BREWER, Maine — The green chili sauce that has become a coveted salsa for some Pepino’s regulars over the last 32 years will still be on the menu along with other Mexican specialties even though the local restaurant chain has changed hands.
Dan Tremble, who bought the local restaurant chain in partnership with Jonathan “Gabby” Price and his son-in-law Michael “Andy” Stephenson, said, “We plan on doing things exactly how things have been done.
“We’re keeping the staff — it’s a great staff — so people can expect the same food and the same service. We plan on not changing a thing,” Tremble said.
Well, the new owners are changing two things: Pepino’s hot sauce will be sold at area stores the three Bangor men own, and they are adding a new restaurant on Hammond Street.
“That won’t be ready until March, but it’s going to be a Pepino’s,” Tremble said of the new location, which is a converted gas station. “It’s going to be a takeout similar to the one in Brewer.”
The red and green hot sauce, a staple for dedicated Pepino’s customers, is sold at the restaurants and will be on store shelves in the near future, Tremble said.
“We just want to continue with the tradition that the Bryants have done for so long and so well,” he said.
He was referring to former owners Norris and Sue Bryant, who sold the two Pepino’s locations, Pepino’s Taco Stand in South Brewer and a restaurant on Stillwater Avenue near the Bangor Mall, on Jan. 22 to the Bangor businessmen.
“Pepino’s Taco Stand was actually started by another gentleman on Center Street in Bangor,” Norris Bryant said. “He moved to the Brewer location on South Main Street and operated for about one year. That’s when I bought it. The rest is history.”
That was 1978, and a second Pepino’s opened in downtown Bangor and was moved to Stillwater Avenue, near the mall, in 1996. Over the years, there have been other locations — Old Town and Ellsworth — but the two Bangor-area restaurants that remain have always been the base of operations, Norris Bryant said.
“There have been a lot of good memories,” he said.
Before Pepino’s opened, the only place in Maine to get Mexican food was in Portland, Norris recalled.
“Most of my associates thought Mexican was not going to go in the area,” he said. “They were proved wrong, and it went very well.”
Sue Bryant said she remembers eating at the Taco Stand years ago with her family and could not get over how good the food was.
“The first time I had Mexican food was at Pepino’s, and I loved it,” she said. “I love the hot sauces.”
After so many years behind the counter, Sue Bryant said, she will miss the food, but it’s the people — customers and employees — she will miss the most.
“It’s just great to employ people and watch them grow up,” she said. “We’ve hired children of some former employees. It’s been nice over the years.”
“We found the right people,” Norris Bryant said, adding that he and his wife are moving to Arizona.
The key to the business is using fresh ingredients and making everything by hand, Norris Bryant said.
“Everything is made on-site — all our sauces, our beans,” he said. “Everything is made on premises and it’s cooked to order. It still remains a small, simple menu.”
When the restaurant first opened, the combo plate, a taco and burrito with rice and beans, was the big seller, but as customers began to expand their taste bud horizons, the couple experimented with other offerings.
“Today, it’s the fish tacos that seem to be our biggest item,” Norris Bryant said. Those have been sold only at the Bangor restaurant, which also sells “a Margarita drink to die for.
“My biggest compliment is when people say that the food today is exactly the same as it was back then,” Norris Bryant said.
“The food was just fantastic,” Sue Bryant said. “There was never any doubt about the food and whether people would enjoy it.”
Brewer residents Steve and Amanda Bost are regulars at Pepino’s. When Steve Bost, the Brewer city manager, found out the restaurant was changing hands, his first concern was whether the green chili sauce would continue. He was assured it would.
“We started eating there 30 years ago,” Bost said. “It’s quite remarkable.”
The couple’s daughter, Holly Bryant, lives in Sydney, Australia, and has operated a Pepino’s in that country for several years. That restaurant was not part of the local property sale.
The three Bangor men who have purchased Pepino’s are the perfect fit to take over, the Bryants said.
Price is a former football coach for Husson University and Bangor High School and owns the Corner Store on Hammond Street. He stepped down from coaching at Husson last year after six seasons.
Tremble and Price have owned the Ground Round on the Odlin Road for more than two years, and Tremble has owned Fairmount Market on Hammond Street for more than 13 years.
Stephenson is manager of the Ground Round and owns Seamus’s store on the Finson Road.
“It’s hard to imagine life without Pepino’s,” Norris Bryant said. “We couldn’t be happier with the new owners. They really like Pepino’s and want to maintain the same high standards. It just couldn’t be a better ending for our 32 years.”