Rampant misogyny in kitchens and sexual harassment [is] being tolerated,” one source said.

“Food is so important to Portland’s tourism yet we are treated poorly by ownership and management,” said another.

Other respondents talked about working in currently unmasked restaurants.

“At the very least customers who are clearly sick should be masked up. We can’t even ask for that much though,” said one.

The finished 18-minute film will be screened sometime in May at the annual Maine Mayhem Film Festival in Portland. After that, Griswold is thinking of making a longer cut for online streaming or even television.

There’s still a lot of work to do. Filming wraps later this month and she expects to spend April editing the whole thing together. Griswold is eager to get to the finished documentary but said she’s already gained a lot from the process.

“I have my own personal feelings but, as a journalist, I’ve tried to be that fly on the wall and listen first,” she said. “It has pushed me to be more open minded and a better listener. Those are things and skills I’m really grateful for.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Bodhi Ouellette’s name in a photo caption.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.