SOUTH CHINA — Selling the China Dine-ah is bittersweet for owner Norm Elvin, but it’s something he feels he has to do.
“I was just burned out,” Elvin, 59, said Friday morning while ice fishing with his two sons. “I’m turning 60 soon, I have two boys and I thought to myself, âWhy am I doing this?'”
Elvin bought the vacant building and eventually turned into the China Dine-ah six years ago, in what he described as a mid-life crisis. He’s hoping to finalize a sale of the business next month for $600,000 to Lisa Wardwell, who runs Lisa’s Restaurant in Augusta.
“I can’t say I lost my passion for it,” Elvin said. “But it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Wardwell, who is from South China and graduated from Erskine Academy in 1983, has run a restaurant and catering business on Bangor Street for more than eight years. She said that she was initially looking to start a bakery in the area, but couldn’t pass up a chance to take over the well-known business on U.S. Route 202, Lakeview Drive in China.
China Dine-ah, which has about 100 seats, serves a variety of comfort food, ranging from breakfast menu staples like eggs benedict and homemade corned beef hash, to lunch and dinner sandwiches, burgers, salads and fried seafood.
“He has built such a wonderful entity out there with a great staff and wonderful following,” she said. “Plus, he has really good baked goods too, so it just made sense.”
While the sale hasn’t been finalized, Wardwell intends on keeping the diner mostly the same but plans to convert a room used for storage into a 72-seat lounge with live music and a patio.
“We’ll hopefully expand the hours and have the lounge and patio completed six to eight weeks after the purchase,” Wardwell said.
Growing up in South China, Wardwell, 49, who lives in Augusta, has frequented the China Dine-ah several times and has known Elvin for years. Elvin, who owns G&E Roofing in Augusta, looks back fondly on the relationships he’s forged with patrons and staff over the six years at the diner.
“That’s where my heart is,” he said. “Those relationships are important and I’ll miss walking through there and talking with a lot of them.”
Elvin, who first announced he was selling the restaurant Thursday in his “View from the corner booth” column in the restaurant’s e-newsletter, cited the difficult daily grind of keeping a restaurant afloat and profitable as a top reason he decided to sell the business.
For someone like Wardwell, the decision made sense.
“I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “I thought he had built it as a kind of retirement plan, but there’s no retirement in the restaurant business.”
While Elvin is selling the main diner, he’s retaining the second restaurant he opened two years ago on Route 3 — the China Dine-ah Too — and is rebranding it as “Norm’s,” a seasonal restaurant.
“It’s going to open sometime in June,” Elvin said. “It’s a much easier business model to run over there.”