Zippy’s feeds bodies & soul of Market Square in Houlton

Posted Sept. 07, 2010, at 11:18 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:53 a.m.

For Mike Hurley, there are few words that go together better than “dinner and a movie.” It is a slice of American life experienced by people on first dates, date nights and girls nights out in every city and town across the country.

So what could be better, the Belfast resident and owner of two movie theaters thought a few years ago, than to offer people a chance to indulge in both?

That was the idea behind Zippy’s, a seasonal outdoor restaurant in downtown Houlton that has quickly become a popular eatery for both movie lovers and cinema cynics. Located in the parking lot of the Temple Theatre, which is also owned by Hurley and his wife, Therese Bagnardi, the restaurant now has operated for three summers.

It has become a popular eatery in the community with its mix of old-fashioned and modern fare. The menu at this “retro hot dog joint,” as Hurley calls it, features hamburgers and hot dogs, beef and chicken dishes, salads, wraps and seafood dishes such as lobster rolls and clams. Favorites such as french fries and onion rings, chicken wings, nachos and a variety of side dishes also are on the menu. Hurley recently added ice cream and frappes to his list of offerings. The restaurant is open six days a week, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

“I have always thought a lot about the synergy between dinner and a movie,” said the 59-year-old, who also co-owns the three-screen Colonial Theatre in Belfast with his wife. “You think of food when you think of watching a movie, whether it be popcorn or candy or pizza. Houlton has undergone a lot of small changes in the past five years or so, and I am a firm believer that the way you tip the scales for good is not by throwing big rocks, but by throwing little rocks and letting them all pile up. This is my little rock.”

The couple signed a deal to lease the Temple Theatre in June 2002 and completely renovated the space before it was reopened five months later.

That sort of renovation also went on at Zippy’s, Hurley said.

“I bought a food wagon that has a 28-foot trailer and nothing in there is as it was when I bought it,” he said. “We tore it out and rebuilt it.”

Hurley installed grills and refrigerators, food storage and preparation space and designed a courtyardlike area for outdoor tables and chairs. In Market Square, little changes get noticed quickly, so he barely had to advertise to lure customers to his new establishment.

“You can count on one hand the number of places to eat in Market Square, so we were confident Zippy’s would be good for the downtown and for us,” he said. “Business was good right from the start. The first year we got a lot of word-of-mouth business.”

The business plan for the restaurant was simple, he said.

“We knew we couldn’t just try to be the cheapest place in town,” said Hurley. “So we spent money on good-quality hot dogs and Angus beef. We bought good fish and other produce. Our hot dogs and hamburgers have become our most popular items.”

Hurley said that he wanted the menu to appeal to the entire community so that he could get a varied clientele.

“We wanted this to be a place for meat eaters and vegetarians,” he said. “It’s nice when you can get a good group to go out to dinner but it gets hard when you get to the restaurant and find out that there is nothing for the vegetarians to eat. We didn’t want that to happen.”

Hurley said that he has noticed a lot of changes in Houlton since he took over the theater, all of which have brought more business into the downtown. In the gigantic theater parking lot is Zippy’s and also the newly constructed Market Square Commons, a 28-unit apartment complex that is now open. Gateway Crossing, the pedestrian footbridge that opened five years ago, also is drawing more people into the downtown, as is a newly established community market.

The movie theater also has lured people to Zippy’s. Families can now grab dinner at Zippy’s and walk a few steps into the theater to watch a movie and eat some candy for dessert. Business at the theater has increased over the past few years, he said, with movies proving to be “recessionproof.” At the same time, business at Zippy’s is largely dependent on the weather.

“If it is a nice clear day with temperatures in the 70s, we get a lot of business,” he said. “On dreary days, we aren’t so lucky.”

Hurley has approximately 13 employees who take turns working at both Zippy’s and the theater.

While Hurley keeps improving his businesses, the theater is up for sale, with Zippy’s included in the package. Hurley stands firm in his belief that the theater should be owned by a local person, saying that he and his wife view themselves simply as “caretakers” of the theater until the right buyer comes along.

Like most businesses in Houlton, Zippy’s customers span two nations.

Susan Booth is from Woodstock, New Brunswick. She was at Zippy’s on a recent weekday with her two children, Dalton, 12, and Zoe, 7. She said that she often comes to the restaurant when she brings her two children shopping in Houlton twice a month.

“I could eat their fish and chips every day of the week,” Booth said, smiling as she indulged in the beer battered, flaky haddock and crisp fries. “I get them every time. I love that I can bring the whole family here and it’s sometimes less expensive than a fast-food restaurant.”

Dalton Booth, admittedly, is prone to ordering “crazy combinations” of food. Lunching with his mother and sister, he was sampling nachos and a haddock sandwich.

“I like the sliders the best,” he said, referring to Zippy’s miniburgers. “This is really the first outdoor restaurant I’ve ever been to. I like watching the people go by.”

Mike Trenton of Houlton also is a repeat customer. He said that he comes to Zippy’s “once or twice a week,” mainly for its Texas BBQ burger or a wrap.

“I eat the onion rings a lot, too,” he said. “I can’t help myself. They are too good. You get a lot of food here quickly for a fair price. It is what you would want out of any restaurant.”

Hurley said that he has thought of expanding to make Zippy’s a year-round restaurant instead of closing in mid-September, but the price isn’t right at the moment. Right now, he is satisfied with his space and the impact it’s having on the community.

“Businesswise, this is an itch I’ve wanted to scratch for a while and I got do to it,” he said. “This is an amazing town and my wife and I have got to contribute to it just a little bit. That makes us really happy.”

For more information on Zippy’s and the Temple Theatre, visit www.templemovies.com.

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