Note: my story originally appeared on www.penbaypilot.com
APPLETON—Maine Cater, a recruitment company dedicated to serving New England’s food and beverage industry, has come up with an idea to provide local “restaurateurs, employers, job seekers, and FOH/BOH” with an economic lifeline during a pandemic that shows no signs of stopping.
Husband-and-wife team, Daryle and Orianna Degen launched Maine Cater in Camden in 2017 as a way to supply temporary employees to restaurants suffering from immediate gaps in employment.
“We’ve both worked in the hospitality industry all of our lives, said Degen. “I used to be a relief chef in England and Scotland helping short-staffed restaurants for years, but when I moved to Maine, I realized there wasn’t any service that could quickly plug in a chef or a server or a bartender into an existing restaurant if the restaurant was short-staffed. Given Orianna’s background in FOH (front of house) management and mine in BOH (back of house) management, we decided to start our own company.”
Since the COVID-19 virus hit, the couple left their Camden location and now operates remotely out of their Appleton home. In addition to providing the public a job board for the restaurant industry in all of new England akin to Craiglist or Indeed.com, the couple recently announced a community service arm to their job board.
Whereas before, employers looking to post on Maine Cater’s Job Board could do so for free. But now, adjusting their model, it requires a $25 fee— the majority of which goes back into a fund to assist workers and restaurants.
“Employers are already paying $25 to some of the larger corporations such as Craigslist in order to post jobs, so why not support a local company?” said Daryle Degen. “And in return, we invest the funds they paid and put it back into the industry to help other businesses and restaurant workers.”
As PenBay Pilot reported two months after the COVID-19 virus shut down indoor dining for the majority of Maine’s restaurants and bars in a story, “Open? Close? Adapt to permanent Takeout?” the restaurant industry was left flapping in the wind. The Paycheck Protection Program was not a huge success and came with too many strings attached to be workable for many businesses.
A dire prediction from restaurateur John Stowe, owner and chef of Rockland’s Rustica, interviewed for that article is now coming true. “...The reality is the pivotal moment won’t take place this summer; it’ll be after the winter, where you’ll see more restaurant closures,” said Stowe. “So, if locals love their favorite restaurants, the best thing they can do is continue to go there, get gift certificates and continue to support them past the summer.”
“To put it in a harsh reality, the restaurant industry is in a pretty bleak state,” said Degen. “Without any help from the federal government, I don’t foresee many places surviving, especially with all of the state restrictions on top of that. It’s making it impossible for restaurateurs to survive the pandemic as we enter the ‘Dead Season’ in January. That’s typically where restaurants rely on the income they made in the summer and many of them didn’t have that safety net this year.”
When a restaurant’s margins are razor-thin, it trickles down to the employees. “A lot of servers have also left the industry, where they were just not making enough,” said Degen. “It’s an industry not known for being able to offer the best wages and benefits.”
It’s more than that: it’s a Perfect Storm of economic disparity. Seventy percent of restaurant servers are female and yet, women have been disproportionally hit the hardest with the pandemic, particularly those with small children and who live in districts where schools are doing remote learning.
Giving Back Through A Worker Fund and a Restaurant Fund
Maine Cater spells out clearly in a blog post titled Community Service what they intend to do with the employer job listing fee.
“The $5 from the $25 will go towards credit card processing fees and job board software upkeep, and the remaining $20 will go into the chosen fund account,” states the blog.
To kick-start the fund accounts, Maine Cater will put $500.00 of its own money into each fund. They will keep track of which employers in New England states and regions are posting the jobs. So, if a Midcoast restaurateur pays the $25 fee, the $20 will go into a fund for Midcoast servers and restaurants.
“For the Worker Fund, we will be offering several types of assistance,” said Degen. “One is a disaster relief assistance, where if a worker is struggling to pay his or her rent, or is facing eviction, we will be building up that fund in order to give back to that individual. The other way we’ll distribute funds is to issue gift certificates to workers so they can dine out or buy take out and feed their families. We can also use those funds to drop a large tip to a particular restaurant, whether it’s one or two thousand dollars, which the workers can split. There are a number of ways we can give back to them, directly.”
