October 1960. An early snowstorm effectively killed what little business was left at Leith and Donna Wadleigh’s brand new Old Town ice cream stand, Creemee’s.
“Who wants ice cream when it’s freezing out?” said Leith Wadleigh, now 73. “Nobody, that’s who.”
After a winter in Florida, the couple decided they would come back to Maine and revamp their business model. Instead of ice cream, they’d sell burgers, hot dogs, desserts and other menu items that everybody likes year-round. The affable Leith greeted customers with a cheery “Hiya, Governor” — and in a stroke of genius, he and Donna named their business Governor’s Restaurant.
Fifty years later, the six Governor’s Restaurants across the state are as synonymous with Maine as lobsters and lighthouses. Leith and Donna retired 10 years ago, leaving the chain in the hands of their son, Randy Wadleigh, who still cooks during the day at the original Old Town location. For the month of June, all six eateries will offer specials every day of the week — from $5 lobster rolls on June 22, to a 50th birthday party at all locations set for 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday, June 18. The Old Town location will offer giveaways, raffles and a meet-and-greet with Leith and Donna Wadleigh.
Though a few things have changed, there’s one important thing that remains the same: homemade comfort food using Maine ingredients.
“The commitment to homemade food has never stopped,” said Leith Wadleigh. “I knew when I started that the only way I’d make it is if food was homemade. Any jackass can buy frozen food and cook it. I used to go up to Dahl’s Bakery in Old Town to buy hamburger rolls. I always ate one on the way back. You can’t replace something like that. And when Dahl’s closed, we hired three of their workers.”
Brand recognition is a part of its success — the portly Governor’s mascot, with his top hat and suit, is instantly recognizable. There are few Mainers out there who haven’t seen an “Eat Dessert First” bumper sticker. Debate rages as to whether the Muskie Burger, Brennan Burger or Baldacci Burger, each named after a Maine governor, is the best. The Federal Deficit, an $18 ice cream dessert that features a banana split, brownie delight, strawberry shortcake and six hot fudge sundaes in one, is the stuff of legend.
All those elements, plus a devoted core clientele, have kept Governor’s around, despite all the economic twists and turns of the past five decades.
“It’s a tough business. Most restaurants don’t last for more than three years after they open,” said Randy Wadleigh. “But, in this economy, sales are up and things are bustling. No one’s getting rich, but it’s OK. We have 300 full- and part-time employees across the state. That’s pretty good, I think.”
The younger Wadleigh began working for his mother and father when he was 9 years old.
“I served 19-cent hot dogs. All I did was put hot dogs in rolls and add mustard, relish, onions and ketchup,” said the younger Wadleigh. “It was my first job.”
Randy Wadleigh recalls a time when he was very young, just 4 or 5 years old, when his parents went through the painful experience of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and narrowly avoided losing the restaurant altogether. Despite it being a difficult time for his family, he remembers it as a valuable lesson for him — as a son and as a future businessman.
“My mom would lug my sister and I around in our old Gremlin. We didn’t have a lot of money then, but it was a good time for our family,” he said. “It made me admire my parents, and the shoulders that I stand on. They always tried to do the right thing.”
There are a few things that separate father from son — such as the fact that, when it comes to desserts, the elder Wadleigh loves the creamy graham cracker pie, while the younger covets chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. But, like his father, Randy prefers to stay behind the scenes in the kitchen while someone else runs the front. Fifty years ago, Donna Wadleigh ran the front — and Leith Wadleigh credits their separate responsibilities as being one of the reasons Governor’s has lasted so long.
“We stayed out of each other’s hair. We never crossed each other. That’s what made it work,” he said. “A lot of husbands and wives who work together don’t get that. But we always got along.”
The June birthday celebrations are a thank-you to all their patrons over the years — from the generations of University of Maine students who have eaten at the Old Town location, to those folks who have been going on a weekly, sometimes daily basis for nearly 50 years.
“The restaurant has been very good to us over the years. That’s why we’re doing this. We’re giving back to the community that has supported us all these years,” said Randy Wadleigh. “We’re planning on selling about 700 lobster rolls, and if we run out I’m not gonna feel too bad. We’re not really making any money. We just want to thank people for 50 years.”
There are Governor’s Restaurants in six Maine locations: Old Town, Bangor, Waterville, Lewiston, South Portland and Presque Isle. On Mondays in June, patrons can get a hamburger, cheeseburger, hot dog, fries or coleslaw for 50 cents; on Thursdays, Gifford’s Ice Cream Cones and fountain drinks are 50 cents. Other specials are available throughout the month. For information, visit www.governorsrestaurant.com.