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Inspired Ingenuity: Reinvention key to restaurant’s survival

Published: April 2021

Provender Kitchen and Bar in Ellsworth, Maine, prides itself on its unique creative vision. A high-end establishment that stands out among lobster joints and clam shacks, Provender had been earning rave reviews for its original take on modern American cuisine since opening in 2017.

That creative thinking and ingenuity gave the restaurant the momentum it needed to weather 2020. But with constantly changing conditions, it wasn’t just one “pivot” that made the difference for Provender, it was continuous reinvention, a lot of determination – and a little bit of pasta.

Last February, Chef Daron Goldstein and his wife and business partner, Joy Kempf, were just coming off a record-breaking winter for Provender. “We had big plans to continue the spring of 2020 and roll into summer,” Daron remembers.

So when COVID-19 upended the entire industry one year ago, “closing was never an option. We were going to find a way to adopt, pivot, tweak the business model to stay open.”

Like many other fine dining establishments, Provender turned to takeout for the first time, completely revamping the menu with travel-friendly items and family-style meals. “We were reinventing the wheel every day to get people to come out,” Daron says.

Comfort foods that would never have appeared on earlier menus – like turkey tips, cookie dough desserts and even sloppy joes – soon became customer favorites. “The community responded really well,” Daron says. “It didn’t take long for people to miss people cooking for them.”

Once Maine approved to-go alcohol sales, Provender had another revenue stream to keep the restaurant afloat – and diners were happy to oblige. “Everyone just wanted to help,” Daron says. To show their appreciation for the community’s support, Provender donated 1,500 meals to frontline workers and offered free lunches to local children now home all day.

By summer, Provender made its second big pivot, getting approval from the city to build an outdoor dining area just as tourists began flocking to Maine for the season. With some diners still not yet ready to eat indoors, the new patio space – complete with trellis and lights – brought new guests (and revenue) to Provender. “I really think that carried us through the summer,” Daron says. “It made a big difference.”

The restaurant’s biggest challenge came as temperatures began to drop, signaling the end of outdoor dining for the year. Despite “going above and beyond” with extensive safety protocols in place since the spring, Daron and his team knew that they’d have to lean on their creativity to fill tables again.

This time, the solution wasn’t just a new menu, but a whole new concept: Italian food. Daron drew on his experience as a chef at an Italian restaurant (as well as a love of pasta and tomatoes) to develop a brand-new, ingredient-driven menu of high-end dishes at family restaurant prices. The locals of Ellsworth – which doesn’t have a dedicated Italian eatery – gravitated toward the comforting, value-driven food. “People were just blown away,” he says. “We’ve been very successful.”

As for 2021? “We’re looking just to stay the course, stay vigilant,” Daron says. “When the time comes things will get back to normal, but I’m not putting a time stamp on it.” He plans to continue offering takeout (so popular that sometimes customers crash the ordering system) and patio seating will return this summer.

Despite the overwhelming challenges, Provender posted profits 10 out of 12 months in 2020. The restaurant has also avoided any COVID-related closures, thanks in part to high standards for sanitation. Daron watched as less flexible businesses closed their doors, and he knows if not for quick thinking and maneuverability, Provender could have had the same fate.

Additionally, his team showed a remarkable willingness to communicate, adapt and learn, an all-in, can-do mindset that carried them through the pandemic. “For us to be able to switch gears, I’m proud of everyone who did it,” he says. “What else could you throw at us?”

Daron looks forward to the day when his dining room is packed, and already sees signs that people are ready to return. Until then, he and his team will do what they do best: fresh, seasonal food, top-notch hospitality and constant creativity.

“Continuing to do different things, market well and not be afraid to do something new is key,” he says.

Follow Provender Kitchen and Bar on Instagram! 

@provenderkitchen

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