People walk down Main Street in Freeport. Many local residents and businesspeople say they’d love the town to attract more quality sit-down restaurants. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

While restaurateurs seem drawn like moths these days to the bright heat of the Greater Portland food scene, many in the town of Freeport feel underserved by the comparatively lackluster dining choices, especially for a sit-down meal.

Freeport has more than two dozen restaurants – including four national chains and five Maine brewpubs – but not enough variety, they say. Diners must search hard to find food that’s more interesting and special than grab-and-go meals or brewpub fare.

Locals say the loss of the popular Azure Cafe – which closed in 2020 after 17 years in downtown Freeport, only incidentally timed with the outset of the pandemic – is emblematic of the town’s current restaurant woes. “Azure was fantastic and had great high-end dining,” said Ken Sparta, co-owner of Freeport Oyster Bar and a Freeport resident for 28 years. “It was a celebration spot. Since we’ve lost that, it hasn’t been replaced.”

For his part, Jonas Werner, former owner of Azure Cafe, said while the town doesn’t need an Azure clone, Freeport is hungry for more dining variety, particularly since other sit-down dinner options like the Mediterranean Grill closed in recent years, and the Corsican restaurant and Petrillo’s were both lost after fires (in 2016 and 2022, respectively).

“What I’d like to see is a continued mix of locally owned restaurants with some more diverse flavor profile. Not just serving the tourist market, but people living here,” Werner said. “Those of who live here would love to have a little taste of the world right here in our own backyard. We don’t want to have to drive anywhere to get what we want.”

“I would like to see one or two more places like the Tuscan Bistro that are a little higher-end,” said Tais De Los Reyes, co-owner of Athena’s Cantina, a Mexican restaurant on Route 1 in Freeport. “And a lot of people mention to me that we do need some places for sushi or authentic Italian cuisine that you can find in Portland or even in Falmouth or Yarmouth, but not here.”


Then there are the roughly 3 million tourists who pass through town of 8,784 each year. Factor in that level of foot traffic during peak seasons, and it does seem that Freeport – particularly its quarter-mile downtown stretch – could support more restaurants, more variety and a destination spot or two.

“Whether you’re a local or a tourist, there just seems to be not enough places to eat, and I hear that from the restaurant owners themselves,” said Tawni Whitney, executive director of the Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce. “They know that it’s better to have more choices, and that it brings more people to town. We have a wonderful variety of grab-and-go places, and longstanding business like DeRosier’s that have been here for years that make part of the foundation of what Freeport is. The need for both tourists and locals would be more sit-down dining options.”

Bridgham & Cook store owner Jay Paulus chats with Ken Sparta, co-owner of Freeport Oyster Bar, at the restaurant. “When Azure was next to us for many years, that filled a void,” Paulus said. He has run the Main Street British goods store for 40 years. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


The challenge is how to draw more restaurants to Freeport at a time when restaurateurs face staff shortages, and rising rents and labor costs. Another obstacle, many said, is the the lack of downtown housing for both restaurant workers and potential customers. Ryan Conery-Poulin, tasting room operations director at the Freeport-based Maine Beer Company, believes the chief issue facing Freeport restaurateurs is the town’s highly seasonal tourism pattern.

“The Freeport restaurant scene has always been difficult for the restaurant owners because there’s a great influx of seasonal business and then there’s a mass exodus and very sleepy period of time where local businesses, restaurants and retailers struggle,” Conery-Poulin said. “If somebody told me they’re going to open a restaurant in Freeport, I would say you seriously need to build into your business plan no sales – or negative sales – from January to April. It’s just the truth of it.

“I would love Freeport to have more dining options and a little bit later-night vibe,” he continued. “But to support that, there needs to be a greater draw from the larger community in the greater Freeport area in the slower season.”


“Freeport is more and more like Old Orchard Beach every year: It dies after the first of the year,” Wagner said. “You can roll up the sidewalks. There’s some business on the weekends, but not enough to support the places that are already here. You can only cut that pie so many ways, and the restaurant business is difficult enough. A lot of the businesses here are closed Sunday and Monday – myself included – because there isn’t enough business to stay open.”

Tracey, far right, and David Hoekzema enjoy lunch at Freeport Oyster Bar. The couple, who live in Maryland but have a home in Freeport, said they have been coming to the restaurant since they opened last year. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Quiet streets certainly jibes with the experience of Phil Wagner, owner of Freeport’s landmark downtown pizza and subs restaurant, DeRosier’s. “There’s been a lot of restaurants that have come and gone over the years,” he said. “If there was a massive need for more restaurants, I think they would be here. But right now, you could shoot a cannon down Main Street half of the evenings after 5 p.m. and not hit a soul.”

