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December 2, 2020

Broker sees West End building as survival space for struggling Portland restaurants

File Photo / Maureen Milliken Tom Landry says Portland's condominium market is on track to break all previous sales records.

The one-story building nestled among the Victorian architecture of Portland's West End is easy for the casual passer-by to overlook, but the structure definitely has an allure in the commercial real estate world.

As Tom Landry, broker and owner of Benchmark Real Estate, stood in front of 64 Pine St. on Tuesday, talking about a short-term plan for its future, a woman approached and asked if it was for lease. How much? Could she take a look?

No matter what changes COVID-19 may have brought to Portland's sizzling real estate market this year, a 4,629-square-foot turnkey building with a full commercial kitchen and 20 off-street parking spaces in the peninsula's highest-end neighborhood is a tenant magnet.

Landry's open to inquiries, but for at least the next six to eight months, he has something different in mind.

The 70-year-old building looks like the small city grocery store it has been for much of its life. It was built in 1950 to replace the aging clapboard Enemark & Hodgkins store, and since 1997 was home to popular Aurora Provisions, a gourmet store and cafe. Owner Marika Kuzma Green sold the business in 2017, and Aurora closed for good in 2018.

Landry bought the building in 2019 and shortly after that leased it to Liz Koenigsberg and Will Lavey, owners of the Blue Spoon, for a catering business. When COVID-19 hit, catering came to a screeching halt.

The big hit the city's food industry has taken has prompted Landry to look at the space in a new way. At least for the time being.

"Our entire economy is suffering, people are suffering," he said Tuesday. "When the restaurants close, it hurts the entire economy. People need to be creative."

a one story green brick building with a door on the corner and a sign that says spoon
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The building at 64 PIne St. is alluring to renters, but broker Tom Landry hopes, short-term, it can be a collaborative kitchen for restaurants looking to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

'How can we help for the next six months?'

Landry envisions a collaborative tenancy in the building, where restaurants that can no longer afford their brick and mortar will have a base to offer takeout and delivery, sharing the space, and keeping their business and brand alive.

That's the general idea, but he's open to whatever someone wants to suggest that will help the city's struggling food and retail businesses.

"We live and breathe and take seriously living here, buying local," he said of himself and his wife, Amy. "Our big question was, 'How can we work with this space to help people for the next six months?'"

The space is wide, roomy and, even on a rainy day, filled with light from a wall of windows that actually open. Landry said it could accommodate an indoor market-type set-up, some with walk-up windows. There's also room in the lot outside for outdoor vending, the 20 parking spaces not as necessary in the walkable neighborhood as more people stay close to home.

The building leases for $3,000 a month. He said what happens with it in the next several months is up to what kind of interest there is, but leases would likely be for six months.

The concept is similar to a "ghost kitchen," where restaurants share space, offering only delivery and takeout. One example is in the former School Street Pub & Grill in Gorham, which is opening as Karen's Ghost Kitchen. The restaurant has six different takeout and delivery menus, with different types of food that owner Karen Nason will operate out of the 5,000-square-foot space, beginning this month.

Ghost kitchens and virtual restaurants are "the wave of the future," according to The food blog says the concept has caught on during the pandemic as a way to offer restaurant food, and also as an incubator for restaurant entrepreneurs.

Landry sees the Portland space, though, as a variation on that, something more fluid that could offer more.

"A big question people in the business have is, 'Can I keep my brand alive?'" he said. "So, I think of it more as a collaborative kitchen." The businesses that share the space would keep their individual menus, their names, what makes them special. And hopefully be able to launch back into business when things get better.

He said those local independent brands and businesses are part of what makes Portland, and Maine, special. "This is not Anywhere, America," he said. "This is a special place, and we don't want to lose that."

a one story building with a wall of windows a woman in a yellow raincoat stands in the doorway
Photo / Maureen Milliken
A lot of windows and outdoor space add possibilities to a 64 Pine St. collaborative venture.

Not limited to 'kitchen'

While there is a large commercial kitchen, the businesses at the site don't have to be limited to "kitchen" businesses.

"It can be coffee, drinks, retail, it can be indoors, outdoors, you name it," he said. 

There's room indoors for socially distanced tables, the windows can be opened, and those who lease it may have creative ideas on how the space can be used.

He said that the space will also give residents of the neighborhood a special place to gather, and spend money supporting local businesses. Aurora Provisions was a gathering place, and when it closed it left a need in the neighborhood, he said.

While the plan is for six or eight months, if the collaboration catches on, it could be extended to more of a long-term thing. Though the building is also for sale, listed at $1.395 million, no one is sure about the future or the commercial market, he said. "I'm open to all possibilities. No one knows what will happen."

Landry worked as director of food service marketing for Barber Foods for 11 years, and understands the food business. He's also working with Gillian Britt, of gBritt PR, on connecting with the industry.

He's hoping something will be in place for the holidays, particularly some of the festive outdoor aspect he hopes to generate.

But the biggest goal, he said, is to make it happen and for it to be the bridge some businesses need.

With a coronavirus vaccine on the horizon, "The idea is, if people can hang on, it will be OK," he said. "People want to get through the next six or eight months. There's a feeling if we can just get to summer, survive until then, it could be okay."

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