HARPSWELL — When Ashley Griset and John Profenno envisioned embarking on a restaurant venture, their initial idea was to open a small Mexican restaurant near South Portland.
Instead, they secured a three-year lease to manage the restaurant and general store on Holbrook Wharf, a mixed-use waterfront property roughly 40 miles north of South Portland, in Cundy’s Harbor.
The property is owned by Holbrook Community Foundation, a nonprofit that purchased it in 2005 to save it from private residential development. It has had multiple lessees over the years.
The organization also owns the commercial fishing wharf, a historic house with two rental apartments, and a photography gallery on the property.
Profenno said he and Griset, who also manage food service operations at Southern Maine Community College, “fell upon” the opportunity to take over the wharf’s management. Griset, a Harpswell native, remembered visiting the property as a child.
“We found it on Craigslist, and I recognized it from growing up here and coming here when I was a kid,” she said.
The pair opened Holbrook’s Lobster Wharf & Grille and Holbrook General Store for the season on May 26.
They have also continued working at SMCC, where Profenno is the executive chef and Griset is the general manager, overseeing dining and catering. Profenno noted neither are connected to the college’s culinary arts department.
He added doing both jobs in recent months has been “crazy” and “quite the experience,” but said his trust in Griset has helped.
“I’ve wanted to do this and have my own (restaurant) for a while,” he said. “I never really ran into anybody that I trusted to do it as a partner.”
Profenno has been cooking for about 30 years, many of them at Woodlands Club in Falmouth, where he said he did “everything,” from cooking for small barbecues to weddings.
With the new venture, Griset said she and Profenno hope to grow it, but also “keep it authentic because of what it’s always been.”
“I know we were competing against some other people to get the lease,” she said. “They had some different things on the menu, some of them were wanting to change it up a lot and I know it made (some people) hesitate a little bit.”
She added Holbrook’s is a symbol of Cundy’s Harbor, which is why she and Profenno don’t want to switch the menu too much – but would like to build upon it in coming years.
In addition to burgers, salads and sandwiches, the restaurant also serves Maine summer classics such as steamed lobster and battered seafood dishes.
Profenno and Griset have also been offering their own twist as specials, through Mexican-inspired cuisine like lobster quesadillas and fish tacos.
“(We made) sure we got the core menu down tight and everyone liked it; we got good responses before we dabbled and changed it up too much,” she said.
Other changes they’ve made were to the appearance of the property, including painting the general store and adding Gifford’s ice cream, an Auburn-based company, to its offerings.
Griset said managing Holbrook has been quite a departure from working for Sodexo, the management services company she and Profenno work for through SMCC.
For instance, she said, at Holbrook’s the pair has to handle all of its own licensing, human resources, and budgeting. Both Profenno and Griset also cook at Holbrook’s.
She added the change was “overwhelming at first” but also said the state of Maine has been helpful in answering questions through the licensing process.
“We sort of get spoiled working for corporate because we have all those resources at our fingertips,” she said. “Doing this has given us a little more understanding of the corporate structure and appreciate it a lot more.”
The wharf also has 15 staff members, some of whom came from SMCC with Griset and Profenno.
The new managers also recently extended the wharf’s hours. It’s open most days from 11 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., except for Fridays and Saturdays, when it stays open until 9 p.m.
They are also discussing keeping the restaurant open after the season ends, which is typically Labor Day weekend, until Columbus Day.
In terms of response from the public, Griset said the surrounding community has been “great.” She also said with boaters and visitors to the area, competition with other nearby restaurants has not been an issue.
“When the tourists are down here, there’s plenty to go around,” she said.
John Profenno and Ashley Griset, the new managers of Holbrook’s Lobster Wharf & Grille and Holbrook General Store in Cundy’s Harbor, also work in food services for Southern Maine Community College.
Holbrook’s Lobster Wharf & Grille and Holbrook General Store in Cundy’s Harbor has been owned since 2005 by the nonprofit Holbrook Community Foundation.