Governor’s Restaurant celebrates 55 years — Part 2

Posted Jan. 21, 2014, at 9:51 a.m.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part story that began in last week’s edition of The Weekly, where we learned about Leith and Donna Wadleigh’s early ice-cream stand, Cree-Mee, and how it evolved in 1961 to begin serving home-cooked food. When McDonald’s moved in next door in Old Town, Leith thought his business was finished. But the reverse happened: the restaurant boomed.

Rejuvenation and expansion

By 1977, the drive-in was renamed Governor’s Restaurant. But the 1970s were rough for the company. Leith partnered with someone to open a franchise of the pet-store chain Docktor Pet Centers at the new Airport Mall in Bangor. This proved to be an almost deadly blow to the restaurant. Leith devoted so much time to the new venture that Governor’s began to suffer — and ultimately entered bankruptcy.

After surviving that challenge, Leith rededicated himself to the restaurant, and he and Donna worked diligently. They began doing concessions at University of Maine sporting events, toting food and equipment back and forth to various games. It was grueling work, but in the 17 years they did it, Governor’s was put squarely in the public eye.

Things got better in the 1980s, and in December 1982 a Governor’s ad in the Penobscot Times thanked its customers for a great 23 years and the best year in the restaurant’s history. The ad’s slogan: “It proves homemade food makes the difference.”

The popularity of Governor’s surged after that, and in 1986 Leith opened his second restaurant, on Broadway in Bangor in the former Lum’s location (in the same location that it’s in today). It was a shaky start; when Leith looked at the building, he counted 23 buckets catching water from the leaking roof. With that patched, he was then successful in getting permission to add an exit to the side access road to the shopping center. This might seem trivial, but Leith knew how vital it was. Without that, diners taking left turns leaving — likely most of them — would quickly be frustrated and might not be willing to return so often. The access allowed them to enter the Broadway Shopping Center lot and take advantage of the light on Broadway. It made the difference, and the Bangor Governor’s was quickly off and running.

The only bump in the road of note in the 1980s came in 1985. Leith had created his “Blizzard” ice-cream dish, but Dairy Queen showed up at his doorstep to order him to cease and desist. That company had also just introduced an ice-cream dish under the same name. Leith threw them out of his restaurant with some choice words, determined that he wouldn’t be bullied by a big corporation. Unfortunately, while he had created his “Blizzard” independently, Dairy Queen had trademarked it first. Leith ceased and desisted.

 Younger generations and great expansion

Meanwhile, Leith’s son Randy had grown up in the family’s business. Born in 1963, he’d worked there from about age 8, and during his teen years he planned to one day take over the company. After graduating from Orono High School and earning a business degree at Husson College, he came aboard as general manager in 1987.

During Randy’s tenure, other stores followed Bangor: Waterville in 1993, Lewiston in 1997, and Ellsworth in 2012. In the 1990s, the company experimented with franchising, and over the next decade there would be franchise restaurants in Westbrook, South Portland, Biddeford, and Houlton. But Randy eventually chose to discontinue franchising and stick with company-owned stores. The Presque Isle franchise, which opened in 1997, is the only exception.

Subtle changes happened as well. The familiar caricature of the Governor lost his cigar in the mid-1990s, when Randy’s young daughter asked her grandfather why the governor had to be smoking. “You’re the governor, and you don’t smoke,” she told him. The cigar quickly vanished.

The strawberry pie did, too. It was difficult to make consistently, and not everyone could do it well. Mostly, though, strawberry prices varied wildly; a flat of strawberries might cost $8 one season and then $85 the next.

The original restaurant has evolved slowly from the original small ice-cream stand of 1959. In 55 years, it has been expanded or renovated 23 times, resulting in what seems to be a hodgepodge of architectural confusion. Leith had always done work as money allowed, and usually hired mill workers moonlighting as carpenters, and got what he paid for; for example, the right side of the building’s front is six inches off square as compared to the left. If nothing else, the building has unique character.

Today and the future

Today, Governor’s is something of a Maine institution. Many of Maine’s governors have eaten there; all are honored on its walls, and many are honored in its menu. But, despite the name, there’s nothing political about the restaurant. They’re just having fun with the theme.

“From a political sense, even though our name is Governor’s, we’re very neutral,” said Randy. “We respect people’s opinions and differences.”

Randy bought the business in 2000, but his parents, who now winter in Florida once again — although Leith, a die-hard Mainer who loves his home state, returns to Maine every month during the winter — are often there.

“They make me tired, they have so much energy,” Randy said. “I will never work as hard as they have. I always stand on the shoulders of giants, and they’re my giants.”

Whether it’s special holiday events of family nights, or if it’s just business as usual every day, people have always kept coming back to Governor’s. Much of that is nostalgia; many people feel Governor’s is part of their family. That’s just what Randy wants it to be.

“It’s been quite a journey,” he said. “We’re very fortunate that our guests have been so supportive of us over the years, and I can’t say thank-you to them enough. I want all of them to know that we continue to try to be the best we can.”

Leith is very proud of what his little ice-cream stand has become. It was hard for him to walk away when Randy took over, but he knew he had to.

“He’s doing a great job,” Leith said of his son. “He’s a good businessman. He makes sure that the place is making money.”

They’re different people. Leith is the showman and the promoter. But Randy is the businessman — the right person to take the reins, a man who chose to go to business school because he knew his path — and showed his father that the books could have black ink and not just red.

“He had sense enough to know what he wanted to do,” Leith said. “Not like his father, who was floating in the breeze and didn’t have a clue.”

From a measly $300 into a multimillion-dollar Maine chain, Leith said the success of Governor’s shows that anything is possible.

“If you’re willing to work your ass off, and you have any brains at all, chances are you can make it — whatever you do,” he said.

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