Ready To Reset: How Maxine’s Has Kept Its Shine
Ask Kirt and Maxine Earhart how they’re feeling these days, and you might get a more thoughtful response than they’d have given you at this time last year. “My answer sounds a lot more like the kind of thing you’d hear from a weatherman now,” Kirt Earhart laughed. “I’m feeling fair to partly cloudy, but optimistic about a chance of sunshine.”
The owners of the popular Maxine’s On Shine restaurant, which was founded eight years ago and quickly earned a spot in local hearts for its exuberant atmosphere and gourmet food, have had to adapt this year along with other small businesses. The food and beverage industry has been hardest hit, with some owners of restaurants and bars going months without pay for themselves and their employees. To navigate the rapidly changing “new normal” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Earharts have gotten creative — in classic Maxine’s form.
Kirt Earhart described the way he and his wife adapted: “There were and are periods of stress, but eventually you say, ‘You know what, let’s hit the reset button.’ And then it became a chance to expand what Maxine’s means to us and to our community across the board.”
That reset period first began when they made the call to close the doors for two weeks, a move that came even before the official order from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on March 20 for all restaurants to move to take-out and delivery service only.
In those 14 days, the Earharts did their research and drew up their game plan. They collaborated, learned and brainstormed with the help of local officials like State Representative Anna Eskamani, Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, along with resources from groups including the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association and City of Orlando Main Street leaders Lisa Cuatt and Joanne Grant.
The help of that community geared them up to serve their own community, and they emerged ready for the reset — with a new market, a quickly crafted liquor store of sorts, and a delivery service, something they had never included before.
“We had never encouraged pickup or delivery,” Kirt Earhart said. “Maxine’s is about the experience. We wanted everyone coming in as they would to the parlor of a friend’s home.” That sense of experience wouldn’t change, they decided, it would just become mobile.
Working with Fleet Delivery, they fine-tuned a service that allows their customers to “make a reservation for a dining experience in their own home, where we provide the food,” Kirt Earhart said. The customers get to set the vibe and pick their meal, and they can even opt for contactless delivery. When customers go out to the Maxine’s van to grab their food from the sill of the pick-up window, “there’s Maxine’s face with a wine glass in one hand and the fork and glass in the other,” Kirt Earhart said. Sometimes they might even see one of the Earharts making the delivery.
Maxine’s Market was another brainchild of the couple. More than just a callback to the 1940s roots of the restaurant’s building — which used to be home to locally owned Friedman’s Grocery, another community favorite — the market became a way for people who didn’t feel comfortable going to the grocery store, or couldn’t find what they were looking for, to pick up whatever they might need while they were collecting their to-go orders. For a bit of time, they also set up the Tasty Beverage Emporium, where guests could order beer, wine and liquor and pick them up to take home.
Eventually, the Earharts faced the prospect of reopening the doors to guests. The beginning phases of Orange County’s reopening plan included allowing restaurants to allow guests in at 50% and eventually 75% capacity. That presented a unique challenge for Maxine’s, a restaurant small enough in square footage that in 2018 it campaigned for — and got passed — a bill that would allow establishments of 1,500 square feet and an 80-seat capacity to obtain a liquor license, down from the previous requirement of at least 2,500 square feet and 150 seats. In order to comply with the six-foot social distancing rule, they removed 60% of their tables, which meant they wouldn’t be able to safely fit even 50% of their usual capacity.
What they could use, they realized, was their parking lot. So they got to work. If the dining room is like a friend’s parlor, their parking lot would simply have to become that friend’s back yard. They created elevated platforms on their “pebble beach,” all on steel casters that could easily be moved around and keep everyone off a wet surface. Each “island” is home to a table under a tent equipped with mesh screens to keep out rain and mosquitoes, as well as fans for cooling off in Florida’s afternoon heat. A shed was transformed into an outdoor bar, and a moveable stage was built so that guests both on the patio and on the “islands” can enjoy the music and art that have come to be synonymous with the restaurant.
A Responsibility to Each Other
With every phase, Maxine’s patrons were kept in the loop. With newsletters, social media check-ins and website announcements, the Earharts knew it was important to keep their customers updated along with their team. Their efforts have brought both their tight-knit group of employees and their customers closer.
“Absolutely, our relationship with our community has gotten stronger,” Maxine Earhart said. “There were certain lists of places they didn’t want to see go out of business, and fortunately for us, we were on those lists. They invested in us.”
The community has also seen in those communications a commitment to safety and an understanding of responsibility that Kirt and Maxine Earhart know will be vital in any steps moving forward. From masks to social distancing to sanitizing, all precautions are taken, and they trust the community that has shown up for them will be as considerate while they dine.
“Just because we’re getting people back in doesn’t mean everything is back to the way it was. There are still a lot of changes to put in place and keep up with,” Kirt Earhart laughed. “We’re safety and goodwill ambassadors now.”
The new normal being buzzed about in the midst of COVID-19 has changed a lot in the world — but it hasn’t changed that spirit of hospitality, warmth and celebration that has become a trademark of Maxine’s and its owners. Instead, the restaurant has found a new strength in its adaptability.
“It was always about celebrating life,” Kirt Earhart said. “And celebrating life doesn’t always mean when it’s good. It means celebrating the challenges when things are tough, too. The chance to ask ourselves important questions: How do we connect? How do we respect one another? It has transcended the restaurant and extended to all of us as neighbors, as brothers and sisters.”