WATERVILLE — Four afternoons a week for the last 40-plus years, Terry Ann Loisel sauntered through the white storm door. Every visit to The Chez Paree resulted in the same order, a beer and a shot.

An Oakland native and Vassalboro resident, Loisel saw her beloved South End bar close on March 15, 2020. It has yet to reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a flash, Loisel’s social life eroded.

“Oh my God, you don’t even know how many friends I had there,” Loisel said on a recent afternoon, reflecting on her decades of patronage at what everyone calls “The Chez.” “It’s like the show ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name.”

Her experience is not uncommon. In fact, it’s the new normal during the pandemic.

Physically, The Chez is currently lifeless. Its customers and staff are lonely, all due to extraordinary times, and people are missing out on their passion, their job, their hangout.

“We were a very close family,” said Danielle Layton, who tended The Chez’s bar, “and this whole pandemic has separated a lot of us.”

Dan Benttinen, manager of The Chez, straightens a sign Thursday at 45 Water St. in Waterville. The South End bar Chez has been closed since mid-March 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Regulars say that on a normal night at The Chez, music is loud, but the volume is not too high to have a conversation. There’s pool and darts, games aplenty after you go through a couple sets of doors and into the main bar area.

Janis Joplin hung out at The Chez once after a 1969 show at the Waterville Armory. Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, Edgar Winter, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, Ace Frehley and Bill Chinnock and the E Street Band all performed there over the years, according to former owner Fred Carter.

Melissa Lozada, a friend of The Chez owner Jodi Langlois, made a habit of stopping in every Friday and Saturday night with her fiancé, Chris Woodbury, for the last four years. Woodward grew up in Waterville and has been going to The Chez for more than two decades.

“It was that neighborhood bar,” Lozada said. “You get the older crowds of the people who grew up in the area. We joke it’s like the outcasts of the town. Everyone is welcome and they don’t judge anyone. There’s all kinds of walks of life.”

Not everyone in town misses The Chez, and that’s the point. It’s a small-town watering hole in Waterville’s South End that has at times drawn police attention, and is now embracing a never-anticipated pandemic lifestyle. Allegiances here run high, and those with The Chez are dedicated.

THE ‘BAR’ WORD

There’s never been a winter quite this cold at 45 Water St. Many establishments shut their doors for good during the pandemic, but that’s not the case here.

“Closing The Chez for the future, it’s just not happening,” said Langlois, 30.

Drink-focused bars and tasting rooms were slated for indoor opening starting Nov. 2, 2020, but as COVID-19 cases surged in Maine and across the nation, Gov. Janet Mills delayed the opening date for indoor service indefinitely for those establishments that serve mostly alcohol. Like tasting rooms, bars were categorized together under state restrictions.

Even if The Chez had opened, the state’s 9 p.m. curfew brought a set of hurdles. Most of the bar’s business came after the curfew, so Langlois believed it wasn’t worth opening. Further, many employees work outside jobs that end around 5 p.m. While some restaurants are rebounding after a tough pandemic time, establishments like The Chez remained closed.

“For some reason, it’s the ‘bar’ word,” said Dan Benttinen, manager of The Chez bar.

Plenty of local establishments sell food and drink to seated customers, enough to meet the state’s standards to stay open during the pandemic. The Chez served snacks, frozen pizza, chicken wings and other things with an on-site oven. Not only do state requirements call for at least two employees to be working an indoor eating establishment, but there is also a rule that requires 10% of the business income to be food-related and for two people to be working at all times.

The Chez didn’t meet those requirements. That’s not what the bar lives for.

“You don’t go to The Chez to buy food,” Langlois said. “During the day it’s slow, so you don’t need to have one person. That would be two incomes I’m paying out for not a lot of income coming in.”

Jodi Langlois, left, owner of The Chez in Waterville, is shown Thursday with her daughter, Delia, and bar manager Dan Benttinen at 45 Water St. in Waterville. The Chez has been closed since mid-March 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Gov. Mills announced Thursday that the curfew would be lifted beginning Monday, Feb. 1, citing a decreasing COVID-19 positivity rate and declining overall case rate. Bright news, yes, but it does not take away 11 months of struggle.

If things stay as they are, The Chez will reopen around St. Patrick’s Day, approximately one year after it closed.

Langlois started bartending at The Chez in 2011 and purchased the bar in December 2017 from Fred and Nancy Carter, owners from 1973-2017. Even after selling it, Fred Carter, 71, would stop in every few weeks for a quick drink.

“Everything I ever did in my life was because of The Chez,” Fred Carter said. “Owning it and then selling it allowed me to do different things in my life.”

Jodi Langlois, right, owner of The Chez, and manager Dan Benttinen flip through photo albums reminiscing Thursday at the 45 Water St. bar in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Despite the temporary closure, Langlois is proud to say she did not have to go on unemployment during the pandemic, as she increased her hours serving at the American Legion Post 14 Fairfield canteen to three or more days a week. Pre-pandemic, she worked at the Legion two days a week and most other days at The Chez, oftentimes working double shifts.

