BRUNSWICK, Maine — Chris Pillsbury sensed the economy shifting underfoot.
In 2008, as recession sank in, demand for high-end dining dropped and he widened his stance from his Back Street Bistro, expanding out to Maine Street and opening Lilee’s Public House, which featured less expensive pub fare.
“We changed concepts in Lilee’s,” Pillsbury said Thursday, a baseball cap shading his eyes from the sun on the second floor patio of Back Street Bistro, the fine-dining restaurant near the downtown fire station. “I wanted to find something casual and more affordable with the same quality.”
He did. But three years after opening Lilee’s, its success wasn’t enough to overcome sagging numbers at Back Street Bistro. In an aggressive market during a global financial contraction, both establishments had little room for error, he said.
“We were undercapitalized from the beginning,” Pillsbury said.
Both restaurants will close next weekend.
“I’m sad about it, but I’m proud of what we started,” said Pillsbury, who lives in Brunswick. “I’m sad for the town and the staff. Especially at Lilee’s, it is a part of the community and it’s one of those cool, comfortable places that I think Brunswick will be lacking.”
In the restaurant’s third year, Pillsbury said business was on the rise and Lilee’s was turning a profit, but Back Street continued to lag behind.
“It was the death anchor,” Pillsbury said.
Until some time last week, Pillsbury said, he still had hopes that a last-ditch effort could right the listing ship. And plans to cater to a new clientele at Back Street were envisioned for the summer.
But financial pressure made that impossible.
Pillsbury filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with hopes of reorganizing the business, but the move didn’t solve the debt with his landlord at Lilee’s, Sylvia Wyler, which she described Thursday as a “substantial lack of rent-paying.”
“I couldn’t afford to have a tenant who wouldn’t pay rent because I have to pay the mortgage,” Wyler said.
Debt lingered from the restaurant’s opening in August 2009, when the new business that started without a bank loan worked to gain a foothold and a following.
That challenge increased with a slowing demand for high-end food, Pillsbury said. After opening in late 2004, Back Street’s earnings had risen steadily in its first three years — from $550,000 to $640,000 to $760,000 — but sank back around $550,000 after 2008, when the recession hit.
A $20,000 line of credit that Pillsbury said helped the business through the slow winter months was no longer available.
Until last week, Pillsbury said he still had hope that one or both of the operations could pull through.
“The closing was not part of my plan,” Pillsbury said. “It’s not like they’ve been limping along and not doing business.”
He thought of closing Back Street and moving Lilee’s to the building adjacent to the fire station, but “it would be like opening a whole new restaurant,” and that’s something he’s not yet ready to think about.
Pillsbury spoke coolly of the last 2½, a stressful period for which, in some ways, he now welcomes the end.
“I’m looking forward to not being stressed out all of the time,” Pillsbury said.
That stress and financial pressure, he said, is shared by others downtown as well.
“I’ve talked to a lot of other business owners and they’re right there with me,” Pillsbury said. “They’re stressed out and struggling with me.”
For the immediate future, the Standish native said he plans to spend more time with his 10- and 12-year-old sons and take a break from the demands of managing a restaurant, which he’s taken on for the past 12 years, starting at Pat’s Pizza in Portland, working his way to managing Becky’s Diner and cooking at Fore Street Restaurant before opening Back Street Bistro.
After that, Pillsbury, 41, isn’t sure where he might turn his attention, but he has no plans to leave his career in restaurants.
With the lessons of this latest chapter in mind, Pillsbury said he’s “looking forward to trying it again.”
And he’s hoping the second time around won’t come with such a healthy side of stress.
“I might be able, then, to just enjoy it and serve my customers with a big smile on my face,” Pillsbury said.
A positive note
During the next week — the final week for both restaurants — Pillsbury said he hopes customers will stop by to enjoy a farewell visit.
“I want to go out on a positive note,” Pillsbury said.
That includes having those with gift certificates still floating around make a particular effort to stop by.
For staff at both restaurants, Pillsbury said he’s trying to help employees in the scramble to find other work. The lead chef at Back Street Bistro, Wilson Rothschild, will move on to the Seagrass Bistro in Yarmouth.
As for Lilee’s, at 148 Maine St., landlord Sylvia Wyler suggested that a deal for the storefront is in the works but declined to comment further.
Pillsbury hopes any new tenant will take a different tack from the “beer and burgers” concept he established.
“When you start a business, it’s like an extension of yourself,” Pillsbury said. “I hope someone doesn’t just open up a restaurant there and call it ‘Willie’s’ or something. I hope they do it right.”
Back Street Bistro will close its doors for good after serving meals on Sunday, May 27, and Lilee’s will close after the end of business on Saturday, May 26.
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