Tuesday, March 11, 2014
BY DOUG HARLOW Staff Writer
SKOWHEGAN -- Every small town has a big story.
Co-owner Tom Miller
That phrase, promoting the HBO movie "Empire Falls," hit home this week with news that the landmark Empire Grill in downtown Skowhegan -- renovated in 2003 as a centerpiece for the film -- is closing.
Dinner will be served for the final time on Sunday, owners Tom Miller and Kerry Pomelow said Tuesday.
"What we found out after three years is they did a beautiful job making this look like a restaurant," Miller said. "But in the movie, they never had to actually cook anything, serve anything or eat anything. In this business there is no margin for error; in reality, there's too much error here."
The Art Deco-style restaurant, with its octagon windows, stainless steel and faux leather booths, was converted from a pizzeria to represent a vintage Maine diner for the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries. The film, based on Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Empire Falls," featured Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris and Helen Hunt.
And like the mythical New England town of Empire Falls, which fades into decline with its mills closing, its stores boarded up, and its population dwindling, the eatery on Water Street continues to be part of the script.
"It's been life imitating art imitating life," Miller said. "This is the corner of fact and fiction right here."
"We talk about it all the time -- it's just another episode in the show," Pomelow added. "Life changes. You have to get up and go with the changes. It changed in the movie and that's what I think the whole story of the movie was about -- a rural, poor community that got worse when things left and went away. The economy has mimicked that for us."
Miller, 55, of East Madison and Pomelow, 43, of Skowhegan, took over the restaurant in March 2007. They do not own the building, but do own the trademark Empire Grill name with the iconic Indian head logo.
"That's the one thing we have that is actually worth something," Miller said. "My heart's breaking."
Miller said the building was not constructed to operate as a full-service restaurant, with no walk-in coolers and a small kitchen.
He said there are 14 compressors for refrigerators, spiking the electric bill, propane bill and the oil bill during a time when the loss of jobs means the loss of people spending money to eat out.
He said people who would come for breakfast before going to work, now come in just for coffee and are not going to work.
"We've been doing it for three years and haven't made a paycheck," Miller said. "We've made a lot of good friends and we're going to miss everybody that we have served."
Pomelow said the closing of the Empire Grill widens the gap in the downtown businesses district, a fact that is not lost of the town manager and the town's economic and community development director.
Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said he was shocked to hear the news Tuesday of the restaurant's closing.
"I didn't even know -- that's too bad," Doucette said. "I think they are a plus to the town and it's a shame to see them go; I really do. I've gone in there and had some good meals."
Doucette said the vacancy at the Empire Grill will be among the front-burner topics as the program Main Street Skowhegan regroups this year under a new, as yet to be named, executive director.
"I just think it's sad that they are closing," he said. "I don't know if there's something that can help them. That's another thing we'll have to look at in Main Street."
Jeffrey Hewett, Skowhegan's director of economic and community development, was equally shocked by the news. He said the restaurant was going to be part of the town's community enterprise grant application.
"Wow -- they seemed to be doing so good," Hewett said. "I've heard nothing but good about their food. It's definitely going to open a hole up that we're going to have to work to try to find someone to fill. You need a restaurant like that in the downtown. The Empire Grill spot is a great spot for a small restaurant."
The restaurant, which seats 70 people, served 140 free Thanksgiving dinners this past year. At the peak of business the restaurant employed 14 people, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
"I'm trying to stay positive," Pomelow said. "Every end is a new beginning, but it's a way of life for us and it's hard to change a way of life. If you take three years and you get up every single day and come in here and work your butt off and not get a paycheck, it's not a job; it's a way of life.
"The gist of the movie is very true," Pomelow added. "Every small town has a big story; it's on the poster and it's so true. It's good-bye and it's a very difficult good-bye."
Doug Harlow -- 474-9534