GARDINER — When Aaron Harris first moved to Maine in 2001, he had planned to go to culinary school.

While that didn’t work out exactly as planned, Harris learned to cook and he learned to run the front of the house, and now he’s taking over the A1 Diner from his teachers, Mike Giberson, 67, and Neil Andersen, 57. The transfer is expected to be complete Tuesday.

“He’s inheriting everything,” Andersen said Monday seated at the counter in the lull between breakfast and lunch. “He’s getting the employees and the recipes. He’s getting everything. The only difference is we’re trading a Mike and a Neil for an Aaron.”

“We wouldn’t want to turn the diner over to just anyone,” Giberson said. “You don’t want to work for 30 years and make a legacy and have someone blow it up. We knew Aaron would not do that, and it made us really happy.”

Harris said he’s always loved the diner.

“This place has a gravity to it,” Harris, 38, said. “How many employees have come back over time?”

His first job in Maine was at the A1. Instead of culinary school, however, Harris worked there while earning a marketing degree, and he went on to an office job,

“That didn’t connect with my soul the way it needed to, you know?” he said.

Harris had reached a point in life where he could entertain the possibility of taking it over, just when Giberson and Andersen were considering moving on, and that’s when they started considering it in earnest.

“The first day Aaron came back and cooked with us on a Saturday breakfast, it was super busy and we got through it, and he looked at me and said, ‘That’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve done in years.'”

“It was,” Harris said.

He filled in from time to time, then took on Andersen’s shifts, and took on more and more responsibility. For the last month, Harris has been running the business on his own.

“I am so excited. It’s more fulfilling work. I like working fast. It checks a lot of boxes for me,” he said. “I like the ability to talk to people and make their day better in an hour. Here we make great food and we make people happy.”

Giberson said not all employees have the ability to take over a business, but Harris has those skills.

Harris is taking on the business at an interesting time.

In two years, the Bridge Street bridge, to which the diner has stood adjacent for 71 years on steel pilings, is scheduled to be replaced by the Maine Department of Transportation.

“We intended to wait until the bridge was done,” Giberson said, “but when they moved it to 2020, I was like, no, we’re not staying until the bridge is done.”

Harris said during that time, the diner will be closed for 30 days, during which the kitchen will undergo renovation, if access to the building is still possible.

“They will give us enough notice so we can let our customers know,” Harris said. “The diner has been through tougher times than this.”

Giberson said he has watched as the bridge’s life has been extended for years and is philosophical about the change to come.

“It’s definitely time,” he said. “We’ll end up with a much nicer bridge, and a much nicer environment for the diner.”

Giberson said he had the option to close the diner or have it relocated, but he rejected that, and so did the city. It’s part of the city’s downtown historic district and is widely famous.

Harris will be just the fifth owner in the history of the diner.

Ed Heald ordered the diner from the Worcester Lunch Car Company in Massachusetts in 1946, and it opened in Gardiner as Heald’s Diner.

Maurice Wakefield bought the diner in 1952, naming it Wakefield’s, and sold it in 1979 to Giberson’s parents, Al and Elizabeth. Under their ownership, it became Giberson’s.

Giberson and Andersen dubbed it the A1 Diner when they bought it in 1988.

The first years were a struggle, Giberson said.

Andersen said when they bought the diner, it was in a state of decline and Gardiner was struggling. The old businesses were slowly dying and the new ones had not started yet.

Under his father’s ownership, Giberson said, the diner’s busiest days were those just after Social Security checks arrived.

“He used to read the obituaries to see which customers had died,” he said.

It was exciting and challenging to take it over and bring it into the present,” Andersen said.

That included changing up the food and attracting new customers.

Part of the lore of the diner is how some of the dishes were named.

The diner offered a great chicken sandwich that no one was ordering, Giberson said. One person who did ask for it was the wife of the local undertaker, and now it’s the Undertaker’s Wife’s Sandwich. And now, the name is irresistible lure for customers who see it on the menu board.

The diner’s location helped to raise its profile. Before the Memorial Bridge was built in Augusta, most people from southern and western Maine heading to the coast on routes 3 and 17 via interstates 95 and 295 passed through Gardiner and across the Kennebec River on the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Bridge. That route ran right in front of the diner.

The diner’s food also got positive reviews and in 2007, it was featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”

Giberson said customers tell him when they travel and mention they are from Gardiner, people say they’ve heard of the A1.

After the transfer is complete, Giberson and Andersen, will remain in Gardiner. Andersen, who works as a waiter at Fore Street in Portland, will continue to work there. Giberson’s plans are a little looser. He drives for Uber and maybe get a part-time job, or volunteer to teach English as a second language or something else.

“I’m going to do whatever makes me happy,” he said.

They will have a chance to go away for the holidays and not have to return the same day to open the diner the next morning. Thanksgiving will be spent at Giberson’s son’s house and Christmas will be three days in Quebec.

And they are looking forward to returning to the diner without feeling the need to pitch in clearing tables or checking on the kitchen.

For Harris, the changeover will be seamless. The customers already know him and won’t be surprised to see him there every day.

“I’ll just keep on going,” he said. “The diner won’t change, except that the diner’s always kind of evolved and brought new flavors in and new things. That won’t change. It will continue to naturally move the way it’s gone. There’s no need to change it.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.