Metehan Ṣahin expected the second season with Taka Mediterranean Bar & Grill to be more predictable than the first.
He was wrong.
As one would imagine, the first season was hard. Metehan and his partners, Rıdvan C̣elikel and Alex Mackay, did not know if Maine diners would take to their restaurant’s Mediterranean sensibility, and though they and their staff had years of restaurant experience behind them, there was no getting around opening Taka in Boothbay Harbor in summer 2019 was a fresh venture. The team constantly made adjustments throughout the season, figuring out by trial and error what worked best.
“In the first year, there were a lot of ups and downs. Every day we had to see what the next day would bring to us. Everything was new,” says Metehan.
“But we knew it would be like that,” he adds, noting overall they felt on track for success by season’s end.
What they were not counting on was a worldwide pandemic in their second season.
“Now, it’s like a second first season,” says Metehan, reflecting on the challenges and uncertainties he and his partners contend with every day with COVID-19.
Metehan is not from the Boothbay Region. Born and raised in Turkey, he and his friend Rıdvan came to the United States as students. They began spending summers in Boothbay in 2012, working at the restaurant in Linekin Bay Resort for several years. It is there they met Alex, whose family had until recently owned the resort for generations. Almost immediately, they began envisioning opening a restaurant of their own.
“We dreamed of bringing traditional Mediterranean spices to Maine seafood,” says Metehan.
Their opportunity came when a space by the docks became available in late 2018; they opened their doors May 15, 2019.
“They were curious—we were something new, and then having the locals give us good reviews generated good business for us,” he says.
Everything was going according to plan—until January 2020.
“From the first day we started seeing Italy going down, we were worried,” says Metehan. “That was already a big concern.”
In early March, Metehan traveled from Florida (where he winters), moving into an apartment over the restaurant with two colleagues who had come north with him. This living arrangement allowed them to work on the restaurant building for their eventual opening while serving out quarantine.
“I believe it was the second week of May Governor Janet Mills announced the state’s plans to open up,” says Metehan. “So we opened our doors on May 29.”
But it was no ordinary opening.
“To be honest, it was very scary,” he admits. “Not only is it just our second season, so we already wonder if our customers are coming back, but there’s also COVID. It’s no longer only providing the good food, it’s also keeping people healthy. So it’s very scary.”
“Some people come preferring not to wear masks, but others see that as a problem,” he says. “So sometimes we have to go to tables and ask guests to put on masks without offending them—you have to keep people safe.”
“Honestly,” he adds, “it’s stressful every night.”
Of course, there are also logistical challenges to operating a business during a pandemic. Distributors are only delivering twice a week; it takes not a day but a week to have someone come fix a plumbing problem; and a sick staffer means quarantine and one less worker for up to two weeks (on that note, all employees have their heart rate, temperature, and blood pressure checked daily—everyone has been healthy so far).
“Sanitizing is now a big expense,” Metehan adds. “Boxes of gloves, masks, sanitizer to make sure everything in the restaurant is safe. We now clean our rest rooms every 30 minutes. Cleaning is now a top priority.”
This on top of the already high-pressure work of running a seasonal restaurant in the best of circumstances.
Despite all, Metehan remains upbeat and good-humored. He and his team know how to adapt, and have adjusted their expectations accordingly.
“We were planning to have paid off all of our investments after our second year, maybe open a second restaurant. But we had to minimize our budget so that we at least can break even,” Metehan says. “That is our hope—our Plan B.”
All the while, his biggest worry remains whether or not there will be a spike in the pandemic, forcing Taka and other Maine restaurants to close again.
“We just don’t know any of these things,” he concedes with concern.
Policy decisions at the state level have put significant pressure on Metehan and other business owners. This has been hard, but while he might personally wish for greater leeway as a restaurant owner, he embraces a larger and more considerate attitude.
“The Governor is thinking of the whole state,” he points out. “Maine is a place for retirement people. I can think about my business but I have to think of the whole society, the whole community—protecting everyone. Just because I’m not high risk personally does not mean I should not consider other people.”
“I cannot just be selfish and think about myself and my business.”
As of the writing of this story, Taka Mediterranean Bar & Grill is open seven days a week from 11:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Walk-ins and reservations are welcome.