ELLSWORTH — Beloved Main Street eatery Finn’s Irish Pub has closed its doors for good.
On July 26, owner Lorena Stearns took to Facebook to let customers know that the restaurant would be halting its operation permanently.
“We have SO enjoyed being a part of your life these past almost 13 years,” Stearns wrote. “We have seen some beautiful relationships begin, blossom and be celebrated here! We’ve shared some heartbreak too, and having community has helped through those tough times. Finn’s has closed for business, but we hope to stay alive in your hearts and memories. It’s been a wonderful ride!”
Members of the community were quick to react to the news of the closing. The Facebook announcement had garnered 384 comments and 973 reactions at press time, an overwhelmingly positive outpouring of support. Representatives of Ellsworth’s business community also weighed in on the gravity of the loss.
“Folks came from all over the world to dine at Finn’s, have a drink in the dining car, discovering them through such sites as Atlas and Gastro obscura,” said Cara Romano, executive director of Heart of Ellsworth. “This community gathering place, open and welcoming to all in Ellsworth and beyond, will be deeply missed by all of us. A giant loss for downtown Ellsworth and the entire Downeast region.”
“Finn’s has been an anchor on Main Street for over a decade,” said Gretchen Wilson, executive director of the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce. “Finn’s became the place for celebrating, business lunches, a ‘glass’ after work and family and friends meeting for dinner. They were a leader on Main Street when many retail locations had closed leaving empty storefronts. They were involved, giving back and paying it forward, bringing Main Street events, music and marketing. Then came 2020 and restaurants have not been the same.”
Two days before the closure, the restaurant had posted that it would be “taking a break for a bit” but hoped to reopen soon. Unfortunately, as Stearns explained to The American, a confluence of factors made it difficult for her and the team to see a way forward.
“The COVID-19 closure, mandates and safety precautions were hard for so many small businesses,” Stearns said. “Restaurants, bars, theaters, shops, we all struggled …. Unfortunately, our staffing never got back up to par. With so many help wanted signs in all sectors of the economy, it was difficult to fill positions enough to be able to open back up to our full schedule.
“The static costs of being open and running a business — licensing, fees, insurance, mortgage, heat, electricity — don’t change just because your hours of operation have. Supply chain issues have required attention and patience, food costs have gone through the roof …. We had some extremely hot days, some serendipitous equipment malfunction and some job and travel opportunities for our key players. These things converged in a way that was too much for us to be able to handle with our usual problem-solving skills. Hence the unplanned and abrupt closure.”
“Finn’s story is happening over and over in the restaurant business, since the start of the pandemic,” Wilson lamented. “It doesn’t matter what state or part of the country, the restaurant industry is still not back to pre-pandemic staffing, hours or menu items. Staffing has certainly been the largest issue; however, supply chain and the double digit increases in food, containers, services has cut days/hours, menu variety and of course prices.
“Add in a busy summer tourism season and you have a recipe for potential failure. The Chamber has watched as restaurants struggle to be open 6-7 days in the summer months. Short weeks were unheard of around here in summers past, now they are a method of preserving your smaller staff. It is hard to watch a local favorite finally have to shut the door because of these issues, rather than by choice.”
The location had been a popular spot in town even before it became Finn’s. Stearns and her husband, Paul Markosian, had enjoyed sitting at the iconic 1930s Jerry O’Mahony dining car when the restaurant was called Maidee’s, named after proprietor Maidee Chang.
The restaurant went through a couple of short-lived iterations after Maidee’s closed, eventually landing on the Irish pub motif. At that time, Stearns and Markosian were approached about buying the building.
“Paul and I discussed it, and we decided it would be a good idea to invest in real estate in our community, especially given that we loved the dining car so much,” Stearns said. “The Irish pub concept seemed like a really good fit for the space and definitely the town.”
Shortly after that, Stearns and Markosian bought out each of the partners who were running Finn’s at the time. They assumed full ownership of the restaurant in September of 2009.
“Finn’s became ‘the local’ right away, with our community really embracing it,” Stearns explained. “When Beth Fendl stepped in as general manager, she brought with her an encyclopedia of service industry knowledge and community goodwill. It seemed like she knew everyone along with their brother, father-in-law, and kids. Eventually, Danielle Ruddy Chatto joined the team, and she has been an amazing rock star. Her energy and joy in interacting with people has been such a pleasure to witness over the years.”
The energy and openness of the staff, the sort of “Cheers”-esque warmth of being known, helped ensure Finn’s was packed with diners consistently over the last 13 years. Combining that with the restaurant’s mission to “provide excellent food, beverage and service at a reasonable price point,” live music and a lack of televisions inside created the perfect conditions for enduring relationships to form.
“There is a Gaelic term, ‘craic.’ It means the energy and buzz that fills the room when people are engaged with each other and having a good time. Finn’s definitely had ‘craic,’” Stearns said. “That’s what drew people. They knew they’d see someone here that would be a friend, whether they knew them already or not.”
Creating that atmosphere did not come without challenges. Stearns reflected on the unique hurdles the team at Finn’s had cleared over the years.
“Among the many quirks is the restaurant’s odd shape, and sometimes it was tricky to seat people in a timely manner when they were coming through the front and the back doors. And the kitchen is tiny. It is an amazing feat that our talented cooks could bang out our fresh and delicious food day after day in that small space. They were very committed. Most recently, they were led by our kitchen manager, Savannah Jackson, who could rock the line and also enthusiastically lead a theme night like nobody’s business.”
On top of the food and drink, Finn’s also gave back to the community through a number of charitable contributions.
“Those dollar bills, waxed poetic upon then carefully taped to the bar ceiling? They were removed periodically and brought to the bank, traded for clean, hard cash that we donated to different causes with fanfare,” Stearns remembered. “You’ve seen our name consistently sponsoring community events, plays, races and golf tournaments.”
Stearns and Markosian have listed both the building and the business with Brian Hanson of Southern Maine Business Brokers, hopeful that someone else will pick up where they left off with a fresh enthusiasm.
Markosian will continue to own and operate the directly-adjacent Flexit Cafe while Stearns continues to evaluate her next chapter. The decision to close was not an easy one, but it has left Stearns with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the staff members and the customers who made the place what it was over the last decade.
“I would love for Beth, Dani, Matt, a former kitchen manager, and Savannah to get full credit for what they helped us build,” Stearns said. “Their time, love and energy meant everything. Having such a great team, that we could count on, who inspired us and kept us propped up when we were exhausted, was priceless. Our guests were the absolute best. Seeing the cast of characters and the ebb and flow of their lives gave us purpose. It’s really hard to say goodbye.”