PORTLAND — Twenty-five years have zipped by for Becky Rand, but a blink of the eye to her has become a tradition to local diners.
“It was great, surprising to get there,” she said March 18 about celebrating 25 years serving meals at Becky’s Diner.
What could have been seen as desperate move by Rand has become a landmark, a diner big on basics that lures fishermen, lawyers, tourists – plus governors, former presidents, presidential wannabes and movie stars stumping for presidential wannabes.
“I thought I was just going to be a little coffee shop. To get on this side of the street, I had to sell food to the fishermen,” Rand said about opening on March 13, 1991, at 390 Commercial St.
Becky’s opened about three years after city voters passed a working waterfront ordinance restricting development, so she had to establish her diner would be of benefit to the waterfront. Diner expansion came only after the zoning was amended in 2006 and allowed a second floor and larger kitchen.
The mother of six children who mortgaged her home to open a diner in a once boarded-up building now runs a waterfront fixture that attracts drop-ins from the likes of former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Paul LePage, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and actress Susan Sarandon, who visited recently while drumming up support for Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont.
Of those visits, Rand said she was most impressed by Clinton, who came in 2008 during his wife’s first campaign for president.
“He came in and just starting charming everybody,” Rand said. “He continued to hold my hand throughout the conversation, he never let it go and he looked right at me the whole time.”
Rand has also occasionally stepped into local politics, having joined the coalition last fall to defeat a referendum that would have set a $15-per-hour minimum wage in Portland.
The political visits are indelible, but getting the basics of good food at a good value in a friendly atmosphere matter more, said Rand and her son, Zack, who supervises the kitchen.
“I want people to come here and know when they order fried haddock and French fries, they are just getting fried haddock and French fries,” Zack Rand said. “I think people need a place where they know what they are getting.”
Zack is closing in on a decade working full time at the diner. Rand’s daughters, Katie Madden and Stephanie Rand, and her sister, Millie Norton, also work there.
Rand was divorced, working breakfast, lunch and dinner shifts in several restaurants while raising her children when she decided to take matters into her own kitchen.
“I was working so many hours in the other jobs and never getting ahead, and I had worked for a lot of restaurants and thought, ‘I can do this,’” she said.
The building was owned by 10 fishermen and a lawyer who helped refurbish it so she could add her own fixtures. Some were bought from a restaurant she had worked in before opening Becky’s.
“They were super-kind landlords who made it possible for me to succeed,” she said of her beginnings.
She had a partner at the start, but he soon stepped away because he was certain she would succeed, Rand said.
“We had a line the first day; I ended up doing dishes because we had not staffed up,” she said. “I think the whole waterfront was rooting for me. I hope they came back for the food.”
With her home riding on her business, Rand said failure was not an option.
Rand is also a former contributor to The Forecaster who wrote columns and business profiles for the fledgling paper. Now her diner has been featured in local and national magazines, including Gourmet, which featured her chowder recipe.
Zack Rand said he did not expect to make Becky’s a career, even as he began working there as a teenager. He had been working as a lobsterman, and came back to pitch in as the diner was expanding. He ended up enjoying the work and continuing the tradition, he said.
“I want people to be able to count on food,” he said.
Whatever fame may come from visits, write-ups or TV shows, Becky Rand said she is most satisfied by the regular customers who pop in for breakfast and conversation when the city is just waking up, or regular family gatherings at a corner table in the back.
“They just want to come down and touch base with the world,” she said.
Zack and Becky Rand, outside Becky’s Diner on Commercial Street in Portland on March 18, said the diner’s longevity is the result good food, good value and good company.
Three of Becky Rand’s children work at her diner. Her son, Zack, supervises the kitchen. “I think people need a place where they know what they are getting,” he said.