The Restaurant Fund focuses on the economic health of local restaurants. Maine Cater will supply restaurants with gift cards to their own restaurant that either Maine Cater gives away to the public or the restaurateur hands out to guests. The funds can also be pooled to give away to hotels with attached restaurants for a “Weekend Getaway’ package.
“We can buy gift cards to multiple restaurants so that restaurants paying into the job post funds end up helping one another stay afloat,” said Degen. “It creates an ecosystem of restaurants supporting other restaurants.”
The other benefit to restaurants when customers use a gift card, say $50, is that the customers often spend well above the gift amount, increasing the ticket average for the restaurant.
A General Fund is also being built with the purchase of a resume package and job listings ($290) to directly benefit food banks, rent or disaster relief assistance for industry workers, and larger prize giveaways like weekend getaway packages, etc. Currently, this system is not open to receiving general donations from the public; it’s all through the economic investment of restaurateurs.
Maine Cater aims to launch this new program in mid-December. To follow their updates visit: https://www.mainecater.com
The power of your local library card just got 70x more powerful.
As public libraries serve as welcoming “third” spaces in our Midcoast communities, there are so many new resources and programs offered that the public has access to. Only, so many people still don’t know about them.
Not surprisingly, it was Maine’s librarians themselves who brainstormed alternative ways to give more people in the state broader access to libraries. At The Maine Library Association's Fall 2018 Conference (including the Maine InfoNet Pre-Conference) librarians in attendance “expressed a strong desire to develop initiatives that would strengthen broader library resource sharing across Maine,” according to Maine.gov’s website.
That conversation developed into a pilot program called the Maine Reciprocal Borrowing Program in September 2019, which will wrap in September 2020.
It's referred to as “walk-in,” borrowing card, because if you possess a local library card, you can walk into 68 libraries around the state and check out items.
A van goes around weekly to the libraries and does delivery service, scanning the bar codes and bringing the inter-library loan items back to the original libraries. Many libraries have deliveries every week day; some libraries have fewer.
Amy Levine, director of Rockland Public Library said, “We jumped on board as soon as we knew the state was going to do this pilot program, because it’s just such a great opportunity to extend our services. People like the flexibility and the opportunity to walk into most of the libraries in the state and check something out on the spot.”
The Advantages of Having a Card
For young and low-income residents
In the past, if you wanted a library card, you usually got the cheapest deal in the town you lived in, often for free. But, that limited you to the offerings of that particular library. If you lived outside the town, you had to pay for a non-resident library card. The tiers have changed over the years, but today, a single non-resident membership in some Midcoast libraries is nearly $50, (due in part to how the library is funded by taxpayers). Still, with rents, food costs and utilities in Maine higher than the national average, choosing necessities over purchasing a library card tends to be the case.
Now, if you are a resident of Camden, Rockport, Rockland, or Belfast, you can obtain a free card and access certain unique items and collections of other libraries that were previously off limits to non-cardholders.
For college and grad students
College and graduate students in Maine, now are also finding this pilot system incredibly convenient. Colby, Bates and Bowdoin are all participating as well, so Midcoast collegiates can borrow school-related materials from the colleges, and return them to their participating hometown libraries, eliminating the need for a long commute.
Adding to the power of the card is the already existing Interlibrary Loan Service (LLC), where participating libraries use a courier to deliver library books and materials from one library to another.
“If someone wants a book, we can usually get it in less than a week, through the van delivery, if it’s not a really popular title, but if the person needs it right now, he or she can go to the library where it is available, walk in and check it out right on the spot,” said Levine.
Not everything is allowed to be borrowed, however.
“Every library has a few things off limit, and for us it’s about the devices,” said Levine. “For example, we have a telescope and musical instruments that are not available for this program.”
