Owner Rick Savage addresses a large group of people Friday night outside his Sunday River Brewing Co. restaurant in Bethel. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

BETHEL — One day after appearing on the Tucker Carlson show on the Fox News network to declare that he would reopen his business, Sunday River Brewing Co. owner Rick Savage was given an ultimatum: comply with Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order or lose your liquor and health licenses.

Terri and Brett Lord pose for a photo with Sunday River Brewing Co. owner Rick Savage, center, Friday night in Bethel as about 100 people wait in line to enter the restaurant. The couple drove from Wells to celebrate their anniversary. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Apparently that ultimatum was enough to change Savage’s mind. At about 8 p.m. Friday, it appeared that he had admitted defeat.

“We will be closed until further notice as of Friday May 1st,” according to the Sunday River Brewing Co. Facebook page. “Thank you all for support today.”

But, a hostess who answered a call to the restaurant close to 10 p.m., said she was not able to put the Sun Journal in touch with ownership because she was still busy with customers. And, according to the floor manager, the owners were not available for comment on the continued service or the restaurant’s efforts to raise funds in its support.

By midafternoon Friday, about 150 people had lined up outside the restaurant as it reopened in defiance of the governor’s order.

By late afternoon, the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations confirmed that Sunday River Brewing was in violation of bureau rules, which prohibits a licensee, his agent, or employee from allowing any improper conduct or illegality on the premises.

At about 4:45 p.m., state officials entered the restaurant and seized the health license, according to Savage. Without a health license, a liquor license can’t be obtained.

At that point, Savage insisted he would stay open even if his liquor and health licenses were yanked. He would simply pay the fines and go about his business, he said.

By reopening his business, Savage had openly challenged state officials to take him to court for defying the governor’s order to stay closed until June 1. The challenge enthused many across the country, including fans of the restaurant as well as those who had never heard of it.

“I’m a small business owner and I left my business early to come support another businessman,” a Windham resident said. “It’s my right to do this.”

“We’re up here from Lewiston. We need to reopen the state,” another man, who declined to be identified, said. “We’re one hundred percent behind Rick and this decision.”

A sign in the parking lot at Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel on Friday promotes owner Rick Savage as a candidate for governor. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

But after it was announced that Sunday River Brewing Co. would be closed after all, the mood among Savage’s followers withered and darkened.

“So much for being a free country,” one man wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

“Sorry to hear,” wrote another. “Thank you for standing up to the Government! More businesses should be doing the same.”

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” wrote a third. “You’ve gained trust and support for years and years to come.”

In less than an hour after posting that he would close, nearly 600 people had weighed in with comments on the Facebook thread.

On Friday evening, a GoFundMe page was launched to raise money for Sunday River Brewing Co. and “all Maine businesses” that may face fines and legal fees due to opening early. The pitch used a Sun Media video interview with Rick Savage from earlier in the day. The use of that video was not authorized by the Sun Journal for use in fundraising, according to Executive Editor Judith Meyer, and is being used without the newspaper’s permission.

Before the drama unfolded Friday night, Savage’s defiance was already well known across the country. During his Thursday night broadcast, Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed Savage, who said he will open despite Maine’s executive order prohibiting gatherings of 10 people or more.

Owner Rick Savage addresses a large group of people Friday night outside his Sunday River Brewing Co. restaurant in Bethel. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Savage told Carlson during the show that his 250-seat restaurant, with a 2,200-square-foot patio, is capable of seating people at 6-foot intervals, and it’s time to reopen.

When customers showed up Friday afternoon, queued in a long line outside the front doors, few patrons were wearing masks or employing mandated social distancing guidelines, despite the owner’s assurance that all safety precautions would be taken.

In his interview with Carlson, Savage had nothing good to say about Gov. Janet Mills, who issued the executive orders restricting activity in Maine and set a timeline for its reopening. “She’s over her head,” he told Carlson. “She’s doing this to break our state even more than we are now.”

Businesses such as golf courses, hair salons and car dealerships are allowed to open Friday as long as they prevent more than 10 people from gathering, and if they have enough space for people to practice social distancing.

Under the executive order issued Tuesday, Maine restaurants are permitted to reopen June 1, if they are able to provide appropriate safety precautions.

Late Friday afternoon, Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright issued a statement regarding Mills’ executive orders and those who violate them. The sheriff did not mention Sunday River Brewing in the statement.

“These dynamics are new to all of us, and we are being very careful right now to make sure the steps we take are in the best interest of the communities we serve,” he wrote. “As Sheriff, I swore an oath to uphold the constitutional rights of our citizens, as well as enforce the law.

“As in any situation where there is a potential or alleged violation of law,” Wainwright wrote, “which includes violations of the executive orders, for which law enforcement is obligated to enforce, we will investigate reports of violations and take the appropriate action indicated by our investigative findings or refer the complaint to the appropriate state or local administrative licensing agency.”

Savage said he had heard from “a ton of other businesses” that plan to pick up the cause and reopen in defiance of Mills’ orders.

After 10 p.m. Friday, restaurant co-owner Ron Savage said he was frustrated by the lack of media attention to the restaurant’s work since mid-March to prepare and help deliver over 10,000 free meals, in cooperation with SAD 44, to the elderly and needy in Bethel and Andover. The meals were supported by donations, but were largely funded through the restaurant, including the labor for meal preparation.

The free meal deliveries ended Wednesday as the restaurant turned its focus to an anticipated May 1 opening day, which Ron Savage said they understand would be the re-start date based on Mills’ initial order, but that both he and his brother were pleased they were able to assist the community and local food pantries with direct meal deliveries to those in need.

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: