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Updated: May 24, 2024

Long-time Bar Harbor restaurant to see new life as food pantry

Exterior of the former restaurant with an entry door. Courtesy / Bar Harbor Food Pantry Mama DiMatteo’s restaurant opened at 34 Kennebec St. in Bar Harbor in 1985.

Renovations are underway to transition a long-time restaurant in downtown Bar Harbor into a larger location for the Bar Harbor Food Pantry.

The Bar Harbor Food Pantry bought 34 Kennebec Place, home to Mama DiMatteo’s restaurant, from Eric Olson for $1.24 million.

Erica Brooks of the Swan Agency represented the seller and Kim Swan and Hannah Phippen of the Swan Agency represented the buyers.  

Several potential buyers viewed the property.

“It’s such as iconic place,” Swan told Mainebiz. 

The property is at the corner of Kennebec Place and Rodick Street. Rodick is a side street in the downtown neighborhood that has become something of a restaurant row over the years, noted Swan.

Olson continued to operate the business while it was on the market, but was ready to retire, she said.

The property, in good condition, had been on the market since March 2022.

Near the pantry’s offices and resale clothing shop, the building is larger than the pantry’s current location and has amenities, including a kitchen, stooge and parking, suitable to pantry operations. 

“It looked perfect,” said Swan.

Ice hut pizza delivery

Mama DiMatteo’s opened on July 5, 1985, in a different downtown Bar Harbor location and relocated to Kennebec Street in 1993.

In a farewell note posted on Facebook, Olson wrote, “It is with bittersweet feelings that I announce the sale of Mama DiMatteo's, a restaurant that has been a part of my life and yours for nearly four decades. While we're one year shy of our 40th anniversary, the time has come to pass the torch.”

By 1986, the menu included Friday fish fry, pizza and free delivery service. 

“One delivery I’ll never forget was a pizza to an ice fishing hut on Eagle Lake, ordered by payphone (ah, pre-cell phone days!) from the Maineway convenience store,” Olson wrote.

In 1993, Rodick Street was considered a “low-rent neighborhood far from downtown,” he said.

That soon changed, for Rodick Street and the surrounding neighborhood, with the addition of Mama DiMatteo’s, a number of other restaurants, a movie theater, a bus stop for Acadia National Park’s Island Explorer shuttle bus, and other attractions.

“And Rodick Street, once an underdog, became a major player in downtown Bar Harbor, and Mama DiMatteo's was proud to be a part of its evolution,” Olson wrote.

“Bittersweet for you and for all the many many customers you and your loyal staff have served over the years,” responded one Facebook commenter. “So many memorable moments at Mama's.”

Said another, “Your hospitality, creativity and gift for creating such a warm, welcoming oasis have been a blessing to so many of us.”

Pantry demand increase

Established 35 years ago, the pantry has been at 36 Mount Desert St. for 25 years, said Tom Reeve, the organization’s executive director and one of three full-time staffers.

The layout is an open-shopping floor, allowing clients to browse aisles and select items as they would in a traditional supermarket. The floor features six sections: produce, dairy and prepared foods, bakery, frozen, packaged dry goods and bulk repackaged dry goods.

The former restaurant's dining area is full of booths and chairs but is being dismantled.
Courtesy / Bar Harbor Food Pantry
The former restaurant’s 1,800 square feet is much larger than the pantry’s current 700 square feet, better accommodating a growing clientele and expanded cold storage.

Additional programs include Fresh Food Friday, a drop-by food distribution program of perishable goods. In a separate location that’s across Rodick Street from Mama DiMatteo’s, the pantry operates Serendipity Retail Clothing Boutique, a second-hand clothing store that serves the dual purpose of providing affordable clothing to the community and raising funds to help sustain the organization’s food distribution programs.

The pantry’s current space is a lease in a rear portion of the town’s YWCA at 36 Mount Desert St., also in Bar Harbor’s downtown and about two blocks from Mama DiMatteo’s.

But it outgrew the space as the number of customers shot up.

In Q1 2024, there were an average of 149 weekly customers, up from 69 in the same quarter a year ago.

The weekly average rose to 209 in April, up from 104 in the same month last year. 

Last fall, Reeve said, he discussed options with the board of directors such as building a warehouse, trying to expand the current location or looking for a new location.

Expanded cold storage

Deciding on the third option, there were certain requirements in the property search: it had to be larger, particularly to accommodate more cold-storage capacity. 

And it had to be downtown, where a large number of its customers work or live. Many lack private transportation, so being downtown was important to walkability.

The restaurant property seemed ideal. The footprint of 1,800 square feet is much larger than the current 700 square feet. It allows for the expansion of cold-storage capacity, which was important as the number of customers grew. 

The former restaurant's kitchen is being dismantled.
Courtesy / Bar Harbor Food Pantry
The Bar Harbor Food Pantry is in the process of selling restaurant equipment in order to make way for a new layout.

“We were getting to the point where we were unable to serve people,” said Reeve. 

Gaining cold-storage space also lowers operational costs in the long term, he said. Cold items are delivered on a regular schedule from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which sources food and distributes it to nearly 600 partner organizations across the state. The goods are lower in cost than market rate, and sometimes free. But as the clientele grows, the pantry doesn’t have room to store enough cold items until the next shipment comes. That means it has to replenish mid-week from a wholesaler at a higher cost.

Bridge loans from Coastal Enterprises Inc. and the Genesis Fund facilitated the acquisition. CEI and Genesis are both nonprofit community development financial institutions based in Brunswick.

The plan is to launch a public fundraiser in the near future to finance renovation and the acquisition, with the goal of retiring the loans in the process and, ideally, establishing an endowment, said Reeve.

It’s unlikely the pantry will be able to move until the end of 2024 or beyond, he said. The project first involves selling off the restaurant equipment, which is in process. Renovations will be needed.

“The space is laid out as a restaurant,” Reeve said. “We need to lay it out as a grocery store.” That includes installation of walk-in freezers and a climate-control system, tearing down some walls and putting up others, and installing a handicap bathroom and offices.

The Swan Agency recently donated $25,000 to the pantry toward renovations. 

Treading water

Why the growing need? 

“The economy is broken,” said Reeve. “The cost of living, versus wages, doesn’t line up. Housing is expensive.”

Reeve estimated that over 75% of customers are working age; many others are retirees living on a fixed income.

Making a wage in Bar Harbor that covers all expenses can be difficult, especially for younger workers, he said. 

“You tread water, then something happens and you can’t buy food that week,” he said. “It’s tough living for the young crowd. And the seasonality of our economy doesn’t help.”

It’s not easy to find an affordable property in the area either, he added.

“Downtown Bar Harbor is a very hot market, and when property comes on the market, it doesn’t last,” he said. “We spent a couple of months looking for a place.”

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