Steve Norman, director of Belfast Free Library, said of the new pilot program, “This is another example of how libraries work together to provide better service to the public. There was a small group of libraries in southern Maine that had reciprocal borrowing agreement for a couple of years and we also used their model as our template.”
“People who commute are especially pleased,” he said. “If they live in a town with a participating library, yet work in another town with a participating library, [borrowing and returning materials] works out very well for them.”
Norman said almost everything that a Belfast Free Library card holder can check out works out the same for a cardholder from a participating library. “They can check out everything with the exception of special equipment and kits,” he said.
For at least eight more months, Maine taxpayers and residents should put their cards to work at participating libraries and literally “check out” new resources while they still can.
Participating Midcoast Libraries
One card gets you access to all four Midcoast libraries. Find out what you can check out by clicking:
Camden Public Library
Rockport Public Library
Rockland Public Library
Belfast Free Library
Wiscasset Public Library
Boothbay Memorial Library
Skidompha Public Library
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
SEARSMONT—Every Saturday, Bob MacGregor, founder and president of Waldo County Woodshed, can be found with other volunteers in Searsmont from 8:30 a.m. to noon, cutting, splitting and stacking wood for the benefit of other people. For the last six years, this volunteer-run, nonprofit has made sure families in Waldo county get through the winter with enough firewood to heat their homes. Last year, they gave out 170 cords worth $40,000.
On Saturday, December 9, the group held a Wood Processing Day, a volunteer event, to make it easier for families to pick up free firewood.
Local arborist, Travis Hamilton, of Arbor Tech, contacted MacGregor and asked him if he could use ‘a bunch of arborists with saws, splitters, tractors and trucks volunteering for a day.’
MacGregor was thrilled.
“We try to have several volunteer days each season, but this time, having a group of arborists who are trained in chainsaw safety come to us—that was something new,” he said. “It was a great help to have them out there working on their own without supervision.”
Hamilton arrived with his crew of five, and 10 volunteers in all put in about six hours that Saturday sawing the wood, splitting it with three wood splitters, and stacking it into wire racks.
“We cut as much wood as we could process,” said Hamilton, noting that some people who came to collect firewood for their families hung around afterward to help chop and stack more wood for others.
“People that need wood can just come and grab some in these quarter-cord bundles stacked up in these wire racks,” said Hamilton. “The idea is that if you take some wood, in return, just spend a little time fill up the rack for the next person. There’s a big pile of loose cord wood nearby.”
“I had a guy mention to me the other day, ‘If I only refill one rack, you’re not getting ahead; I should fill two racks,’” recalled MacGregor. “That’s the kind of thing I like to see as we are just a bunch of volunteers ourselves. ”
Even though there’s no pre-screening, Waldo County Woodshed has some sensible rules in place for those in need of wood to ensure that the wood distributed evenly. Those rules can be found on a pinned post on their Facebook page.
“The most important thing is to call ahead,” said MacGregor. “We have a volunteer scheduler that takes all the phone calls and directs people to the right site on the right day. By knowing how many people to expect at each site we can make sure we have enough wood and volunteers at the sites.”
You don’t need to qualify for anything,” said Hamilton. “It’s on the honor system. He’s not charging people; he’s not screening anyone. I think a couple people may have taken advantage of that in the past, but if someone needs wood that bad, Bob just says, ‘Go ahead and take it.’”
“Sometimes, we have people come each week, sometimes just enough to get them through before LIHEAP kicks in, but we just want to make sure we have enough to distribute out to everybody,” said MacGregor.
“This is the first year my crew and I volunteered,” continued Hamilton. “I would bring Bob my surplus wood from job sites. I have all the wood I can shake a stick at, literally. So, I try to give it away to people who need it, whether it’s my friends, or someone in the community.We’re a wood-rich community and people shouldn’t have to worry about staying warm. It’s important to give back, especially during the holidays. It makes us feel good that we’re able to do it.”
