The city of Portland and Friends of Deering Oaks are on the hunt for a vendor to lease the historic Deering Oaks castle and provide food and beverage service – perhaps even beer or wine – to the public.

At just 497 square feet, the castle is tiny and has no kitchen or venting system. But it does have a fireplace, stained glass windows and a turret that give it lots of charm.

“I think people have to be creative,” said Anne Pringle, president of Friends of Deering Oaks. “It probably has to be somebody who has experience in a small space.”

The city and the nonprofit collaborated last year to try to find restaurateurs who would be interested in leasing the building, which was constructed in 1895 as a winter warming hut and shelter from summer storms. But when potential vendors saw the space, Pringle said, “everybody threw up their hands and said ‘This just can’t work.’ ”

Renovating the small building poses challenges – any changes to the building would have to undergo historic preservation review, and many restaurateurs might balk at paying for renovations up front.

One of the interested parties was Norine Kotts, a restaurateur who formerly managed El Rayo Taqueria and who considered serving hot dogs, sandwiches, soups, salads and other light fare at the castle – food that could be prepared off site, in a licensed kitchen, and then warmed up if necessary at the park. When she couldn’t get the business ready in time, she volunteered to run a small cafe there every Saturday during the farmers market. She ordered pastries from bakeries such as Standard Baking Co., Ten Ten Pie and Bam Bam Bakery, and resold them at the park until the farmers market closed at 1 p.m. Many weeks she sold out of food by 11 a.m. (The money Kotts raised paid for the park’s holiday lights this year, Pringle said.)

The idea behind the weekly cafe was to get the castle open so both the public and restaurateurs could get a closer look. It worked.

“There were many people that expressed interest in it,” Kotts said. “It ran the gamut. Everybody wants to be a restaurateur. Some people were like, ‘I could do this. I like to cook. I love this building.’ Well, you have to have money in your pocket to be a restaurateur, because there are going to be slow days. It’s going to rain.”

Pringle said about 15 people have expressed interest in taking over the spot, and now the city and Friends of Deering Oaks are looking to broaden the pool of potential vendors. Pringle said the city is streamlining the process, sending out a solicitation form to interested parties instead of issuing a traditional request-for-proposals. The form outlines the business opportunity and asks vendors to describe their food service experience and their concept for opening a business at the castle and attracting people there. Ideas do not need to be limited to Saturday mornings or a particular season of the year.

Completed forms must be returned to Troy Moon, the city’s environmental programs manager, by 3 p.m. Feb. 16. Moon can be reached at [email protected], or by mail at 55 Portland St., Portland, ME 04101.

The city hopes to select a vendor by March 1. Lease negotiations will be completed by March 15, and the castle should be open for business in May.

Kotts said that, after her experience last year, she believes a food truck – or two or three food trucks – would be perfect for the space. They can cook just outside the castle, then serve customers fresh, hot food inside.

Pringle said another possibility is making the castle available for restaurants to hold pop-up dinners. Eventually, she said, there could be a freestanding, full-service restaurant built next door, if the park can find the right restaurateur to build it on land leased by the city. “That would be a sit-down restaurant with much bigger space,” she said. “And then the castle could serve as a more takeout place.”

Meanwhile,  Pringle and Kotts hope wannabe restaurateurs will use their imaginations to come up with a great concept for the castle.

“The thing about the park is the spark is already there,” Kotts said. “It’s a beautiful park. It just needs somebody with some determination.”


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