The owner of Le Garage, a Wiscasset restaurant that has been a fixture of the little village since 1977, has announced she is closing the business at the end of April.

Cheryl Lee Rust posted a notice on the restaurant’s website and Facebook page Sunday evening, quoting Robert Frost and saying that it is “with strong and mixed emotions that I am announcing the closing of Le Garage Restaurant in Wiscasset on Sunday, April 30, 2017.”

The restaurant was founded by Rust’s mother and stepfather, Charlotte and Crosby Hodgman, in 1974 as an ice cream parlor and sandwich and chowder house. They soon expanded the menu to include crepes. The restaurant got its name because in the early 20th century it was an auto and engine repair shop.

Rust bought the business from her parents in 1977. It was open year-round, except for the month of January, and over four decades became a local institution – the place to go for a good meal, a visit with friends, and a stunning view of the Sheepscot River. The restaurant serves an eclectic menu that spans seafood, salads and classics such as pot roast with gravy and chicken pie.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Rust, who is 68, said that working 60-70 hours a week for 40 years has simply taken its toll, and she wants to retire – although she’ll remain active in the volunteer work she has become known for in the community. She’s hoping to sell the business to another restaurateur, one who has more energy for running it day to day.

“I really feel like someone younger and more on track with contemporary expectations can take this to its next step,” Rust said.

Sue Varney, a retired town office employee, ate at Le Garage several times a year and called it “a wonderful place.” Varney said she is “pretty devastated” by the news the restaurant is closing.

“I’m glad for Shep,” she said, calling Rust by her nickname. “She’s well earned retirement. I’m very happy for her, but I’m sad for the rest of us.”

Rust said she informed her staff of her plans Sunday afternoon. The restaurant has 25 year-round employees, and the staff grows to 35 to 40 during the busy summer months. One employee, according to Rust, has worked there for 36 years.

Rust said she timed the closing so the staff will be “launched into the height of the hiring season.”

“They’re all terrific,” Rust said, “and I imagine they’ll have five job offers apiece within moments of our doors closing.”

Joan Bickford, who works at the Wiscasset Community Center, and her husband, Bob, spent every anniversary at Le Garage. Bickford said Rust hired lots of local teenagers, including her own children and relatives.

“I think she was probably a pretty good first boss for a lot of them to have,” Bickford said. “She was fair, but yet she expected what she needed to expect from them, and I think that’s huge in a first job.”

Coincidentally, Rust will receive the 2017 Bill Zoidis Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maine Restaurant Association at its annual meeting March 28 in Portland. Greg Dugal, director of governmental affairs for the organization and the person who informed Rust of the honor, said the association didn’t know Rust was retiring it they chose her for the award.

Dugal said the award typically goes to a restaurateur who has been a longtime member of the association, someone who has participated in the group and given back to the community. Most restaurants donate time and food to good causes, he said, but “Cheryl just took it to the next level.”

He noted she has been active in mental health causes, including as part of the task force that helped restructure the behavioral health division of the state Health and Human Services Department, and has been a longtime volunteer for the midcoast United Way.

Rust said her volunteer work has also included working with the Maine Community Foundation, the Maine Council on Aging, and other organizations dedicated to improving the health of seniors.

But her heart has always been with the restaurant, where, she notes, three or four generations of families have come to dine.

“It’s a lot like family there, it really is,” she said. “The staff is very bonded and cares about each other a lot. So it’s a big disruption in a lot of lives, and that’s made me reluctant to pull the plug, so to speak. But I’m not doing anyone any favors by extending this beyond my capacity to lead it with the kind of energy and attention it demands and deserves.”

But Bickford says even if someone buys the restaurant, it will never be the same because Rust’s personality “was so much a part of it.”

“It’s huge,” Bickford said of the closing, and then added, echoing Varney’s comments, “I’m really happy for Shep because she’s going to take this next chapter in her life, but it’s a sad day for Wiscasset.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]