GARDINER — Water Street Cafe, an eatery anchoring a prominent corner of the downtown, closed last weekend.
Despite making a few changes to the business, including adding dinner service last month, its owners announced Monday they couldn’t find a profitable model that worked. Still, they said the location could work well for another owner passionate about an idea for the space.
“We would love to see the lights on,” said Robert Lash, who owned the business with his wife, Amy Rees.
City officials and economic development leaders agreed. They said they’ll work aggressively to try fill the location considered a gateway to Gardiner — if possible, with a similar business.
The restaurant opened at the corner of Water and Bridge streets about two and a half years ago, shortly after A1 To Go Community Market & Cafe closed. Lash and Rees, who live in Gardiner, opened Water Street Cafe because they didn’t want to see the location empty, Lash said Thursday.
Last year Lash and Rees began transitioning the business away from being a market, when they offered bottles of wine and cigars for sale along with bakery items, to more of a cafe. They brought in Walter Loeman, formerly of Walter’s restaurant in Portland and several other restaurants, as a full-time chef.
Last summer, the business got a license to serve beer and wine on site and started serving dinner two and later three nights a week, using local sources when possible.
The restaurant’s walls also were a gallery space for local art, and it was a popular stop during downtown art walks.
“On a personal level, I’m just very sad,” said Mayor Thomas Harnett.
From the city’s perspective, Harnett said it’s critical to fill the space with a business that can succeed there.
Nate Rudy, director of economic and community development said it’s unfortunate the restaurant closed, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort from the owners. He said he already contacted Lash and Rees to ask if there’s anything the city can do to help find another business owner.
“There’s certain people in a community that just step up to be leaders because they care about Gardiner, and Rob and Amy did that,” Rudy said.
Lash said they plan to sell the restaurant’s physical assets, preferably to someone looking to open up a similar business in the same location. But if that doesn’t work, he said they’ll sell off the assets piecemeal to others. Along with a gas oven and stove, they own an espresso machine, a custom beer tap system and all of the fixings needed to operate a restaurant, Lash said.
“It’s a opportunity for someone to walk right into a turn-key business,” he said.
Rudy said the city will be working with Gardiner Main Street to try to find another business owner to open up in the corner location.
“We will be letting people know that the opportunity is there, and actively trying to help with a smooth transition to something else. I’ve made a couple of calls about it already,” he said.
Patrick Wright, executive director of Gardiner Main Street, said the downtown organization will work aggressively to find another tenant.
“It’s a huge loss for downtown Gardiner. Amy and Rob stepped in two and a half years ago when A1 To Go went out of business,” Wright said. “They did that out of their love for the community and their desire to see that important corner filled, and I have the utmost respect for them for that.”
The location on the corner of U.S. Route 201 and Water Street has the highest traffic count on any downtown corner and is highly visible for people driving through Gardiner from Interstate 295.
Wright said the spot is perfect for an applicant for the Gardiner Growth Initiative — a downtown business-incentive program developed by Gardiner Main Street in collaboration with the city, the Gardiner Board of Trade and the Bank of Maine that aims to attract a targeted mix of businesses that would complement each other and existing businesses.
The program, which won’t be available until April, Wright said, will allow businesses to apply for incentives including forgivable loans for fixed capital, micro-grants for operating money and six months of free rent. However, he said it would be ideal if the space was filled before April.
As for whether Wright thought the restaurant closing would discourage others from opening in that space, he said: “I guess time will tell. I think that the right entrepreneur will see through that and see the opportunity.”
Fred Knee, who owns the building with this wife, Randy, said they plan to fill the space with another long-term renter.
“We’ve had very good and stable tenants there. I’m sure that building will attract another good and stable tenant,” said Knee, of West Gardiner.
Lash said the hours invested into the business were also unsustainable for him and Rees. They both have other careers besides the restaurant. Rees is a part owner of European Auto Surgeons on Brunswick Avenue, and Lash is a sculptor.
“We were really busy people before we got into the cafe. We’re looking forward to some time that was nonexistent when we did have it,” Lash said.