Arundel, Maine’s Kristie Sibley, 31, can score any table she wants in Kennebunkport: No, she’s not a descendant of the Bush family. She is Director of Dining for the Kennebunkport Resort Collection, home to hotel restaurants like The Boathouse, Earth at Hidden Pond and the newly opened Via Sophia by the Sea, where her husband, Luke, is the executive chef. Next year, she will open the KRC’s sushi restaurant, Rosella, at the Grand Hotel in Kennebunk.
What are the challenges of running seasonal restaurants and designing menus for such a cross section of people? I imagine that you welcome visitors from everywhere.
It’s quite funny. Depending on the time of year, you have a different clientele. We have to kind of think about who comes to our restaurant and offer something to people at all times of the year. So we’re kind of changing our mindset: even though we’re coastal and seasonal, we see a lot of [customers] – much more recently, especially since COVID, as many people have left the cities.
Our goal is always to be busy, all year round. So on some of the challenges, staffing is our biggest challenge. And, when people are on vacation, they want to eat out. So we’re looking at what our outdoor dining spaces look like and know that’s going to be just as important as how the indoor dining spaces look.
What do people want in terms of food?
It is interesting to look at culinary trends. I think people are moving away from white tablecloths, long, multi-course meals. They want to go out for a great meal with consistent service where the portion sizes will be adequate, where they will leave full and they will feel like they are getting what they paid for, especially right now with how expensive everything is. Kennebunkport is not a cheap vacation town. And so, for me, it’s important that we make sure that what we offer the guest is worth it. Was the experience a bit mind-blowing? [We] want them to come back because they crave that pasta they had or that chicken dish. I don’t go out to eat much, just because I work in restaurants. When I go out to eat, it’s a place I crave.
Have you ever really taken some comments to heart, where you realized you had to change something?
Oh, absolutely. We talked about it a lot at Via Sophia and at the Boathouse, which we opened in 2018. We had an Austrian red variety, a Zweigelt, on the menu, and nobody would buy this wine. We had to change it: Ultimately, we have to give people what they want. And we can say, if you like Malbec, you’ll love Zweigelt, but it’s just not the same. Everyone wanted Malbec. My mind was blown. We put a Malbec on the menu and people loved it. And it was one of our best selling red wine. It was a good decision. Sometimes you just need to be open-minded. We also went into it thinking we weren’t going to sell national beers, but everyone wanted Miller or Bud Lite.
With Via Sophia, in pre-shift, we ask the staff: “What do the customers say they want?” And we want their feedback.
What do you think is different about serving people on vacation versus a restaurant in town?
They take their time! They relax. Actually, I grew up in New York, so it’s totally different. When I got here, I was serving tables and the person coaching me said, “You’re going too fast. They relax. They take their time. You have to give them that experience and just slow down. It was as if a light bulb had gone out.
How did you start?
My parents told me to go to work when I was 14. I was a waitress at my parents’ friend’s Italian restaurant in Poughkeepsie. I have always worked in restaurants. I went to the Culinary Institute of America for baking, managed restaurants in the Hudson Valley, and met my husband there. I worked in Portsmouth, for the Island Creek and Row 34 restaurants as a waiter and sommelier. They are fabulous. But it was a very long drive once we bought our house, and I had to make a change, so I applied to the Kennebunkport Resort Collection.
Being a bus girl is hard work. Lessons learned?
That I can work as hard as the boys and be careful not to drop butter-covered knives on a woman dressed in black.
Is it difficult to find staff in a seaside resort?
It’s difficult. And it’s interesting because we’ve recently had managers come from big cities, and you kind of have to find people who want to learn, and you train them from scratch. It’s good to have servers and people who have experience, no doubt, because they can help set the tone — but it’s also good to be able to take people who don’t have any experience and want to learn and teach them the right way to do things and almost see them blossom. It’s a weird approach to staffing, but that’s kind of the approach we’ve taken: you know, target people and give them a chance.
Where do you find them?
We have incentives for current staff to make recommendations; they’ll get a gift card or something if the person stays longer than 60 days. We advertise through Indeed and ZipRecruiter. But the biggest success we’ve seen is word of mouth or people coming to us saying, “My friend works here and says this is a great company to work for.
Where do you go when you’re not working?
I’m such a homebody when I’m not working! The old vines are excellent. Bennett’s has some great sandwiches.
My favorite beach is actually north at Popham Beach, which is in Phippsburg. But locally I would say Drake’s Island in Wells. It’s sandy – the other beaches are a bit rocky and have pebbles.
Small questions: Lobster roll with butter or mayo?
What’s your favorite fried seafood?
Whole belly or no belly?
Any tips for marking a table on vacation? Secrets ?
Always try to get there early; if they are open for lunch and dinner, go mid afternoon.
Your favorite binge watch?
“The Real Housewives of New Jersey.”