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Kudos to the Chef

BY CAPTAIN D

I SELDOM SEND kudos to chefs. It just isn’t my way. While I don’t often return badly prepared stuff (assuming it’s at least semi-edible), neither do I lavish praise for jobs well done. Casual as can be, I take things pretty much as they come.

Thus the day I told Leon Harrington that his were the best French fries in all of Downeast Maine, it was an anomaly. Not my ordinary behavior at all. But I really couldn’t help myself. His really quite wondrous fries compelled me to wax lyrical so completely overwhelmed was I by their sheer excellence. In this sad world of ours, fries all too often are afterthoughts. Not Leon’s. His golden brown offerings, served piping hot, had great, crispy texture and perfect seasoning. Potentially they were a tasty meal in and of themselves.*

Harrington, who recently had bought Ellsworth’s Riverside Café and was still settling in, agreed that his fries were, indeed, finestkind. But then he admitted he was looking for suitable replacements. It seemed that even though he used nothing but canola oil for frying, the company that initially prepared his fries used small doses of trans fat prior to flash-freezing.

"The human body isn’t designed to assimilate trans fat," Leon said. "I don’t want to serve even trace amounts of it."

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was typical of Leon. For him "very good" isn’t necessarily good enough. He can be a restless spirit relentlessly endeavoring to make good things better.

Raised in Washington State, Harrington worked in Arizona and South Carolina before moving to Maine. He was educated not as a chef, but as a technician, versed in both mechanical and chemical engineering. He had developed a versatility that served him well. He could design things from scratch, then create them on lathes or welders. There wasn’t much he couldn’t make.

Four years ago, however, he left all this to move to Maine. His wife Cynthia, born in Island Falls and raised in Presque Isle, missed her home state. She and Leon recognized Maine as a good place to raise Tucker, their young son.

As is so often the case with Maine’s newcomers, they were immediately faced with the dilemma of how to make a living. He would like to have stayed in manufacturing. After all, he knew this world intimately. He had, in Nevada, been president of two manufacturing companies; one made electronic signs, the other specialized in metal fabrication and finishing. For Harrington, making things had become second nature.

What he found in Maine, however, was a defunct deli well off the beaten path. The place, situated in Gouldsboro on the road to Prospect Harbor, had been shut tight for nearly a year and couldn’t have seemed terribly promising. Walk-in traffic was nil; drive-by traffic was at best occasional. But Leon saw opportunity where others couldn’t. He bought the deli and devoted himself to making it thrive.

He brought to this business a rather simple entrepreneurial formula that may have stemmed from his engineering background. Just as the designer of widgets will strive to keep them elegant, making matters no more complicated than necessary. Harrington brought the same attitude to his deli. In a nutshell, Harrington endeavored to maintain high quality combined with reasonable prices. Profits would come from volume and repeat sales.

What could be simpler? And why don’t more businesses manage to do this?

Well, first off, Harrington admits things weren’t quite that simple. High quality and low prices were essential, but a few other things had to fall into place as well.

Since margins were necessarily small, he needed to know precisely what his costs were. Without great diligence, meager margins could easily have drifted into negative territory. In the early days of his deli, for example, he paid $4 a pound for the high-quality turkey breast that went into his $4.95 sandwich. Accompanying the turkey was an expensive premium cheese free of anti-caking agents and preservatives. The costly lettuce he used was fresh and perishable, not the stuff with a two-week shelf life. He also insisted on using Hellmann’s mayonnaise, although lesser brands were way cheaper. Building volume wouldn’t have helped had Harrington been losing money on each sandwich.

To stay in the black, Harrington put big demands on his employees. He shared with them important details of his business. They knew they had to make sandwiches efficiently and never wastefully. In a sense, everybody working there assumed responsibility for matters often regarded as managerial. With this responsibility came a sense of pride when the business thrived.

Last summer when Harrington took over Ellsworth’s Riverside Café, he vowed to keep this philosophy intact. He says the fact that Beth and Barb, the sisters who were the previous owners, had been doing things right made things much easier. For most of the first year, Harrington made no changes to the breakfast and lunch menus.

None of this should suggest that Harrington was satisfied with the status quo. He is introducing important changes. Last winter, he began serving dinners three nights a week, and expects to be doing this seven nights a week come summer.

He has also brought in live entertainment nightly. The Friday night jazz group has been a big hit as have the various other musicians who have performed here.

He has begun serving beer and wine, and by summer expects to be serving cocktails. He keeps close tabs on what is happening at the near-by Grand Theatre. On show nights, he is prepared to accommodate big crowds.

"I want to serve people who are looking for a great meal at a reasonable price," he says. "Our highest priced entree is a 12-ounce ribeye steak at $12.99. Maybe someday we’ll get into lobster, but not right away. To be successful with lobster, you need a big volume."

Harrington says he expects to be open later and more days per week in summer. "That gives us plenty of time after the shows close at the Grand," he points out. He recommends calling ahead for reservations on Friday and Saturday nights during the spring and summer seasons. "Some nights are real busy, others not so much. I would say, call, just to be on the safe side."

Has kept menu quite a bit the same. Still serves Israeli Delight, which goes back two owners, to when the place was called Dick’s Diner. Place used to be alongside the Union River. No longer is. Kept the name anyway.

"Breakfast and lunch menus are exactly as they were when Beth and Barb were in charge. It wasn’t broken, so why try to fix it?" I was happy with it and so were the customers. We had a great clientele right from the get-go."

Still, he says there will be changes in the future. "I have come to realize that some things can be simplified a bit," he says. "It is a little more expensive than it needs to be in some areas. Also I envision a bigger diner menu, more vegetarian and seafood dishes."

Leon’s sister Kerry moved to Maine from Phoenix where she was a 200-year veteran at an Olive Garden there. Harrington is quick to point out that her extensive background in restaurant management has been a huge help.

"It’s still all about people," he insists. "Customers, sure, but every bit as important are the employees. Nothing makes me happier than to see them come to work, happy to be here, and proud of what we are."

And, yeah, Leon says he found trans-fat-free fries he’s proud to serve.


*They say that McDonald’s took off because Ray Koch realized his core business wasn’t burgers, but fries. For better or worse, this simple insight may have established the nation’s nutritional patterns forevermore.