ORONO, Maine — Two days after ownership of the Bear Brew Pub officially changed hands, construction equipment whirred Wednesday and workers filed in and out with boxes of liquor bottles.
It will be at least St. Patrick’s Day before the popular bar and restaurant are open again, but new owner Jim Bence is eager to make changes.
Bence bought the business at 36 Main St., including the first-floor restaurant, second-floor deck and club, and third-floor lounge space, from Matt Haskell, who had owned it since 2002. The two have known each other for 15 years.
“Matt had a really big thing going early on, and we want to revive it,” Bence, a Bar Harbor resident, said Wednesday afternoon in front of the building. “We’re here to spruce it up and bring it back to life.”
Bence plans to appear on March 8 in front of the Orono Town Council for approval of necessary permits, including a liquor license. He hopes to have at least the bar and pizza oven open by March 17. The full kitchen may take longer to reopen.
Orono resident Milos Blagojevic will retain ownership of the building.
A 1978 University of Maine graduate, Bence has owned the Bar Harbor ice creamery C.J.’s Big Dipper for 21 years.
“I’ve been in retail for a while, but this is a new challenge,” he said.
He doesn’t intend to make too many big changes at his new Orono venture. The business will remain the Bear Brew Pub — “I wouldn’t do that to [patrons],” he said of the possibility of a name change — and wants to keep Bear Brew traditions such as two-for-one pizza nights.
He also plans to open up the brewery located in a room behind the bar, which may not happen until this summer. The menu will also be tweaked.
The dining room will undergo a “freshening up,” Bence said, and the kitchen is getting a thorough cleaning. The current closure, during which time most of that work will be done, coincides with UMaine’s spring break, a time when the student population in town drops.
However, Bence doesn’t want to focus solely on the UMaine students who packed Haskell’s bar for Thursday College Nights or D.J.-fueled dance parties. Bence is hoping to cultivate what he called a mixed clientele of students and locals looking for a good meal.
“It’s very clear that this town is Thursday-Friday. Those are college nights,” he said. “We don’t want them not to come, but we’d like to make it more diverse.”
To attract a mixed crowd, Bence said, he wants to host blues and jazz shows in Club Soma 36, which is on part of the building’s second floor. A lounge space on the building’s third floor will remain dormant for now, although Bence said he might eventually turn it into a martini bar, which was an idea Haskell had.
Bence said several newly hired employees have worked at both the ice cream shop and Haskell’s Bear Brew in the past.
“I’ve got some real quality help coming in,” Bence said.
Both Haskell and Bence declined to reveal the purchase price of the business.
Haskell was set in January to sell the Bear Brew Pub business, although not the rights to Club Soma 36 or the third floor. The deal fell through, however, when a financial backer pulled out, Haskell said at the time.
The man who Haskell said was backing the purchase declined at the time to comment.
The potential new owner had expressed interest in changing the restaurant’s name to I Gemelli and giving it more of a Mediterranean theme.
While Bence is expanding to Orono, the sale means Haskell can now focus on his own Bar Harbor business, Finback Alehouse. The Cottage Street restaurant will open May 1.
Bear Brew patrons should “stay tuned,” Bence said, for that restaurant’s opening date.