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A pizza shop that was a downtown Bath institution for almost 50 years has closed.
But a restaurant entrepreneur is looking forward to offering Vietnamese and Thai food in the same space.
Cong Thrinh bought a mixed-use building at 54 Centre St. from Richard Lessard for $210,000. Michael Atienza at Atienza Commercial & Residential Real Estate Brokers brokered the transaction.
The two-story 2,345-square-foot building is on a corner lot just off busy U.S. Route 1. The property has commercial space on the ground floor, a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor, a five-space paved parking lot and additional public on-street parking. The building has been well maintained. A new roof was installed in 2018.
The listing received quite a number of inquiries, said Atienza. Thrinh was the first to submit an offer.
The interest didn’t come as a surprise, given Bath’s growing cachet as an affordable alternative to Portland, he said. The downtown has seen a resurgence with recent turnover of downtown properties.
“A lot of southern Mainers and out-of-staters are starting to migrate up to this area,” he said. “It’s a happening place. Some of the older downtown building owners, who have owned them for quite some time, are starting to liquidate their assets, so there are a lot of changes with newer buyers.”
The seller, Richard Lessard, operated Mario’s of Bath, a pizza and Italian sandwich restaurant. A point of pride was his open-kitchen concept, which allowed customers to see the pizza being made.
“I was very proud of my kitchen,” he said. “You don’t see the open kitchen concept anymore.”
Mario’s was part of a chain of pizza franchises in Maine and New Hampshire. Mario’s of Bath started in 1971 under a different owner. At the time, Lessard was a kid who lived in Lewiston. He recalled glimpsing Mario’s from a distance, driving by Bath on the overpass when his family went fishing in Wiscasset.
“I was in the backseat of my father’s station wagon,” he said. “I’d see the Mario’s sign. And I’d go, ‘Wow, Mario’s!’ and I’d try to get my father to stop. But nope, he didn’t.”
In his 20s, he and some friends went to Popham Beach and purposely planned a stop at Mario’s, “just so I could say I did,” he said.
In 1985, he saw it was up for sale. By that time, he had come to know the owner. Lessard was 28 and didn’t have the money to buy the business, but the owner helped finance the deal. Lessard connected with the owner of a Mario’s in New Gloucester, who helped train him in the business.
“He spent two months with me, no charge,” he said.
Within several years, Lessard’s business was a success and he remodeled the space.
“We kept growing and growing,” he said.
Eventually, he said, the other Mario’s locations in the chain went out of business. But his restaurant continued to thrive. The lunchtime crowd was mainly workers from Bath Iron Works.
“I worked 30-plus years, seven days a week,” he said. “I loved my job, I loved the people. I had a good clientele. Loyal, loyal customers. They’d come in, I’d talk with them, they’d come back. They used to call me the ‘mayor of Bath.’ I’d make friends with everyone who came in.”
His wife, Joni, worked the cash register for 10 years and was also good with customers, he added.
Now age 64, he had planned to retire at 65 and had been trying to sell the business word-of-mouth. But when the pandemic hit, he decided not to stretch it out.
“I said, ‘Nope,’” he said. “My wife and I sat down and did the math and said, ‘It’s up for sale.’”
That’s when Thrinh heard about the listing.
Born and raised Portland, cooking has always been his passion. In Greater Portland, he’s cooked at several Thai restaurants and a Mexican restaurant, and at a nursing home. He also attended the culinary program at Southern Maine Community College.
But he always dreamed of opening his own restaurant.
He began searching for a spot about a year ago. Bath seemed like a promising locale because the market wasn’t saturated with the fare he wanted to offer, he said.
“In Portland, you can’t go down the street without seeing a Thai or Vietnamese restaurants selling pho,” he explained.
Bath is a nice town, too, he added: “Everyone’s nice. Everyone knows each other.”
Now he’s in the midst of renovations. That includes ripping up the floors and putting in new floors, removing years of wallpaper, replacing the paint and light fixtures, and enclosing the kitchen. New kitchen equipment will include a wok, rice cookers, dumpling steamers and various standard items.
“I just want a nice, relaxing place, not too fancy,” he said.
The menu will include fan favorites like a noodle dish called pad Thai.
“We’ll have big stockpot for pho,” he said, referring to a Vietnamese soup. “My mother will help with some of the cooking. I have a lot of Vietnamese recipes from her. Her pho is from the heart of Asia.”
Investment in renovation is expected to be at least $30,000 for contractors and materials, plus his own time, he said.
The purchase and renovations are financed through a bank loan, personal loans from friends, and his savings.
“I’ve been saving money for a long time to get to this point,” he added.
The goal is to have a soft opening by mid-May. He expects to have five employees in place, including himself, to start. The restaurant will stick with to-go for now.
The name of the restaurant will be Red Envelope, a nod to New Year celebrations held throughout Asia, when children are given little red envelopes filled with money.
“I always thought it was special,” he said.