December 30, 2013

Portland restaurant space rare, too pricey, chefs say

Some worry that only those with big names and deep pockets will be able to open a place in or near the Old Port.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Tom Bard, the proprietor of the Portland restaurant Zapoteca, has been searching for a year and a half for a place to open a new Spanish restaurant in the city.

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Servers work the tables on a busy night Saturday at Piccolo, an intimate Italian restaurant on Middle Street in Portland’s Old Port, where regional chains are showing interest.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Chris Gould stands outside 414 Fore St., where he is opening a restaurant and bar called Central Provisions.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Chef Chris Gould, a native Mainer who recently moved back here from Boston, spent months searching Maine’s largest city for a place to open his dream restaurant. He and his wife walked around the entire Portland peninsula on their days off – the Old Port, the West End, the East End, East Bayside – and even looked into places that were not listed as being for lease.

“We’d try to talk to owners and see if they’d be willing to sell their business – anything,” Gould recalled.

As Portland’s reputation as a great restaurant town has grown, so has demand for restaurant real estate. In kitchens all over the city, along with the clanking of pans you’ll hear complaints from chefs and restaurateurs about the lack of available – and affordable – restaurant space.

The city’s food reputation was built on the backs of young, independent chefs opening their own places where they could serve local, seasonal foods and let creativity and originality reign. But as space shrinks and rents rise, some chefs are worried that soon the only people able to open a restaurant in the Old Port and its outskirts will be big names with much deeper pockets than a 28-year-old just out of culinary school.

No one keeps statistics on annual vacancy rates in the Old Port, or hard stats on how much rents have changed from year to year. Some brokers do try to keep their own data, but those numbers provide only a small snapshot in time, and may cover retail spaces much too large for a restaurant.

Peter Harrington of Malone Commercial Brokers, known for brokering a lot of Old Port restaurant deals, searched his records back to 2007 and said what stands out to him most is the fact that out of the 14 restaurant rentals he’s handled in the past six years, eight of them went into spaces that were not previously restaurants.

“Portland has become a foodie town,” he said. “The Old Port has been taken over, and a large part of the retail space has gone to food.”

He said that rents on restaurant-worthy spaces in the Old Port are indeed going up. “I would probably peg it, over 10 years, probably in the 40 to 50 percent range,” he said.

If a space is already outfitted for use as a restaurant, he said, “you can get a premium for it.”

Other brokers agree that restaurant space is getting harder to find in Portland, especially with more chefs and chain restaurants from away sniffing around the city, hoping to grab a piece of the pie.

“We’re finding a lot of demand from new restaurants, and from even existing restaurants looking to open second locations,” said Drew Sigfridson, a broker with the Boulos Co. and president of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association. “A lot of them want to be on the Portland peninsula, ideally in the Old Port area, and it’s increasingly difficult to find good restaurant spaces.”


Tom Bard prefers, like most restaurateurs, to find a place with an existing kitchen. When those pop up, he said, they are either snapped up quickly or the rent rises to the point that it’s out of reach. “The low-hanging fruit, if you will, of those have been picked,” he said.

With little or no spaces to choose from, restaurateurs are left with the less desirable option: taking retail space that’s often in an old, multistory building and adding a kitchen, bathrooms, venting and the other necessary improvements to transform it into a restaurant. Not only is this expensive – Bard estimates it can cost from $250,000 up to $500,000 – it’s a tough pill to swallow spending that much money on a building you don’t even own.

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Tom Bard, owner of Zapoteca on Fore Street, is having trouble finding a space for a second restaurant in the Old Port because of high demand in the area.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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