When it was open, The Chez employed six and only Langlois is full-time. The bar often rolled with just one bartender, with Langlois or someone else standing by.

The curfew is what’s kept them closed. The other requirements can be worked with.

“You can’t make nothing before 9 p.m.,” Langlois said. “Especially at a bar, like, ‘Hello?'”

‘KIND OF PUT ME IN A DEPRESSION’

The Chez is not a big bar. The daytime clientele consisted of 20 to 40 people. Nighttime crowds reach the maximum capacity of 65, especially when there’s live music.

On many a night, Layton tended The Chez’s bar. Even on her days off, Layton often stopped by. An on-and-off employee for almost eight years, the 31-year-old worked a consistent schedule: Sunday days, Tuesday nights, a double shift on Thursday — noon to 1 a.m. — and Saturday nights.

“My social life has been blank,” Layton said. “It’s kind of put me in a depression. That’s what it’s like.”

Peter Corson, a regular at The Chez, talks about his memories at the bar, shown in the background. He is on his way Thursday to shovel snow for a friend a short distance away. The Chez has been closed since mid-March 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Layton’s fiancé, Ben Nadeau, is an independent laborer and his income covers all the bills. With the extra $600 and then $300 in weekly unemployment bonuses during the pandemic, they’ve gotten by OK. But with Layton’s benefits expected to run out before April, “it’s a struggle,” she said.

Layton has two young sons, 6-year-old Elijah and 5-year-old Jeremiah, and a daughter, Penelope, who was born in April. She searched for a job where she could work from home. But her sons, in first grade and kindergarten at Winslow Elementary School, alternate days of remote and in-person learning in the district’s hybrid model, necessitating her being home.

Getting that remote job wasn’t so easy. Layton applied to five. No dice.

“It’s very hard,” she said.

MORE THAN JUST A BAR

What you can’t argue is that The Chez is a local institution. It dates back centuries.

Truth be told, some turn their nose up at the mention of The Chez, recalling a late night April 2012 assault that left one man unconscious and an August 2014 standoff. When eyes are rolled, the regulars think one thing. Culture misunderstood.

“Then they’ve obviously never been there,” said Loisel, pointing to the bar’s hosting of benefit events for those in need, like when a regular had a stroke, or the myriad live music acts.

Langlois wants to change the narrative, but acknowledges the reputation.

“It’s bitter in everybody’s mouth, I know,” Langlois said. “Everybody says, ‘Oh The Chez this, The Chez that.’ They just don’t give us a chance. Once you do, you realize this place is not like it used to be.”

“A lot of people have been going here for 20 or more years, and it’s not the same place,” Benttinen added. “They’ll tell you, you had a good chance of getting in a fight way back when, but now you don’t.”

Traffic passes The Chez at 45 Water St. in Waterville on Thursday. The South End bar has been closed since mid-March 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Langlois heard of local hotels advising against going to The Chez, but that hasn’t deterred her. When a 13-day power outage struck the city a couple of years ago, The Chez never lost power. Langlois and Co. served free dinners every single day for those in need. There are a few apartments above The Chez, which Langlois likens to an inn. The tenants come down during holidays and find a sense of community. Sometimes, Langlois runs the water just so others can get enough to take a shower, flush their toilets. The previous ownership offered the apartment and 10 total rooms to low-income families, sometimes for no rent at all.

Eric Decker, 42, grew up on nearby Autumn Street and described The Chez as a “neighborhood constant.” After the Bob-In on Temple Street closed, Decker started frequenting The Chez and became friends with Langlois. Under Langlois, The Chez has been remodeled and they have pool and darts for guests. There aren’t any more of the shenanigans that older residents recall.

“Unless you’re willing to walk through the door and be there, having an opinion on a story of what someone told you is irrelevant,” Decker said. “The establishment itself has changed, the owners have changed and it’s a family environment.”

Josh Gray, who tended bar at The Chez for a couple of years, has known Langlois since their days at Lawrence High School. Gray would go to The Chez a couple times a week even after leaving.

“It’s definitely something I would like to do in the future once we can get this pandemic over,” he said.

Jodi Langlois, owner of The Chez, and her daughter, Delia Cat Langlois, 9, share a playful moment Thursday at the bar at 45 Water St. in Waterville. Langlois said her daughter greets customers, serves, does dishes and cleans at the business. The Chez has been closed since mid-March 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Langlois and Benttinen don’t want to be seen in a negative light. They think others in their situation may be scared to share their experiences.

The Morning Sentinel crowdsourced its more than 29,000 Facebook followers for sources on bars and servers. Although the post gained traction, few responded or chose to speak on the record about their experience.

“They don’t want their business being shined under the light,” Langlois said. “You start putting these businesses under the light …” She paused.

Benttinen finished the sentence. “They’ll end up like Rick Savage,” he said, in reference to the Bethel brew pub owner who made headlines throughout the summer for flouting state mandates.

“We’re closed anyways. There’s no hurting us at this point,” Langlois said. “The only thing it can do for us is make people realize that the bars are truly hurting.”

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