Erica Pelotte, center, owner of the Lion’s Den in Waterville, shares a laugh Thursday with outdoor diners Jeff Lacombe, left, and Cameron Heverling during lunch in the outdoor seating area. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Erica Pelotte will remember the third Monday in March as the day she feared her longtime — and recently realized — dream of owning a restaurant was about to end.

It was 6:30 in the evening and the dinner rush was in full swing at her eatery, the Lion’s Den Tavern in downtown Waterville. She got word that restaurants in the city had to close immediately because of the coronavirus pandemic. Three days later, the governor made that official.

“Basically, we couldn’t let anybody else into the restaurant and we let the people already here finish,” Pelotte recalled of the night she had to close. “I was in shock. I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I couldn’t even believe it.”

Hers had been a long, hard road to get to where she was. She bought the former Itali-ah restaurant at 74 Main St. in August last year, renamed it and made it a whole new business — her own. Her dream.

At 43, she had worked hard all her life while raising four kids and putting herself through college. She started out in the restaurant business as a 16-year-old high school student, serving as hostess at the former Mei Lam Lau restaurant in Waterville. Later, she would waitress at Angelo’s steakhouse in the city and then Butcher’s Choice in Fairfield. She did a 9 1/2 year stint as assistant manager at G.M. Pollack & Sons Jewelers at Elm Plaza and then became an office manager for a company before working for a hospital, where she took calls related to equipment problems.

She had taken classes two years at Colby College and then transferred to the University of Southern Maine, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business. She also obtained a master’s degree in science after taking online courses at University of Phoenix.


“It wasn’t easy but you do what you gotta do,” Pelotte said. “I needed to take care of my kids.”

Five years ago, after she gave birth to her youngest child, she got back into the restaurant business when a friend who owns a local eatery needed help.

“I ended up pretty much running the place,” she recalled.

Another serendipitous thing happened as she was thinking about owning her own restaurant, a business she knew backward and forward.

“Somebody reached out to me and said, ‘I know this woman and her business just closed and she is looking for a partner, or to sell.’ I contacted her and we talked about it for months before we made a decision to become partners and just open it up.”

Things went well after Pelotte bought into the restaurant, with former Itali-ah owner Jennifer Bergeron a “silent partner” who is not on site every day but helps her in innumerable ways, she said. Restaurant patrons were patient and understanding with the initial blips that come with opening a new restaurant.


“The community has been nothing but amazing to me,” Pelotte said.

When March and the pandemic hit, it appeared her dream would either collapse or be deferred.

“We tried doing takeout for one week,” Pelotte recalled. “We hadn’t established a takeout business. It was really hard. Nobody was calling. Jennifer and I decided to completely close and do renovations. She is an amazing partner and she was going to make sure we would be back up and running.”

Erica Pelotte, owner of the Lion’s Den in Waterville, works in the kitchen of the downtown restaurant on Thursday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Pelotte was worried about her 28 employees, some of whom are single parents, but with Bergeron’s help, the restaurant was about to get into the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program and her staff got paid.

Two weeks ago, Pelotte was able to reopen, albeit with half the number of seats inside the restaurant, down from 150 to 75. But the city is allowing her to have outdoor dining in Haines Park on The Concourse, which has been a big boost, and diners feel more at ease in the open air during the pandemic, she said.

“The first week was rough, but I think it was just a matter of getting our name out there,” she said. “Last week was better, especially with outdoor dining. We do live music outside — right now, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It is a hit. Everybody loves it.”


Erica Pelotte, right, owner of the Lion’s Den in Waterville, assists outdoor diner Ashley Perry of Fairfield as she dines Thursday with David Gerry at the outdoor seating area. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Things are looking up. Most of her employees have returned and Pelotte is right in the thick of it. Patrons will see her on any given day, backing staff up as they create and serve everything from steaks and pasta dishes to seafood, burgers and sandwiches.

“I work the floor,” she said. “On a regular day, I’m there for the servers. I try not to put myself on the schedule as a server but a lot of times we get busy so I clear tables, seat customers, I will pick up tables. If the kitchen needs help, I pick up the slack. I try to be all of their backbone as much as I can.”

Pelotte acknowledges she has a lot of energy and is always on the move. She loves people, she said, and enjoys engaging them in conversation at the restaurant. Despite the challenges, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“I love it. It’s me. It’s what I do. It’s what I want to do and I really feel I’ll be successful at it because it’s what I want. I’m not just doing it to do it.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 32 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to





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