David Redding, founder and CEO of Goodfire Brewing Co., said when Goodfire opened in Freeport in 2022 in the 5,000-square-foot former home of Conundrum wine bistro and El Jefe taco bar on Route 1, “We thought we were going to get more tourists when we came up to Freeport. I didn’t realize that El Jefe and Conundrum had been this rich location for the community to come to gather with family and friends.

“We’re realizing people rely on us to be open, so even though we’re struggling a little bit on Mondays and Tuesdays, I’m like, ‘We’ve got to stay open and be there for the people, even if we’re going to lose money those days,’ ” Redding continued. “That’s a problem that happens in Freeport:  In the wintertime when the tourists die down, there are some really lean weekdays. And I think the full-service (restaurant) model for that is really hard.”

Tawni Whitney, the executive director of the Greater Freeport Chamber of Commerce, on Main Street in downtown Freeport. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Customers eating lunch at Goodfire on a weekday afternoon in late November said the brewpub is one of the few places they feel comfortable bringing their young kids, and bemoaned the lack of full-service family dining in Freeport.


“(Restaurants in Freeport) tend to focus on the tourist side of it and not necessarily on the locals. They have a lot of breweries, but not a lot of family dining. You can only go to Linda Bean’s so often,” said Courtney Olson of Lisbon Falls, referring to the downtown seafood restaurant Linda Bean’s Maine Kitchen.

“A lot of things are seasonal,” added Olson’s lunch companion, Jessica Murray of Chelsea. “They definitely need more variety for food. Not everyone likes seafood. I don’t really think of Freeport as a place to dine.”

Others heartily agree that Freeport’s dining scene needs better restaurants and a lot more buzz to draw out-of-town customers.

“Freeport is very far from a dining destination in my opinion,” said Maine-based food writer Joe Ricchio, noting that he has a long history with Freeport; he helped open the town’s first brewpub, Gritty McDuff’s, in 1995 and worked at retail stores there in the late 90s and 2010s. “China Rose is probably the most diverse restaurant there. It’s funny when Yarmouth seems to have so much more going on than Freeport, which would never have been the case back in the day.”

Tinned fish with accoutrements and the “bacon and eggs” dish, which is a house smoked salmon with deviled eggs and roe, at Freeport Oyster Bar. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

British good store Bridgham & Cook owner Jay Paulus said he hears from a lot of Freeport residents who head elsewhere when they want to eat out. “They’ll go down to Yarmouth or Portland, or up to Topsham, but they don’t seem to dine a lot in their own neighborhood,” he said.

“I certainly wouldn’t open a restaurant in Freeport at this point,” Ricchio said. “I’d rather go to Gorham or Cumberland or someplace that’ll draw from towns around it that have less going on. Freeport is kind of flanked by a bunch of places that are more up-and-coming, like Yarmouth and Brunswick.”


But Ricchio acknowledged that the millions of tourists who visit Freeport to shop may not be interested in a nice meal.

“Foot traffic in Freeport is not necessarily somebody looking for a dining experience. They’re looking for a place they can set their nine shopping bags down, bring three kids with them, eat and get out. It’s not the same foot traffic you get in the Old Port,” Ricchio said. “Freeport is not really designed to be a culinary destination. (The restaurants) are more a place to rest between or after shopping.”


Dining options in Freeport haven’t always seemed meager. Renowned Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street in Portland ran the kitchens at the Harraseeket Inn on Main Street from 1991 to 1996.

“I remember every time I would hear about another restaurant opening up in Freeport, I’d get a little bit of anxiety because I felt our position in the dining community was fragile and could change on public whim,” Hayward said. “It turned out the Harraseeket was the one that had longevity.”

Allie Sawyer, the general manager of Freeport Oyster Bar, chats with people sitting at the bar. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“When I first got here (in 1995), there were still a couple of shoe factories left,” said Sparta, the Freeport Oyster Bar co-owner. “The town was pretty different, and I would say there were more businesses that catered to people from Freeport. And as rents went up and demand for space went up as retail was taking over, a lot of great businesses got pushed out.”


Hayward said while he’s not up to speed on the current mix of restaurants in Freeport, he suspects daunting overhead might deter potential restaurateurs concern. “I’ll bet the costs of occupation in Freeport are really high, and that’s a barrier to coming in and getting a restaurant started – from scratch, especially – unless you have a lot of resources behind you.”

