JONESBORO, Maine — Circles within circles within circles is how Tracy Watts describes her life. From boat builder to cook and baker, the owner of the new Smoky Toast Cafe is nothing if not versatile.
“I started out with an Easy Bake Oven,” she said Wednesday. She then became a hull technician in the U.S. Navy, went back to cooking at a general store called Tracy’s Place in Jonesport and then returned to boat building with her fiance and business partner, William Faulkingham.
For nine years, the couple operated Jonesboro Custom Finish Shop, where they took empty hulls and turned them into lobster boats or sport fishing boats.
“But when the economy went flat, the calls stopped coming in,” Watts said. “We were one of the last boat builders in the area. We went a year and a half without a phone call.”
Faulkingham, 64, said there was no decline in the boat-building industry — there was a complete halt.
“It was like someone turned off a light,” he said. As the economy crashed, lobstermen held onto their boats longer and sport fishermen couldn’t afford the fancy boats.
“We were used to having two to three orders ahead of time,” Faulkingham said. “Then nothing.”
Faulkingham had started out in the boat making business by carving his lobster fisherman dad’s wooden buoys. “It was what I had always done,” he said.
But when one business fails Down East, the locals get cracking to find a new one.
“I knew how to cook, so we fell back on what we knew,” Watts said.
So instead of building another boat, Faulkingham took a three-bay garage and turned it into a restaurant.
Visiting Smoky Toast Cafe is like visiting Grandma’s kitchen — it’s comfortable, it’s familiar and it feels like home.
An open-concept kitchen allows Watts and Faulkingham a chance to interact with and greet their customers. Down East accents and fishermen’s lingo fill the air, along with the scent of homemade bread, muffins and home-style cooking.
“Don’t get dishpan hands,” a customer ribs Faulkingham, who is busy at the sink.
Watts is busy making today’s specials: sausage gravy and biscuits, Sloppy Joes and homemade macaroni and cheese.
“Taking Care of Business” comes on the stereo atop the refrigerator and Watts breaks into a quick song and dance while creating an omelet.
“I didn’t know we got entertainment, too,” a customer at the counter quips.
The restaurant is set back from busy U.S. Route 1 among evergreens and birches. Its parking lot is full of pickup trucks, the unofficial sign of good food.
Food orders are clothespinned on a string over the stove and three of Watts’ friends volunteer as waitresses in exchange for a free lunch.
“We just opened March 1,” Watts said. “We’re still feeling out hiring permanent help.”
The customers are locals: fishermen, woodcutters, periwinkle harvesters.
“If you are looking for fast food and are in a hurry, we’re not your place,” Watts said. “Everything here is made from scratch.”
From boat building to bread making may seem an unlikely transition, but the couple said it is the very essence of living Down East.
“There are two breeds of people here,” Watts said. “There are the second and third generation on welfare and that is all they know. Then there are the rest of us that pay for them.”
Down Easters must be versatile and adaptable. Between the two of them, Watts and Faulkingham have raked blueberries, fished for scallops, dug clams and worms, tipped for wreaths and cut and split firewood.
“Not too many generations ago here there was no one else to rely on. If you didn’t do it, it didn’t get done,” Watts said. “You do what you have to do.”
Faulkingham said life in the poor economy of Washington County is harder than in other places in Maine.
“It is really hard here to watch our neighbors struggle,” he said. “But I’ve never seen such hard workers as Down Easters.”
Smoky Toast is open from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. It is located on U.S. Route 1 in Jonesboro.