May 10, 2010

Exile on Main Street

Hard times hit home for Bread Box Cafe, other small businesses

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- The Bread Box Cafe closed May 1 after eight years as one of the downtown's most prominent restaurants.

click image to enlarge

OPEN SPACE: Jonathan Culver sits in the now-empty dining room at the closed Bread Box Cafe in Waterville.

Staff photo by David Leaming

For Jobi Culver, who owns the business with his wife, Stephanie, the decision to shut down was frustrating and sad because the restaurant was rebounding financially this year after losses during the economic recession, he said.

Culver said the bank that holds the business's mortgage "would not work with me" following a recent appraisal and he couldn't get access to the credit line that he needed to keep the restaurant afloat. He decided it was time to shut down when he wasn't sure whether he could pay his 15 employees the following week.

"It's very hard to make that decision," Culver said. "The value is in the blood and sweat and tears you put into it. That's the part you can't take out."

Although Culver concedes that the closure of the Bread Box involved some unique circumstances, he thinks his situation also points to a broader dilemma: businesses are struggling to make ends meet even in the city's core downtown area.

"It's not about me; it's about what's happening to Waterville," Culver said. "There isn't much appeal left to Main Street, because there isn't anybody here."

The loss of the Bread Box is "a huge loss for the downtown" that "leaves a big hole on Main Street" because it was "known to be one of our finest restaurants in town," said Shannon Haines, executive director of the group Waterville Main Street that promotes local businesses.

But Haines doesn't think Waterville's downtown businesses are facing challenges any different from those of other areas. Haines said that was clear to her after recently returning from a national Main Street conference in Oklahoma City.

"My sense is Waterville is just now feeling the ill effects of the economy; I think we're often behind other areas and I think we're feeling that now," Haines said.

Culver, a 1990 graduate of Waterville Senior High School who now lives in Oakland and has three children, opened the 50-seat Bread Box Cafe in February 2002, a year after starting a catering business. Culver renovated the original building space and then purchased a connected building in 2006, doubling the restaurant's space and adding a wine bar and lounge and another 20 seats.

Now, Culver said he's not sure what he's going to do with the brick-exterior building and thinks he may have to move out of state to find work.

One big problem his restaurant has faced, Culver said, is "there is no longer customer loyalty." People will instead go to stores or eateries based solely on what they believe to be cheaper prices, and that often favors chain companies over small local businesses, even if there really isn't much of a price difference, Culver said.

The lack of consistent patronage takes it toll, he said.

"If you guys want a Main Street that has stuff, you got to support it; you got to put your money where your mouth is," he said. Employees at the Bread Box, "enjoyed knowing people and taking care of them. It's one of the things corporate America can't do and small business can do. It's personalizing care; it adds value to their experience."

Business challenges

Culver said there's an important message to take away from the restaurant's closure: support local businesses "in any and all flavors."

Kim Lindlof, president of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, agrees that's important because "smaller moms and pops don't have the marketing budgets the bigger corporations do."

"It's a real challenge right now," Lindlof said. "It's access to capital. To get the money and take the risk in this economic climate is a challenge. But it's not unique to downtowns or to Maine. This is a nationwide trend right now. That's why we work hard nurturing businesses that are here and incrementally growing them."

(Continued on page 2)

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