“I couldn’t open downtown,” said Athena’s Cantina co-owner De Los Reyes flatly, adding that beyond the cost-prohibitive rent, she’d also need to pay for more staffing. While Athena’s had a full team of employees when it opened in February 2020, just three weeks before the pandemic shutdown, the staff has since dwindled to just De Los Reyes and husband, Adam.

Because it’s near impossible, and expensive, to find employees, the dining room at Athena’s is open just one day a week — Tuesdays. On Wednesday through Friday, the place is takeout only. “It’s been so hard to find people who want to stay and are dedicated and motivated. We don’t have that passion in the food industry since COVID hit,” De Los Reyes said.

DeRosier’s owner Wagner agreed that high rents and labor costs inhibit downtown restaurants from opening in Freeport. “The reason (DeRosier’s) has been able to survive, just from a numbers perspective, is that we own the building, and have owned it since 1904,” he said, noting that DeRosier’s predates even L.L. Bean, which opened in 1917. “If we were paying somebody $4,000 a month rent, we would have been gone a long time ago. For new places starting out, between the rent overhead and staffing that is hard to come by and stupid-expensive right now – you’re paying 14-year-olds that don’t know which end of the broom goes down $25 bucks an hour – things aren’t great.”

People walk thorough Freeport Village Station on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

And like many in Freeport, Ed Stebbins, founding partner and manager of Gritty McDuff’s, said the lack of housing downtown is a major limitation for growing not just the town’s restaurant options, but its general economy and overall vibrancy as well.

“Most of the housing in Freeport, let’s be honest, it’s not working class housing,” Stebbins said. “The house prices are very high in that town, and the average restaurant worker is really going to struggle to find a place they can afford to live in there. As opposed to towns in the area like Brunswick and South Portland that have done a very good job of building housing in downtown areas, Freeport certainly has not done that.


The town “used to be a blue-collar community,” he continued, noting that his wife’s working-class family has mostly had to move out of Freeport in recent years because they can no longer afford to live there. “I don’t think you can really describe Freeport as a blue-collar community these days.”

Still, Stebbins doesn’t feel that gentrification is to blame. “The word ‘gentrified’ kind of implies that stuff was knocked down and built back up,” Stebbins said. “They haven’t really knocked much down in Freeport, and the only thing that’s gone up are the housing prices.”

“One of the challenges is, in order to have a vibrant downtown, we need downtown housing to support it,” said Whitney. “We need people living downtown – as they have historically before the massive fires in the 1980s – to frequent these places. That would be a component that would really give restaurants more confidence to come to Freeport.”

People walk down Main Street in Freeport on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


The town is making strides toward building new housing downtown. Town officials, interested local residents and other consultants contributed to Freeport’s 2022 Downtown Vision Plan, a 137-page strategic document developed in response to declining in-store retail sales in an era of online shopping.

“Freeport is working through the appropriate policy updates to allow more downtown housing to happen,” said Brett Richardson, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corporation.


“I think it’s going to get better,” Wagner said. “There seems to be a push right now of trying to get people back living in the downtown core. For the last 30 years, we’ve torn down every apartment building downtown and put in a parking lot instead. If there was 1,000 people living downtown again, you’d have need for some extra restaurants. You might have enough people around to support a bar in the downtown, which would be good. As the residential density grows, I think there’ll be some more opportunities.”

Indeed, town planners have estimated that another 1,000 downtown residents would help trigger economic and commercial growth. But until those new living spaces materialize, many said they don’t think the town’s restaurant roster will expand significantly.

From left, Thomas Henninger, co-owner; Samantha Rossingol, head chef; Ken Sparta, co-owner; and Allie Sawyer, general manager, outside of Freeport Oyster Bar on Main Street. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Yet Richardson noted that the six restaurants that have opened in Freeport in the past two years – The Bakeshop; Brickyard Hollow Brewing; Freeport Oyster Bar; Goodfire; The Met; and Nighthawk’s Kitchen at Mast Landing Brewing Company – are all independent local operations or satellites of other Maine- or New England-based businesses.

“I’m very excited about the fact that all of those are unique, and locally owned and they’re the types of places that would serve locals as well as tourists,” Richardson said. “They’re all really high-quality offerings that tend to source locally as much as they can. Most people would perceive that the trend toward places like the Freeport Oyster Bar – places that are authentic and let you tell the story of the local landscape within your offerings – is the future, and I think that trend is going to continue.”

“I would love two or three more really cool, trendy restaurants in Freeport,” said Allison Sawyer, general manager of Freeport Oyster Bar. “Because there’d be more competition, which is always a good thing. And if we got a couple really cool restaurants in town, we could be a dining destination.”

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