PORTLAND, Maine — Portland’s reputation as a food city grows every day. But are the new, deep-pocketed bistros eating their elders?
After 25 years, the Pepperclub on Middle Street is moving on.
“Portland is becoming a little cutthroat,” said co-owner Melissa Sawyer. “There is a restaurant on every corner, maybe five.”
Struggling with the overhead of a 100-seat restaurant, which includes The Good Egg Cafe, in a neighborhood that’s becoming rife with trendy dining spots — Eventide Oyster Co. on the same block and Duckfat diagonally across the street — the owners are vacating the neighborhood it made safe for foodies.
“I’m pretty sad about it, but I am realistic,” said co-owner Mary Paine, who said she is 90 percent sure she will reopen this summer on Route 1 in Kennebunk in a space last occupied by Torches Grill House.
Opening in a quiet pocket of the city in 1989, the Pepperclub weathered many storms and managed to keep prices reasonable. But as hotels came in, trees were planted and foot traffic increased, they found themselves fighting to survive amid an improved dining landscape.
“I was happy to be part of the change. I thought, ‘my neighborhood is getting bigger and better, isn’t it great? Finally it’s getting some hustle,’” said Paine, whose landlord is extending her lease until September with plans to raise the rent. “Little did I know I wouldn’t be part of it.”
In the last five years, Paine said her $50,000 annual rent was harder and harder to make. The Pepperclub’s concept of organic vegetarian, gluten-free entrees and local seafood and meat was no longer unique.
“There is a lot of money coming into the neighborhood. I can’t compete on that level,” said Paine.
By heading south she says she will cut her rent in half, gain a garden, a 30-spot parking lot and trim her expenses.
Neighbors were surprised to hear the anchor was shuttering.
“This has been a staple for a long time,” said David McGovern, a real estate broker who works upstairs. “It will be missed in the Old Port.”