LEWISTON — Melinda Small turned Legends Sports Bar & Grill into an outdoor eatery and drive-in last year, complete with 1950s outfits, when it could not serve food inside.
Small converted parking spots into a patio for outdoor dining and drove to three states to find matching furniture.
When a state mandate cut closing time by two hours, she added three and started serving breakfast.
That hustle doubled sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. And as businesses everywhere are trying to hire, she has more than doubled her number of employees.
“I kept going, ‘Failure is not an option,'” she said. “I hired three people this week. At this point, we’re hiring to keep up with the expected growth over the wintertime. Now we’re dealing with holiday parties, catering requests, all kind of things like that that come our way.”
When Small opened Legends on Center Street nine years ago, she laughs that, “I had never worked a day in the restaurant business.”
She moved it across the river in 2019, opening at 4 Mollison Way a few months before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with a bar area, dining room and 10 billiards tables.
“We were only open a couple of months,” Small said, “and then we started hearing about this word, ‘COVID.'”
When takeout resumed after a several-week shutdown, inspiration struck: Small called the city and Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention and asked if she could serve people in their cars.
The state CDC said sure.
“We were going to think about what we could do and not what we couldn’t do, focus on the positive around that,” Small said. “Of course, the staff was feeling very anxious at the time. We dressed up in ’50s-style costumes and we played ’50s music in the parking lot, and it actually ended up being really fun. Customers started to come in that we’d never met before. That was a turning point for us to start being identified as a restaurant in addition to being a billiards room.”
From there, it was creating an outdoor patio to seat 40. When the state allowed restaurants to reopen indoor dining but ordered them to close at 9 p.m. instead of her usual 11, “we were losing two hours of revenue,” she said.
Small called the city and CDC again. Could she open for breakfast?
“We said, ‘All right, let’s not lose those precious hours of sales, and do something different,'” Small said.
Now able to open until 11 p.m. seven days a week, Small has kept breakfast Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Small found employees, increasing her staffing from 13 to 27, by putting out feelers on social media, asking friends, “Who do you know?”
“Even if they didn’t have any experience, I was willing to put the time and effort into helping them learn this career choice,” she said. “So we were able to bring people in who had never served or bartended or cooked before and develop some new skills.”
Small, who also owns Pine Tree Retirement Planning, worked seven days a week the first year of the pandemic.
This fall, it is a slightly better pace. Mornings start with a daily message to staff.
“It’s usually a message of shout-outs: What we did well, this week’s comments on Facebook. We pull each other up,” she said.
Small said she is at Legends by 9:30 a.m., going over purchases and menus, deciding how to make regularly increasing food prices work. Then, it is social media marketing and backing up positions if anyone has called out. Some days, she is home by 7 p.m. Other days, maybe 9:30 p.m.
“I would never want to go through this pandemic again — I can’t wait to get out of it,” Small said. “However, it taught us so many things about being adaptable, and that triggered us to become a very different company.”