The owner of Lewiston’s most upscale restaurant is offering the business, a two-bedroom condo and $20,000 in cash to the winner of an essay contest.

Eric Agren, who opened Fuel restaurant 10 years ago during the revival of the city’s downtown, said he is looking for a passionate entrepreneur who will embrace both the restaurant and the community to take over the operation, which Agren valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. The winner of a 300-word essay contest will become the new owner of the 7,000-square-foot restaurant on Lisbon Street and all of its contents, from the stoves and walk-in coolers to the wine and liquor inventory to the recipes themselves, the event space known as Sidecar, and the two-bedroom, two-bath condo where Agren lived when he opened Fuel.

Agren decided to “pass the torch” through an essay contest rather than simply putting the restaurant up for sale because he thought it the best way to find just the right person to take over his biggest project to date.

“Fuel is the biggest thing I’ve done and it means a lot to me, and to the community,” Agren said. “We want to give the right person the best chance we can to step in and be successful right off the bat. Breaking into the restaurant scene is difficult. The idea is to give someone the chance to live out their dream without going into debt to do it.”

Applications are due by Oct. 14 if submitted by paper, and Oct. 17 if submitted online. There are rules about how to apply – full contest details are at contest.fuelmaine.com – and a $150 nonrefundable application fee meant to help Agren reach his targeted sale price of $1.2 million. With that sale price in mind, Agren reserves the right to cancel the contest if fewer than 8,000 people apply, although he said he would probably award the prize if the applicant number comes close to his asking price. Applicants will receive a full refund should Agren cancel.

Several attempts to sell property via an essay contest have popped up in Maine in the last few years, including current proposals to win an upscale home in West Bath and an inn in Ogunquit. But the most controversial involved the Center Lovell Inn, a contest last year that prompted a Maine State Police investigation over how the contest was handled and how the winner chosen.

Agren hopes to avoid any controversy. Three anonymous judges chosen by Agren whom he will only describe as people he trusts will whittle down the applications to 20 finalists. Agren has asked the judges to look for someone who has an interest in both the restaurant and the property, but the final decision on who makes the cut will be up to them. Those judges will then choose three new judges unknown to Agren to pick the winner from among the finalists, as well as a first and second runner-up in case the winner were to refuse the prize. The winner will be chosen between Oct. 25 and Nov. 30.

While he would like the winner to live in the condo, because he thinks that shows a real commitment to the area, and make a long-term investment in Fuel, the contest rules do not prohibit flipping of either property. Agren believes that a new business owner shouldn’t be hemmed in by pre-existing conditions, and that if it didn’t work out, better that the new owner sell to someone else than allow the restaurant to fizzle out. The restaurant building alone is assessed at $325,000 by the city.

The rules also make no mention about continuing to employ the same staff, although Agren said he thinks the new winner would be crazy not to keep the award-winning staff intact.

The restaurant, which seats about 80, created a stir when it opened in March 2007, offering fine dining in a city that carried a blue-collar reputation from its heyday as a mill town. The menu offers classic French fare like beef bourguignon and coq au vin, as well as down-home entrees such as mac and cheese and ribeye burgers. A 2011 Press Herald reviewer of the restaurant said her meal ranked among the top of restaurants she had sampled recently, and Fuel has won a number of awards from Wine Spectator, Open Table and Yankee, Maine and Downeast magazines.

Agren said the winner ought to be an entrepreneur with a love of food, but doesn’t need to have restaurant experience to be considered. Applicants from Maine are welcome, but no one from away will be turned away.

In the application rules, Agren makes reference to international applicants, so he is obviously hoping the judges have a wide array of talent to choose from. But there is “amazing talent” right here in Maine, especially in Portland, that would likely leap at this opportunity to own their own restaurant, he said.

The winner cannot be a current or former employee of Fuel or Marche, a restaurant Agren opened across the street and sold about two years ago, or a close relative.

Agren decided it was time to turn Fuel over to someone new a few months ago. He described himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” and said he needed the time to pursue his next big project. He won’t say exactly what that is yet, but made it clear that he planned to stay in the Lewiston-Auburn area, and that he is not pulling out of the community he calls home. He also plans to be eating at the new Fuel regularly, so he will stick around for a month to help the new owner learn the ropes and keep the dining experience on track.

The one thing Agren will promise, however, is that his next venture will not be a midcoast restaurant to challenge Fuel in the upscale dining market.