Owner serves three decades of food, memories
By: Christopher Crosby
PARIS— Last week, Jack Shaner, owner of South Paris landmark Shaner’s Family Restaurant, confirmed what had been widely rumored about since October: the property and building had been sold to Family Dollar.
The decision has been complicated for Shaner. Though a choice “any businessman would make,” he said selling the restaurant he’s called home for 29 years was the most difficult in his life.
“My philosophy has always been I like the good side of life, I hate the bad.”
The sale of the iconic restaurant, located at 193 Main Street in South Paris since it first started serving patrons in 1985, follows months of negotiations with commercial real estate developers Hunt’s Real Estate, who have been trying to find a new location for Family Dollar since the summer.
Shaner says he contacted company representatives around the same time a sale-and-purchase agreement with property owners neighboring McLaughlin Garden & Homestead fell through.
Six days later, he agreed to a tentative contract with Family Dollar for the building and half an acre of land, contingent on a host of red tape – mostly permits and applications – being approved. Shaner declined to comment on the price.
According to his knowledge of the agreement, Shaner’s will be demolished to make room for the new stand-alone Family Dollar store. The contract will go through on April 1, though the restaurant may close its doors before then.
For Shaner, the process of selling the property was stressful and complicated, fraught with risk that the most minutiae details could jeopardize the sale. Over the following months, he tried to keep news of the sale quiet.
That plunked him between respecting the confidentiality of the business agreement he had made with Family Dollar and the relationships with his customers who were anxious to know what the future held.
“My word is my integrity,” Shaner said, explaining why it was so hard for him not to give his employees – whom he calls family – a definitive answer until two weeks before the news went public.
“The question always on my mind was how to tell them in the right way,” Shaner said.
At times it felt like the very community was knocking on the door, eager to know if he was selling the property, from customers trying to get the scoop to a resident interrupting him while snow-blowing to learn the truth.
Though parts of the closure are painful, there’s solace, he said, in choosing the final date. Everything, he explains, has its time and losing energy to run the business, it’s better to know rather than slowly, vaguely falling into obscurity. It’s less painful that way, he said.
“There are challenges you have to meet. If you can’t, then it’s time.”
He weaved a tale firmly rooted in the town’s folklore: Shaner’s, he said, offered the quintessential small-town experience by inviting and celebrating life experiences – from sports, to child birth, to driving out of his way to restart an employees car – these have never taken a back seat when crossing through the restaurants threshold; it’s here where they’re brought to life.
“[These are] big events inside this restaurant,” he said. “I’m going to miss that. Immensely. It made it much more than just coming to work,” he said.
It’s a relic caught in changing norms and preferences that, like its clientele, he explained, are disappearing.
Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania dominated by Dutch speakers, Shaner eventually made his way to Maine, where he worked for Goodwin’s – a restaurant chain – in the 1970’s.
After buying the building, Jack and wife Diane – who briefly considered naming the place in reference to John Mellencamp’s song of the same name – took a chance and bought the building.
Food, admirers with a long memory will recall its ice cream, and the cows, immortalized in wooden cutouts oft stolen as a local rite of passage, put it on the state map years ago.
At a joking chide his haddock has gone up in price $3 – in three decades – he smiled, but a serious idealism overtook his face.
“I always wanted to make the place affordable for the people in the area,” he said.
The legend of 1950’s Americana is present in Shaner’s, and it’s easy to latch onto bromides as Shaner described the time-warp undergone stepping through the restaurants door: the menu stuffed with fried haddock, fries, meatloaf, eggs’ standard preparation done over-easy, milkshakes and ice cream; a landscape of wooden booths and low rising bar stools surrounding a bar, where there always seems to be a small fist of locals calling to employees and each other on a first-name basis. Hunched over a meal, they share stories of bygone years over their mugs – the coffee, black – and steam rises, as though this were a summer campfire with elders.
Suspected truisms are dashed by Shaner’s emotional intensity, by the stare of a man who modeled the restaurant after his own values – respect, empathy, and a gusto for storytelling – and convinced diners, often complete strangers upon stepping through the glass paneled front door, that they’d met a long-lost friend.
“Someone you never met in your whole life becomes part of your life; My god, that’s kind of fun!”
Jack loves telling stories; it could be said that Shaner’s is a restaurant that sells world-class stories where people happen to gather for food.
“The history goes back so deeply here,” he said, adding “You have time within the environment here that you can transpire years.”