NORWAY—The Norway Trolley House has a unique history among stops in Western Maine. The passenger rail once slowly plodded from Norway’s and Paris’ residential neighborhoods, electric lines powering its passage, as it brought workers to the booming manufacturing jobs around town.
With the rise of automobiles and only a small population to draw from, the former passenger street-rail station closed its doors in 1918, the lines dismantled, and is now only remembered in idyllic black-and-white photographs.
The most recent associations, though?
“A biker’s bar.”
Those words come from Jon Ochtera, who along with wife Willow own and operate the local landmark as a restaurant. Since they opened The Norway Trolley House in June, they’ve been trying to exterminate the site’s reputation, a stereotype as cliche the following assumption; for catering to a rough-and-tumble, drinks only, crowd.
Washing away the past and sketching a new fable hasn’t been easy, and owners feel the site’s old connotations are stifling their new venture. If business doesn’t turn around soon, the Ochteras warn, the restaurant could be forced to shut its doors before the winter is out.
Breaking with the past
The summer of 2013 brought a bright idea to Ochtera’s to call upon their combined 28-years experience managing in the food-service industry and open a locally-sourced restaurant where everything was made from scratch. It was their dream, a chance to work for themselves and take full control over their business.
They set to work looking for the right space. Willow, originally from West Paris, knew the area well and when the couple scouted the former trolley station, equiped with a kitchen and amenities from its previous incarnations as a restaurant and bar, they knew they’d found the spot.
From the outset, taking the time and ingredients to cook everything from scratch was a financial risk they were well cognizant of. It requires a vast inventory of spices, vinegars, oils, and fresh ingredients which could, if bought pre-made in bulk from a national food distrubtor such as Sysco, save the restaurant a considerable amount in operating costs.
Yet that wasn’t the option they wanted. You could get pre-fabricated food – inferior food, just about anywhere, they said.
From the outset the menu would have to be priced higher to reflect the extra hours. Still, they believed in their food, and the industriousness fed their pride that they were making a top-notch product, one patrons would be willing to pay a little more for.
They did, at least at first. The summer was a boom time for the 70-seat restaurant, and they did well for the first few months, even bouncing back from a brief dip in numbers in the fall, one annually experienced and anticipated by the restaurant industry as students return to school.
Just as the John and Willow believed residents were warming up to the new place, business fell flat.
Searching for the answers has led them to a two-pronged conclusions. Part of the problem they say is the difficulty they’ve had marketing. They don’t have an advertising budget, and although a freshly painted sign adorns windows overlooking Main Street, the restaurant has little presence outside its walls.
Exacerbating that problem, in October, an Applebee’s opened in Oxford, siphoning away diners and cutting sales right in half, the couple said.
“The way Willow and I looked at it when it [Applebee's] opened was that it gave people one less reason to go down to Portland to get a meal. We hoped it would keep more people in town – it might be, but unfortunately for us, it’s keeping them at their restaurant,” Jon said.
Things are getting tight around the restaurant. Despite trimming down inventory and, regrettably to the high-quality minded owners, sourcing food from national distributors, a place once teeming with 20 employees is currently down to just six.
It’s just John and Wilow on a cold Jan. 2. In addition to putting in a lot of extra time to run the place, Jon has picked up a part-time job in Bethel, while Willow’s been working full-time all along. All the proceeds are fed into the restaurant to keep it alive.
“Last night I was the only person in the building, with one cook,” John said.
All along the couple knew competing with the likes of McDonald’s and other established restaurants was going to be difficult, so they didn’t, and in reality couldn’t, cut their prices when times got tough.
“We were hoping when we first opened up people would go and compare and contrast and see the significant quality difference between what we and they do. I can only assume what they’re selling, people are liking,” Jon said.
The trolley’s pitch
The Norway Trolley House is separated into two thematic halves: to the left, a neighborhood bar, where people call out to another by name, flat-screen TVs broadcast the latest games seated from one of the few tables or along the long amber-hued bar. It’s unpretentious and warm, a fake electronic fireplace adding more charm than tackiness.
Patrons wishing a more traditional dining experience can opt left at the doors and find a table in the formal, 40-person dining room. High vaulted ceilings are criss-crossed with authentic wood beams, brazen chandeliers dangle from metal chains, and photos of the trolley station add historical character to the room.
Jon and Willow hope the draw of the unique space, coupled with the food will win back customers. In the meantime, squeezing their pennies has helped, but it’s causing them to run out of things, such as fresh vegetables and seafood. If they make it through the summer, John says one of the goals to revamp sourcing food from local farmers.
“A lot of people are very interested in getting their food into the building,” Jon said.
The couple focus on producing home-made food, made from scratch. Only seafood and french-fries are preserved in chest-freezers, everything else – such as the family passed-down meatball recipe, is made in-house.
It’s understandable then when there’s the sound of pride chef Chad Watchorn’s voice as he describes his favorite dish, the bake-stuffed haddock.
“We try to do everything homemade, from scratch, from the salad dressings to the croutons – everything. We want to serve good, simple food,” Watchorn said.
But getting that message out to residents has proven difficult, as problematic as Applebee’s opening.
“We opened up out of pocket, so we didn’t have a lot of advertisement money to work with,” Willow said.
“We have a lot of people who don’t know that it’s new owners or a new menu,” she added.
Still, among those who roll the dice and try it, the restaurant seems to be a hit.
“We do have a ton of return customers,” Willow said.
John has big plans for the restaurant – if they’re able to stay solvent through the winter. Come summer and warmer weather, they’ll swap picnic for dining tables in the outdoor patio area that will be shaded by a “living wall”. In addition to sheltering diners from the sun, the wall will grow herbs and spices for their dishes.
For the customers they’ve been able to get through Trolley’s doors, these new ideas are proving popular.
“I think that our customers are people that are locally focused. We get a lot of people that notice the different beer and ingredients are are incredibly supportive,” Willow said.
Irene Blair sits along the bar Jan. 2, drinking a beer from a porcelain mug, joining in the soft back-and-forth banter between her companions and Willow, who lately has been tending the bar and taking orders.
Irene, simply, says she doesn’t want to see the Trolley close.
“I’d be disappointed if I couldn’t come here. Everyone’s friendly, fun.”