PORTLAND, Maine — The Old Port soon will add another restaurant to the city’s menu with the expansion of Freeport-based Buck’s Naked BBQ.
Wendy and Alex Caisse, owners of the Route 1 barbecue restaurant, said they expect to sign a lease this week for 50 Wharf St. and hope to open in November.
They said they already have plans laid out for the space, which will be their third location.
“We had some apprehension in the beginning,” Alex Caisse said. “But over the years we’ve become very confident in our staff and in our products. Now we’re ready to delve into a new atmosphere.”
The Caisses said they looked in New Hampshire and as far south as Boston before finding the space in Portland most recently occupied by Havana South.
“I was actually out of town when [Alex] found it,” Wendy Caisse said. “Usually when I go on vacation, I come back and he has a dog. But, it’s good to get a new restaurant, too.”
The Caisses said they had been looking for a new space for about 13 weeks.
“We’re highly motivated to get it open for the holidays,” Alex Caisse said. “All the guts are there, we just have to put our touch on it.”
Their existing restaurants, in Freeport and Windham, are each specialized to accommodate the clientele of the area, and the Wharf Street location will follow suit, they said.
Wendy Caisse said she is shopping for old windows and doors, along with “tacky” knick-knacks to decorate the Wharf Street restaurant, which, like the Buck’s in Freeport, will have an expansive kids’ play area.
The new location will have an expanded bar compared to their other locations, with 40-50 seats, to cater to Portland’s nightlife.
In a difficult economic climate, and in a city where restaurant competition is tough, the Caisses have their work cut out for them.
Portland often is cited as having more restaurants per capita than almost any other city in the country, although the veracity of that statistic is difficult to establish, according to Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association. Nonetheless, Grotton said, the food-dense climate, with its approximately 400 restaurants, creates a tough atmosphere for new establishments.
Grotton said that 50 percent of restaurants go out of business within their first five years, so it’s risky business.
But he thinks the Caisses are well-positioned.
“Alex is an experienced chef and his wife has vast experience in the food industry,” Grotton said. “They know what they’re doing and they’re not likely to be blindsided by things. They understand very well where the market is going.”
Grotton said the key is matching the restaurant’s menu, style and ambiance with the customer base, and not overinvesting.
“It’s a huge crap shoot,” he said. “But, no matter what you’re selling, your food has to be good.”
The Caisses are betting on their food, and on Buck’s becoming the only dedicated barbecue restaurant in Portland. They think their serious focus on the American-style cuisine and family-type atmosphere will be the right combination for their new location.
“There’s a lot of barbecue out there; there’s been a huge growth in the industry,” Alex Caisse said. “We don’t want to be all things to all people. We want to pick something and do it well, and treat people well.”
The Caisses said being in the Old Port will allow them to expand their catering business, hoping to appeal to nearby office workers for quick, drop-off deliveries of their dry-rub delicacies.
Alex Caisse said he takes barbecuing seriously, and has the credentials to back it up. In addition to being the New England Barbecue Society’s Maine representative, he is also a Kansas City Barbecue Society certified barbecue judge and participates in competitions around the region, including the Western Maine BBQ Festival in Fryeburg and the Mainely Grillin’ & Chillin’ State BBQ Competition in Eliot, formerly known as the Celebrate Maine Festival.
All food at Buck’s is made in-house, from scratch, the Caisses said, from their retail-ready dry rubs to their salad dressings.
The husband-and-wife team owned a cafe and bakery before they switched to barbecue. Alex Caisse began barbecuing while catering for the Portland Yacht Club. They bought a tow-behind smoker to test recipes before opening the first Buck’s location in 2005 in a friend’s old Route 1 garage, about a mile south of the current Buck’s in Freeport.
“People used to wait in their cars in the winter because the restaurant was so cold,” Wendy Caisse said, noting that you could almost see outside through the cracks in the walls. “And, people used to be dripping sweat in the summertime because it was so hot.”
They eventually moved into the current 8,800-square-foot space near Exit 20 of Interstate 295 and then opened their Windham location in 2010.
Alex Caisse said the relationship he and his wife have is one key to their success.
“We play off each other,” he said. “It’s a great balance. My wife is my best and worst critic. You always need somebody to bounce something off of.”
He said they also credit their success to their staff, some of whom have worked for them for almost a decade. They hope to add 50 more employees in the Old Port.
Above all, he said, they owe their success to one thing: the pig.
“Praise the lard, truly,” Caisse said. “It’s done a whole bunch for us.”