Weekday business at Market Street Eats hasn't been the same since the pandemic.

"Foot traffic is definitely down," said owner Nick Levine, estimating that he sees about 20%-30% fewer lunch customers than he did in 2019, before the COVID era and remote work practices pulled many local workers away from downtown.

Market Street Eats is a casual spot, with vintage posters, albums and license plates lining the walls; Levine's open work area in a far corner of the space is surrounded by blackboards bearing colorful names for its scores of sandwiches, such as the Jessica Albacore with tuna salad or Hummus Where the Heart Is, featuring grilled chicken and spicy hummus.

"We've noticed that we see less of the office workers," Levine said. "Where we used to have a regular who would come in four days a week, we see them two days a week now because they're working a hybrid (remote/in-office work) model."

These days, significantly fewer office workers are out roaming downtown streets in search of lunch or a coffee break. Part of the story can be told through the downtown office vacancy rate, which was 7.5% in 2023, slightly up from the previous year and significantly up from 2019, when it was just over 4%, according to Portland-based commercial real estate firm The Boulos Company. It spiked at nearly 10% in 2020.

Those figures, however, only consider whether a business is paying for the space and not whether or how often people are coming into work there. According to several local business and real estate organizations, there are no statistics available that show how much the downtown workforce population has dropped because of remote work. But the store owners and managers witnessing it daily say they've seen 15%-30% less downtown foot traffic on weekdays, and that drop makes it challenging to run a small business.

"It's just really unpredictable, and I think that's the biggest thing," Levine said. "We don't know what we're going to get on any given day. It seems everybody is in the same boat. What we talk about the most is the unpredictability."


The lack of downtown office workers was a main reason was why Coffee By Design owner Mary Allen Lindemann said the company decided to close its flagship store on Congress Street in October, after 29 years in business.

Bard Coffee has scooped up some new customers since Starbucks closed its location just across Middle Street in late 2022, but difficulties remain.

"We're holding our own, but it's definitely not like it used to be," said Bard general manager Kevin Gaspardi, estimating he's seen a 15%-20% decline in foot traffic since 2019. He said Bard is in a building with three floors of office space above it, but customers come from upstairs much less often than they did before the pandemic, because of work-from-home policies.

"I'd say I see them Mondays and maybe Fridays, instead of five days a week like they used to come in," Gaspardi said.

"The workplace has changed," said Cary Tyson, executive director of nonprofit improvement district Portland Downtown. "We still have a number of businesses that have one or two or sometimes more days they'll allow folks to work from home. That is just sort of the new normal, and it definitely has an impact."

Greg Hansel, of Cape Elizabeth, works at the Preti Flaherty law firm downtown. While he has a work-from-home option, Hansel usually comes into the office because he finds he's more productive there.

Hansel eats lunch at Tic Taco in the One City Center food court nearly every weekday and said downtown Portland feels "unnaturally quiet" these days, casting his eyes about the mostly empty streets and sidewalks on a recent Friday afternoon.

"Friday in particular is very quiet," Hansel said. "I hope people come back downtown. Portland can feel really lively when more people are out and about."

Mary Slattery, director of operations at Bay Club Fitness in One City Center, works at the gym Monday through Friday. For coffee breaks, she hits Arabica Coffee Co. on Free Street and, for lunch, might grab something from Nura Hummus and Falafel in Monument Square or City Deli downstairs in her building.

"There are definitely less people coming in (to Portland) during the week, you can see our parking garage isn't even at full capacity," Slattery said. "The garage used to be way more full before the pandemic. I don't see that anymore. And it's even quieter on Fridays."

Tyson said Portland Downtown is part of an association of more than 1,600 similar groups across the country, "and pretty much every one of them is dealing with some version of this."

Indeed, Moody's Analytics reported in January that office vacancy rates nationwide hit 19.6%, the highest rate since the financial services company began compiling the data in 1979.

"The increase of remote workers has definitely had an impact on small businesses," said Quincy Hentzel, president and CEO of the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce. "Just try to find a lunch place that's even open, particularly on a Monday or Tuesday."


Market Street Eats is open Monday through Friday, but Levine said the customer flow has become decidedly uneven in the last couple of years.

"A lot of people are working in the office Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and so I've seen it be slower on Mondays and Fridays," Levine said. "Typically our business has been spread out evenly throughout those five days. Now, it's kind of jam-packed into the middle."

Michaela McVetty, owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli in Monument Square, said she's noticed about a 20% drop in foot traffic since before the pandemic.

"A lot of our beloveds who I've been serving forever and ever – the kind of people who don't always have to do face-to-face work – have pretty much made the decision to not use the office anymore," she said. "They work from home. And I miss them. I'll see them once every couple of months when they're like, 'I had to take a client meeting downtown, so I'm back.'"

McVetty noted another problem her store has faced since the pandemic: catering orders canceled at the last-minute. For instance, Sisters recently put together a $600 order for 40 people that was canceled 90 minutes before it was supposed to be delivered, even though the deli's cancellation policy clearly states that orders nixed within 48 hours of pickup or delivery will not be refunded or credited.

"Now we're seeing a lot more of these very last-minute cancellations, where they call and tell us somebody in the office got sick with COVID and they decided to cancel, and COVID is kind of like that magic word where you're not allowed to ask any questions."

McVetty said she's landed on what she feels is a "win-win" solution to these situations, a symbolic charitable gesture. When an order is canceled with little notice, McVetty asks the customer if they'd be OK with Sisters sending the already-prepared food to Maine Medical Center or Northern Light Mercy Hospital, so doctors and staffers can enjoy a free meal.

"For the most part, people are pretty cool with it," said McVetty. "And we just leave a little note saying, 'With love from Sisters and XYZ Consulting,' and it's kind of like a beautiful little roundabout. I'd very much describe it as a silver lining."


Nobody knows when or if office workers will return downtown in greater numbers. In the meantime, owners of sandwich and coffee shops continue to search for ways to mitigate the loss of foot traffic.

Levine said, since the pandemic, Market Street Eats has started using third-party delivery apps to meet customer demand and, as a result, has seen an uptick in delivery orders, which has helped offset in-store losses.

But the little boost in business comes at a steep cost.

"It's great in the sense that our sandwiches can have a larger radius they can go, but the third-party delivery apps take quite a large commission off the total order price, and that really cuts into our margins," Levine said, noting that the commission is usually about 20-25% of the sale.

"It's a necessary evil, because that's how people order now," Levine said. "But it's not the same as somebody coming into the store."

Tourist traffic can also help, even for places where the bulk of the business usually comes from locals. Gaspardi from Bard said, since the pandemic, he's seen the tourist season extend well beyond the stretch from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

"That season has extended from probably as soon as April, and it really goes into almost December before there's a lull in the action," he said. "And we see a lot of tourists every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The weekends are definitely much busier."

The weekend tourist bumps won't help a place like Market Street Eats, which isn't open then.

"We are super-grateful to still be here," Levine said. "And it's because our longstanding relationships with our regulars that kept us going through COVID – and all the businesses that still order catering from us – have kept us here."

Tyson and Hentzel said increasing the amount of housing available downtown could be the best way to put more consumers on the streets. "Taking underused office space and turning it into housing – to me that's the opportunity," Tyson said.

Efforts are already underway to create new housing in the Time and Temperature building, a 10-story building at 465 Congress St. and an 18-story building on Federal Street.

"Having more people living and walking downtown obviously would help the small businesses," Hentzel said. But without that, she said, "It could potentially have the impact of forcing more small businesses to close, which is really heartbreaking because we are a city and a state of small businesses."

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