WATERVILLE — When Fred Ouellette learned the Last Unicorn restaurant was closing in late April, he wasn’t ready for it to end.
As chef at the popular Silver Street eatery, he loved his work. It was a passion he developed over several years of working there and he did not want to say good-bye.
But a tough economy forced owners Joe Plumstead and his wife, Michelle, out of business, much to the dismay and heartbreak of not only the Plumsteads, but also the staff and customers who patronized the restaurant for years.
But now, Ouellette and his wife, Amy, plan to re-open it the second week of September, under the same name, and with the blessing of the Plumsteads.
“They said they’d be happy to sign off on the name and pretty much told me that any recipes go with it and then I purchased all the equipment and everything,” Fred Ouellette said. “They’re amazing people.”
The Ouellettes will start with 21 employees, 15 of whom worked at the Unicorn when it closed, they said.
“We’re very blessed,” Fred Ouellette, 31, said Wednesday at the restaurant. “Everyone called me up, and they all wanted to come back.”
Patrons will see familiar dishes on the menu, including Thai sizzling catfish, Chesapeake crab cakes and the ever-favorite cheese dip and green goddess dressing.
“We’ll have Edison torte, mocha butter crunch pie, chocolate silk pie and Swedish creme — which won Best Dessert at one of the Taste (of Greater Waterville contests),” Fred Ouellette said.
The Last Unicorn was started 34 years ago — in 1978 — by Rick Gallup and Honor Stanley, who sold it to the Plumsteads in 2000. Stanley and Gallup now live in Puerto Rico.
The Ouellettes plan to be open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week and will continue feature area artists’ work on the restaurant walls.
The couple are busy cleaning, replacing floors, repointing bricks and painting inside the restaurant, which will look much like the old interior except with a fresh facelift, they said.
“I’m looking forward to the final product,” Amy Ouellette, also 31, said. “Right now, it’s tearing stuff down and building things up and a lot of paperwork and shopping for new sinks and all that fun stuff.”
Due to give birth to the couple’s second child in early September, Amy Ouellette said she plans to stay at home for the first two months and then work at the restaurant. The Ouellettes’ son, Frederick Jr., is 1 1/2, and she has been a stay-at-home mother since he was born.
But she is familiar with the business. She waitressed while she was a student at Winslow High School and then bartended and waitressed while a college student earning a nursing degree.
A graduate of Lawrence High School in Fairfield, Fred Ouellette started working at the Last Unicorn as a dishwasher when he was 19.
“After a couple of months, Joe (Plumstead) made me a cook and that’s when I formed a real passion for food and I stuck right under Joe’s wing and learned everything from him,” he said. “I got super interested in it and I went cookbook-crazy.”
Joe Plumstead, who now is writing a blog, www.joeplumstead.com, returns the affection for the Ouellettes and says he hopes they do well in the business.
“They’re wonderful people and Fred was just a loyal, hardworking employee and always had my back,” he said.
Plumstead said the support he and his wife received before, during and after closing the restaurant was heartwarming.
“I would not trade 12 years of working in this community for anything on earth,” he said. “Our clientele and friends have been so supportive. It pretty much eased the burden of having to go out of business.”
His blog is a precursor to an offbeat cookbook he plans to write that includes recipes and stories about the food business.
“Right now I’m recounting my first restaurant job in a Greek restaurant in Baltimore,” he said. “The blog is practice for the book. If I can find a publisher or agent willing to take me up on it at some point or other, I’m not going to turn it down.”
As word has spread of the Last Unicorn’s return, downtown advocates are calling it welcome news.
“Obviously, I think we were all heartbroken to see the Unicorn close,” said Shannon Haines, executive director of Waterville Main Street. “It’s been such a longtime fixture here in downtown Waterville.”
Kimberly Lindlof, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, echoed Haines’ sentiments.
“We’re thrilled that Fred and Amy are re-opening the Unicorn,” Lindlof said. “It’s just wonderful to have that occupied again by people who know the business and are committed to making downtown a destination.”
Amy Calder — 861-9247