The interior of Lilac on the River on Front Street in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — On a still-warm morning in early fall, Kimberly Phinney was getting ready for her day.

She had two weddings on the books for which she needed to prepare, and the doors of her company’s latest venture had just opened for the day.

It was early enough that foot traffic for the lunch crowd had not yet begun, although in the next half-hour, people passing on the Kennebec Rail Trail would stop, look and head inside the tan-and-green building at the southernmost point of Front Street — home to Lilac on the River — to see what was on that day’s menu.

The seasonal pop-up shop opened at the end of August as an outgrowth of Lilac Mixology & Catering, a custom catering and bar services provider, which has its professional kitchen on Water Street, overlooking its Front Street location.

While pop-up businesses are, by nature, temporary, Phinney has a different vision for Lilac on the River.

“If you go to Paris,” Phinney said, “there’s a lot of little shacks set up throughout the city. You can grab a sandwich that’s premade and you’re good to go. It’s very quick and simple. That’s what we’re trying to do here.”

While the shop may close during the coldest winter months, Phinney said it will be back in the early spring, with its pastries, sandwiches and drinks for those who live and work in downtown Augusta or pass by on the Kennebec River Rail Trail.

LINKING TO THE RIVER

Connecting downtown Augusta to the Kennebec River has been one of the projects of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, an organization dedicated to fostering a thriving downtown neighborhood. It has supported and promoted other pop-ups in downtown Augusta.

Earlier this year, Richard Parkhurst, who owns 275-283 Water St., leased out spaces on the building’s lowest level on Front Street to several businesses, to help focus attention on the Kennebec River.

The understanding was the renters would clean out the spaces that had been used for storage and make them accessible and usable for their businesses by July 1. That would give them at least two months to take advantage of the summer season on the river.

Southern Kennebec SUP Rentals was one of the businesses to lease a space, and co-owner Keith Bellefleur said the business had a good summer. The business sells and rents paddleboards during the warm months, and is now extending its season by renting out fat bikes and mountain bikes for the cooler months, expected to begin in a few weeks.

“There were supposed to be several of us down there,” Bellefleur said. “Not much ended up being able to get up and running. Fortunately, we were already established, so it was pretty easy for us.”

Both sales and rentals were consistent with 2020, which was a strong year for the business as people sought out outdoor activities they could do during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially before vaccines were available.

“We have a full-year lease, so we’ll stay open as long as we can,” Bellefleur said. “We won’t have traditional open hours like we did during the summer. We’ll definitely do something out of there with events, demos and pop-ups, and by-appointment things for the biking. We’ll see how it goes.”

Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said business activity on Front Street was slower than hoped, but tourists found their way downtown to Water Street, where many businesses reported record sales.

“We have to turn our attention to Front Street,” Hall said.

A SETBACK AND PROGRESS

The decision to open the pop-up restaurant has roots in Lilac Mixology & Catering’s past and in the present pandemic economy.

Lilac on the River owner Kim Phinney during an interview in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Phinney started out with a restaurant on Main Street in Winthrop called Cafe 130. To augment the restaurant business that drew crowds in the summer but not during the winter, Phinney began catering, and that portion of the business took off, prompting her to decide to close the restaurant after three years and focus on the catering and Lilac Mixology & Catering.

Phinney is the owner. Her husband, Clark, a mixologist and level 2 sommelier, is the director of beverage services. Her three children also work in the business, alongside their full-time jobs. Son Alexander is the executive chef, daughter, Samantha, is the style and etiquette coordinator and son Zackery is a mixologist, along with Logan Lattin.

The business was booking 40 weddings a year. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic called a halt to all of that, as public gatherings were banned to slow the spread of the viral respiratory disease. That meant a loss of business for the Phinneys in a year that was on track to be their best year, by far.

At that point, Phinney said, they thought they wanted to do something different: Open a bakery. And because of the lost business, she applied to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, federal aid designed to help out the restaurant industry.

Her application seemed to be right on track, she said, and plans for the bakery progressed, with fresh-made mozzarella, goat cheese, bread and pastries using family recipes and ideas for outfitting a leased storefront.

Phinney then received a letter informing her she would not be receiving any relief money.

“It was heartbreaking. So much money,” she said. “It was $250,000. That’s how much I lost in one season.”

So the vision changed, and the pop-up shop is the result for now, but not forever. The couple still plans to open the bakery. It will just take a little longer to get there.

“I consider this my fun,” Phinney said, pointing to the pop-up shop. “I love baking. It kind of is my COVID relief. It’s brought me back to what I love to do.”

The interior of Lilac on the River on Front Street in downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

From her shop on Front Street, Phinney sees the chance to share what she is doing with a growing crowd of people. Every day, people pass on the rail trail. As word spreads, more and more people who live in the apartments on Water Street are stopping by, as are the people who work in the area. That is expected to include Inland Fisheries & Wildlife employees who are expected to take up residence at 353 Water St. by the end of the month.

How long it will be open this year depends on the weather. The shop closed on a couple of stormy days in September, but it reopened as soon as the weather cleared.

“We’re going to go as long as we can (into the fall),” Phinney said. “It may be a little chilly, but we’re going to do meals to go.”

Lilac on the River is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10:30 a.m. to dusk — weather permitting — and for as long into the fall as temperatures allow. And Phinney said it will reopen in the early spring.

Right now, the Phinneys are focused on getting the word out about their business and menus so people can start ordering premade meals they can heat up at home.

“Our philosophy is that we take it one step at a time,” Phinney said. “We’ve moved three times, and each time we’ve grown.”

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