For most of the year, Brooksville, Maine is a small community of fewer than 1,000 residents. But in the summer months, tourists and seasonal residents are attracted to the town's beautiful seaside scenery, and locals find themselves temporarily rubbing elbows with a lot of temporary visitors. The town's restaurants, like its acclaimed Tinder Hearth bakery, have to find ways to keep their regulars happy, while ensuring that vacationers have a chance to try some of the breads or pastries or pizzas that they've only read about. (Maybe right here on this website.)
At Tinder Hearth, owners Lydia Moffet and Tim Semler only make their wood-fired pizzas twice a week, and they serve around 150 each night. Again, for most of the year, anyone who wants a pizza can get one — and they're take-out only — but during peak summer times, they put picnic tables in their garden and serve their pies with a side of gorgeous Blue Hill Peninsula scenery. But the problem is that there are only so many seats at those picnic tables, and they can still only make so many pizzas.
"For a short period of about eight weeks, all of the food businesses here get completely slammed with demand that far exceeds anything that we see the rest of the year," Moffet told Food & Wine in an email. "Every single food establishment around here struggles with demand that far outpaces what they can handle during July and August. We here at Tinder Hearth are in no way singled out on that front. We need more restaurants!"
But until a few more eateries are open within Brooksville's ZIP code, Tinder Hearth is among those who have to get creative when it comes to trying to accommodate everyone who'd like to order a pizza. They've hesitated to switch to an online ordering system, and take advance orders by phone — but that can cause its own headaches for the people on both sides of that call.
"Our phone line in July and August is extremely busy when we open reservations each week, Moffet said. "And people have likened trying to get through our line to getting tickets through Ticketmaster in the '90s [...] I've had customers show me their call log of over 1,000 calls to us on a single morning. I know, that is sincere dedication."
Moffet said that she "felt bad" for customers constantly having to redial their number, and she was equally upset at the idea that someone might just give up on trying to place an order because they couldn't get through. So they've gone to a semi-random…well, you might (as the local Bangor Daily News did) even call it a "lottery" system.
Starting last week, anyone who's craving one of their pizzas can fill out an online request form anytime between 9 a.m. on Monday mornings and 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Starting at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Tinder Hearth will start pulling names and numbers from those requests, and calling those lucky Brooksville locals (or ultra-lucky visitors) to let them know that they can place an order.
"We came up with this call-back system so that no one needs to mash the redial button forever, and no one particular person is more likely to get a reservation than anyone else," she said. "We don't call back the requests in the order they come in, we scramble them — that's the part that I suppose you could call a 'lottery' — simply to make the reservation system more equitable."
According to the Tinder Hearth website, their only other request is that whoever's trying to win the chance to order a pizza to "keep your phone handy" on Tuesday mornings to accept their call. (Kids, "accepting a call" is sort of like returning a text by using your voice.) If you miss out on that week's pizza, you can always try again on the following Monday — or console yourself with some of their pastries or a loaf of their fresh-baked bread.
"The bakery is attached to our home, on our family farm, where we live with three generations of our family," Moffet wrote. "It is a truly magical place, and we adore having people come and savor the beauty along with their pizza. But it is our home. We both manage and run everything in the bakery ourselves, and we are committed to staying at a modest size that works for our family and ourselves, and allows us to produce food at the highest quality we can manage."
Tinder Hearth isn't the only rural Maine restaurant that has a slightly unconventional reservation policy. In 2017, The Lost Kitchen, in even tinier Freedom (population: 722) started taking reservations by postcard only after it was overwhelmed by more than 10,000 phone calls from foodies eager to snag one of its 40 seats. (Kids, a postcard is like a text that you write on paper.)
"The Lost Kitchen is small. That's part of its magic. And we want to keep it that way," the restaurant's website says. "But when your card is pulled, you become our focus. We want you to be excited every step of the way. From the moment we first speak on the phone to the moment you walk across the bridge and into our dining room, we want you to feel like you're coming home. This is our greatest joy."
The first year, it reportedly received over 10,000 postcards. Despite the restaurant's chronically overstuffed mailbox, it has stuck with its snail mail-driven system. Starting in mid-April, owner and chef Erin French pulls one postcard every day from Monday through Friday, and then calls that person to inform them that they've gotten a table for this season.
"If your card isn't pulled, a piece of you is still with us. Every card we receive is saved and remains with us in Freedom," the website offers as a consolation. "We love reading your stories, laughing at your jokes, and getting a tiny glimpse into your lives. It means the world to us."
And if you miss out on The Lost Kitchen, well, you're just about 60 miles from Tinder Hearth and its wood-fired pizzas. How lucky do you feel?
This article has been updated to include clarification and comments from its subject.