MACHIAS, Maine — As a certified business counselor with the Women’s Business Center of Coastal Enterprises, a nonprofit that helps develop rural businesses, Ruth Cash-Smith knows something about planning a business.
And one thing new businesses should plan for, she observed, is contingencies — the unexpected.
“But there are certain things that happen … that you could absolutely not expect,” she said Wednesday.
Case in point: first-time entrepreneur Bill Burke, a client of Cash-Smith who decided to plunk himself down in Machias and open a Pat’s Pizza franchise.
Burke’s restaurant is open once again after a freak accident knocked it out of commission for about a month. A minivan drove into the side of the building about 6:30 a.m. March 5 and demolished part of the kitchen. The business came to a sudden halt that lasted until it reopened April 3.
“Thank God that nobody was hurt,” Burke, 57, said at his business Wednesday. An employee was scheduled to be on duty at about the time the crash occurred and could have been struck while washing the floor in the area.
The accident spurred a gas leak, and the landlord immediately had to turn off the gas. With all the pilot lights for the ovens and other cooking equipment, “we could have had a big kaboom,” said Burke. “Scary. Very scary.”
Burke, who grew up in Hampden, was looking to start a business after taking a buy-out several years ago at the Verso paper mill in Bucksport, where he worked for 23 years.
“I got bored,” said Burke. “Because I’m always doing something.” Plus, “I’ve always wanted to own my own business,” he said.
His wife, Martha (“Marti”), is a dental hygienist in Bangor. One of her patients is Carolyn Farnsworth, wife of Bruce Farnsworth, principal owner of the Pat’s Pizza chain. Carolyn Farnsworth suggested the Burkes might want to consider buying a franchise.
After they decided to invest in a franchise, the Burkes focused on the Machias area. The couple already had some connection to the region. Their son, Nathaniel — “Nate” works in the business with his father — had attended the University of Maine-Machias and was a student-athlete, playing basketball and soccer; the couple visited the area to see him and attend his games. Bill Burke began researching the area for his prospective business.
“I wasn’t sure,” said Farnsworth, who discussed the company’s Machias franchise Wednesday by phone. “It thought it was an awful small town for one of our stores … and I was nervous about it.
“We were absolutely blown away by the volume that we did from that store,” said Farnsworth of sales since it opened in May 2013. “Caught me completely off guard.” The restaurant’s revenues have been “close to double” what he expected, he said, “which is a very pleasant surprise.”
The restaurant offers good food with fresh, homemade ingredients at prices that a family can afford “and not break their budget,” said Burke, and they can afford to come back again.
“Repeat customers keep businesses alive,” he said.
The restaurant is located adjacent to the Sunrise County Trail and has high visibility on U.S. Route 1, noted Cash-Smith. Pat’s Pizza is well-known and popular in Maine, she added, and people are willing to drive to eat there. Also, the region’s population swells in the summer with visitors and people with second homes.
“We fill a niche down there in Machias,” observed Farnsworth, who was on hand to train employees for a week or so before the opening and visited after the disruptive accident. There are a couple of other well-known restaurants in the community, he noted, but they have similar menus.
“There was nothing to offer … like what we have,” he said. “That’s why we have done well down there.”
Pat’s Pizza was launched by C.D. “Pat” Farnsworth in Orono in 1931, when he bought a cafe that he eventually converted into a full-service restaurant known for its pizzas. The business became a favorite with University of Maine students. The patriarch of the business died at age 93 in 2003. He was known for a daunting work ethic — he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week until he turned 90.
The company has been gradually expanding the past 30 years and now has 16 locations throughout Maine.
“I don’t go out looking for locations,” said Bruce Farnsworth. “I wait for someone to come to me.”
Another franchise is in development in Holden and is scheduled to open in May or June.
As described by Burke, the driver involved in the accident backed out of a parking spot at the adjacent Dunkin’ Donuts, then drove forward into the restaurant portion of the building. The motorist was unhurt.
The crash destroyed two ovens with a combined value of $21,000; the total loss was roughly $50,000 to $60,000. In addition, 30 employees were temporarily without work.
“I was stressed,” recalled Burke. “OK, what do I do?”
The first thing he did was call his insurance agent.
Burke received considerable offers of help and, more importantly, an outpouring of emotional support from people in the community, he said. “The community has been great.”
He was determined to persevere. “I don’t take no for an answer,” said Burke.
It is a singular quality that is very important for any entrepreneur, said Cash-Smith, especially given the restaurant industry, which has a very high failure rate — if not the highest — of new businesses.
“When you have resilience,” said Cash-Smith, “it carries the day. It’s the tipping point for me. If you can withstand extreme stress, extreme tension, and get up every day and keep it going, you’re likely be successful in a business.”