The O’Toole Chronicles: Dinners at the Counter and Discussion Groups


After an impromptu weekend in Portland, Maine, I couldn’t help but notice how much restaurants value countertop dining. Many Portland restaurants, from the upper level to the hole in the wall, encourage customers to come in and sit at the counter.

One of those places was Becky’s. Far from the posh end of the spectrum, this quintessential “Jersey-style” eatery is one of the most popular breakfast spots in all of downtown. The trick to getting breakfast before noon is to sit at the counter.

In this Covid world in which we continue to operate, we find ourselves more cut off and removed from real relationships. We now communicate, socialize and engage in business via Zoom and most of us (non-millennials) can feel the human touch continuing to fade into obscurity. The last thing most people want to do is lean on a stranger and order food. Maybe counter meals are what the world needs.

During our time in Portland, we ate four different counter meals and came away with a renewed sense that people want to get out of their bunker lives and get back to normal.

Most meetings over the counter usually start with a pro forma hello to someone sitting nearby. There is usually politeness and small talk between the diners. The back and forth sometimes leads to sports and politics or something about life. That’s exactly what happens with Becky.

I heard of a tradesman who couldn’t find an apprentice, a waitress (originally from Philadelphia) who couldn’t convince her sons to continue supporting the Eagles – she loves the Patriots.

Now, before you think I’ve become a food critic for the New Jersey Globe, I’m getting into politics.

As Labor Day approaches, the ballots prepare to roll out and the mad rush to Election Day begins, invariably campaigns talk about the issues that will cut voters the most. Is it inflation? Roe versus Wade? Fire arms ? Gas prices? Lack of formula on the shelves? Before you listen to your panel of advisors about what they think people are concerned about or order a survey (sorry consultants), walk into a restaurant or bar and talk to people. Listen to what they say. Listen to what is important to them. Chances are you’ll get a lot more valuable information out of it than listening to your bubble. It will also be cheaper (again, sorry campaign consultants).

Bonus note: If you’re going through Portland, Maine, take the ferry to Peaks Island. The approximately 800 full-time residents are well ahead of most in fusing their community and preserving the majestic landscape that surrounds them.

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