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July 16, 2018

Camden eatery entrepreneur purchases site of popular bistro

Courtesy / Mark Senders
Courtesy / Mark Senders
Mark Senders, shown here with his daughter Olivia, purchased 55 Chestnut St. in Camden to renovate for a restaurant tenant.

CAMDEN — Mark Senders, owner of the Camden hotspot Bagel Café, has purchased the location of the former Francine Bistro, another popular eatery that closed late last year.

Olivia Harris LLC purchased 55 Chestnut St. in Camden from Last Waltz LLC for $465,000. Scott Horty and Ken Twaddel of Camden Real Estate Co. brokered the deal, which closed May 11.

Senders is the owner behind Olivia Harris LLC. Recently, his contractor was rebuilding the floors and installing new electrical and plumbing systems in the building, which dates to 1950. Senders was preparing to install new equipment and meet a prospective restaurant tenant.

"The kitchen and the restaurant were in pretty bad shape," he said. "But I realized how much of a fixer-upper it could be and how much of an asset to the community it is."

Crooked pews

Francine Bistro leased the property for 15 years. According to a May 2014 article in Maine Magazine, Francine Bistro, along with Shepherd's Pie and Seabright Pizza, were owned by Brian Hill, "a Maine culinary icon," the magazine said. Hill grew up in Warren and learned cooking at restaurants in cities like New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

In 2003, he drove to Camden to scout a former coffee and sandwich shop for Francine. His subsequent reconstruction included "characteristics of a small French restaurant" like crooked church pews and "dysfunctional mirrors," the article said. In 2010, he opened Shepherd's Pie in Rockport in a vacant historical building. In 2013, he opened a Camden pizzeria called Seabright.

Buyer's representative Scott Horty said that when Hill closed Francine late last year, the family decided to look for another tenant for a while, received some interest, but then decided to sell.

The property's location — a few blocks from the harbor at the margins of a residential area — along with its existing restaurant structure made it a good value, said Horty.

"We're in a good real estate market right now," he said of Camden. "It's unusual to find a business location that can accommodate a restaurant operation where you have parking. You had this extremely successful restaurant there, so if you jumped in and started a new restaurant that served great food, you would have seasonal visitors who come back to Camden in the summer and locals who would always go there. Even if you weren't Francine, they'd come in and eat and, if it's good food, they'll come back."

Shepherd's Pie and Seabright Pizza, which were also in leased spaces, have also closed, said Horty. The Seabright space is now a Mexican eatery called El Ancla and the Shepherd's Pie space is 18 Central Oyster Bar & Grill.

Fresh bagels daily

Senders is a Maine native and a long-time cook who wasn't necessarily looking for a renovation project.

In 2000, he graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt., then worked at eateries in midcoast Maine during the summer and in Colorado, New Mexico and Florida during the winter.

As it happened, two of those places were Hill's Shepherd's Pie and Francine Bistro.

"But I always wanted to be my own boss and own my own business," Senders continued. "It looked like it would be a lot more fun than being told what to do."

In 2014, Senders and his wife Becky Neves saw the Bagel Café, an existing business, listed by Horty and decided to buy it.

"I was working for Brian at Shepherd's Pie and wanted to make a change," Senders says. "We had a daughter and I wanted to stop working nights and working quite as much as I was. The Bagel Café was for sale and I thought it was a good fit."

Making breakfast and lunch seven days a week, the menu features fresh-daily bagels that are made in the traditional way — boiled and then baked — and items like corn beef, pastrami and smoked salmon.

"We have a big local following," he said.

Great memories

Courtesy / Camden Real Estate Co.
Courtesy / Camden Real Estate Co.
Camden restaurant Francine Bistro's building recently sold for $465,000.

Last year, he and Neves also won the Camden Snow Bowl food concession contract. The past winter went well, he said, and he's now serving food, beer and wine for the summer season. He named the concession Big T Snack Shack, in honor of the Snow Bowl once having the biggest T bar on the East Coast.

He's spending part of his time at the café, baking two days a week to give his baker time off, and doing the concession two nights a week.

"Because it's the first year, I want to get the momentum going," he said.

When the opportunity arose to buy 55 Chestnut St., he jumped on it, financing the purchase with a mortgage. The location is downtown but on a side street, away from the heavy summer traffic on Route 1.

"It wasn't something I was thinking I was going to do," he said. "But upon exploring it, I could see value. I love the space and everyone has great memories there, and it's a niche for Camden's dining scene."

If he nails down a tenant in time to open for the summer, that would be great, he said. But even if he doesn't, Senders said: "It's a plausible business to open in the fall. It's a quaint little community restaurant."

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