Popular Brunswick eatery expanding, but not everyone is happy
BRUNSWICK — Owners Becky and Dave Shepherd were thrilled when they were offered a lease that would allow them to expand Wild Oats Bakery & Cafe at the Tontine Mall.
The Shepherds had been eyeing expansion of the 19-year-old eatery for years. They even considered moving to the old Movie Gallery spot on Maine Street, or the old Grand City store.
Recently, Dan Catlin, who manages the mall for Commercial Properties in Portland, offered a new deal that would allow Wild Oats to take over two spaces now occupied by Gamebox, a video game shop, and The Kids Room, a children's used clothing store.
And that, Becky Shepherd said, is when the "(expletive) started."
"It turned into this thing where people were saying we were putting (Gamebox and The Kids Room) out of business," Shepherd said.
Gamebox owner Tony Cox announced the news March 16 on Facebook.
"Our space in the Tontine Mall has more value to Wild Oats expanding into our space than our remaining here, so we are being asked to vacate," Cox wrote. "We are looking at options here in town and elsewhere. Come in and show your support in this difficult time. We are in a bit of shock over this."
Most of Gamebox's fans tossed out relocation suggestions. Others weren't so thrilled with Wild Oats, arguing the business's growth plans had come at the expense of two smaller businesses. Some suggested a boycott.
The boycott doesn't appear to have gained much momentum. But the Shepherds found themselves on the defensive.
"It had nothing to do with us," Becky said. "The landlord approached me with a proposal. We were told the (Gamebox and Kids Place spaces) would be opening, so we signed the lease."
Shepherd was reluctant to discuss the situation further, saying she and Cox had tried to patch things up.
Cox agreed, saying the dispute was settled.
"We have no ill-will toward Wild Oats," Cox said. "In fact, I'm quite envious of their success. ... It wasn't their fault. It was a situation where the property owner dangled a carrot in front of them ... It was a bizarre play upon us. The landlord wanted to make sure he had a guaranteed long-term tenant."
"It's nothing personal with Becky," Cox added. "I might not be able to say the same about the property owner."
Cox said his lease expires at the end of April. Although he had talked about moving before, it was a long way off.
"Last week (Catlin) walked in and told me he wasn't renewing the lease," Cox said. "As a landlord, he has every right, but it was certainly a surprise to me. I had the full intention of staying another year."
Cox said he isn't sure if Gamebox will remain in Brunswick. He said the video game market is saturated by the recent proliferation of chain stores like Target, Best Buy and Gamestop in neighboring Topsham.
Cox said he's proud of his loyal customers, but he is also asking them not to blame Wild Oats.
"It seems that the mud is still being thrown in the direction of Wild Oats," Cox wrote Tuesday on Facebook. "I would like it to stop. Let's stop the bad talk, emails, chats and posts. We are happy that Becky and Wild Oats are continuing to grow and wish them all the best of luck. We will pick it up and find a new start."
The Shepherds, meanwhile, are anxious for an expansion that will be completed just in time for Wild Oats' 20th anniversary.
The expansion will add about 75 seats to the 50 the cafe currently has. The new seating will move across the hall, into what is now the Kids Room.
The Gamebox space will become home to a larger sales and production area that will allow the cafe offer to offer a salad bar, deli, panini sandwiches and perhaps smoothies.
Overall, Shepherd said, the larger space will alleviate what she described as Wild Oats' confusing traffic flow.
"We're going to redo our whole floor plan," she said.
Shepherd said the expansion will add about six jobs to Wild Oats' current workforce of about 27 employees. She said she hopes construction will begin soon and be completed by June.
As for the online call for a boycott, Shepherd said it can't end soon enough.
"It's just ridiculous," she said.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org