HALLOWELL — Slates owner Wendy Larson said moving her restaurant to a new location in May – even though it’s just next door – has rejuvenated her zest for running the business.

“I can definitely see myself doing this another five or 10 years,” Larson said Thursday morning at the landmark Water Street restaurant. “This is my lifelong passion.”

Slates was located at 167 Water St. for nearly 36 years, and after a fire destroyed the restaurant in 2007, Larson decided to return to the brick-and-granite structure because of its history. She admitted Thursday that moving next door to a building she owns was probably something she should have done sooner.

ADJUSTING TO SMALLER SPACE

“The fire was a disaster and really sad for us, so I wanted to go back into the building,” Larson said. But she doesn’t own the building at 167 Water St., and amid rumors of a rent increase in February, Larson said that she was moving to her own building no matter how small the rent increase might have been.

Slates’ new space looks smaller, but it has a second-level dining room and bar, which the previous location didn’t have. Gaining the upstairs dining area and bar helps offset the loss of four tables because of the move, and Larson said it has been business as usual since opening in May.

“It’s definitely different and we’re still getting used to the new space, but we’re smiling and happy and having a good time,” she said. “We realize this move made sense, and we have a great future.”

Larson hopes that future includes a rooftop deck where Slates can serve customers during warmer weather. Because of the expense of moving and renovating the new space, Larson doesn’t expect a new rooftop area this summer, although it is in her five-year plan.

That plan also includes beginning the transition of control to either her children, her co-workers or businesspeople who would continue the nearly 40-year Slates tradition. But she has no plans to step aside anytime soon, because she’s having too much fun.

“I’m not going anywhere and don’t want to go anywhere,” she said, “but at some point, I will.”

Camilla Jones, a server who has worked at Slates for more than seven years, said Larson seems happier around the restaurant since moving to her own building and not having to answer to a landlord or pay rent.

“This is her family and her home, and she can do whatever she wants now,” Jones said, “which is wonderful.”

The smaller space doesn’t just mean the restaurant can accommodate slightly fewer customers, though Larson said wait times are a little longer than before. There is also less preparation space for employees and a smaller kitchen.

“It’s definitely a challenge to have less space, and there have been some difficulties to get over,” Jones said. “Our personal space as workers is different and smaller, but we’re finding ways to cope with that.”

Larson said having an upstairs dining space has taken employees time to get used to, and she’s had to hire runners who can quickly go up and down the stairs. Otherwise, the staff has remained virtually unchanged, which has eased the transition.

Part of the new space also includes the bakery, now located in an adjacent building Larson also owns. She said she misses having a place for customers to sit and eat a muffin or have a coffee, but she said they’re working on a spot for people who want do that.

‘MORE BISTRO LIKE’

The old bakery was located where the current restaurant is. The building was transformed into a two-level restaurant in March when the new bakery space opened. There were renovations and painting and then moving all the equipment and furnishings.

“We had to spend money for all of that, but we only moved like 15 feet,” she said. Larson and Jones said the restaurant now feels cozier, warmer and more comfortable, as Slates was before the 2007 fire.

Mayor Mark Walker, who has been patronizing Slates for nearly 30 years, agrees.

“The changes make a difference and it is more bistro-like,” Walker said by email. “It reminds people of how Slates was when it originally opened.”

Despite the changes, one thing that hasn’t changed is the quality of the food, Walker said. He dined at Slates last week and had a chili salmon special he claimed was the best meal he’s ever had there.

“Slates continues to be a destination for foodies across the state and beyond,” Walker said. “We have friends and business acquaintances who insist on dinner at Slates whenever they are in town, be that in January or July.”

Nate Rudy, who became Hallowell’s city manager over the summer, said he’s seen a lot in his years of working in municipal economic development, but never anything like Slates.

“I’ve never seen a business as resilient and popular as Slates, which moved not one but two businesses and maintained its customer base and quality through such a transition,” Rudy said. “They’ve exhibited remarkable grace and have brought a legacy building in a key downtown location back to life.”

 


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