MacGregor said he doesn’t want to take business away from loggers and people who sell firewood for a living, so they fund-raise to buy wood from loggers and to process it, keeping everyone in business. “We do get a little bit of wood donated, but for the most part, we just prefer to buy it from loggers whatever the going rate it,” he said.
MacGregor isn’t looking for a lot of accolades. Formerly involved in the wood industry, he knows a lot of people who rely on wood heat as their primary source each winter.
“I just do it because people need help and we’re able to provide it,” he said.
Waldo County Woodshed has eight distribution sites around Waldo with Searsmont at their main yard. They will be opening another facility in Knox Count early next year at the Warren Transfer Station.
MacGregor encourages people to volunteer if they have a few hours on a Saturday morning.
“You don’t have to call ahead,” he said. “Just come out to Searsmont and we’ll find you something to do,” he said.
Donations can be made online or mailed to P.O. Box 401 Belfast. for more information visit: Waldo County Woodshed.
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com
A traditional family Thanksgiving may be ideal for some, but for people who don’t have family in Maine, may have strained family relations, or just don’t feel like slogging through holiday travel, there’s another way.
Friendsgiving, a decidedly un-traditional potluck dinner with friends, is how to put a fun and stress-free spin on the holiday, while staying put in Maine.
Internet sleuths pinpoint the origin of the term Friendsgiving around 2007 or 2008 to reflect an informal gathering of a ragtag crowd, e.g., the child-free, the “holiday orphans,” the coworker, neighbor or single friend who is going to be stuck with a frozen Swanson’s Hungry Man turkey dinner and Netflix. It’s all about the camaraderie, and how we get through these long Maine winters.
The best part about Friendsgiving is that it’s not beholden to stringent tradition. It can be a lunch or dinner gathering. It can even be a few days before Thanksgiving, so people can get their “friend fix” before joining their families on November 28.
How To Plan The Menu (And Divvy up the Dishes)
According to the Rules of Friendsgiving, the host planning the party is the one cooking the bird and the gravy. The most reliable friend has to bring the hors d’oevres. The rest of the guests take the pressure off the host by bringing a side dish, a dessert, and/or a specialty cocktail.
The Food Network has some ideas on this. From mac and cheese to potato chip stuffed potatoes, this is the ideal time to ditch the canned cranberry and green bean mushroom casserole. Supporting Maine’s lobster industry and the lobstermen still out there hauling this time of year is a great way to add in a side dish to Friendsgiving and here are some great appetizer ideas from the Maine Lobster Festival.
The rituals of Friendsgiving are meant to be silly and fun or meaningful to the group. It can be a themed event, like a Tom Hanksgiving or a Friends-themed Friendsgiving with Rachel’s English trifle. Arriving in your own custom headwear is highly encouraged, using materials from a craft store.
Others just all agree to arrive in their pajamas and slippers. Gather everyone around for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade which starts at noon, and take a shot every time one of the hosts says “fun” or “wow.” Here are the rules. For designated drivers, teetotalers or people adulting, do five jumping jacks instead. Board games are also a major feature of Friendsgiving as a way to loosen up guests who don’t know each other very well. Some folks even like to give thanks ahead of time by volunteering together at Heroes 4 Hunger at 6 a.m. or band together to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to others before going back to the host’s house and continuing the celebration.
Once the Friendgiving meal starts, there’s still no need to be formal. Gather plates and pillows and eat on the floor watching old favorite movies or the Big Game. Your mother would be horrified, but she’s not going to be there. Or cover the table with butcher block paper and give everyone crayons. You can even put up a homemade poster and let your friends write what they are thankful for.
There’s even a few public Friendsgivings being hosted around Maine for strangers who want to become instant friends.
Here are more tips to make your Friendsgiving a festive one!
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Killer Convo
This blog is a is a killer roundup of all arts, entertainment, brewery & distillery, food trucks, happy hour happenings in the Midcoast Maine. Feel free to email me anything about Midcoast arts, entertainment & the creative economy.