GEORGETOWN, Maine - The restaurant business, it is widely agreed, is a challenging one.
Labor costs are high. Cooks and waitstaff come and go. Foods are quickly perishable. Profit margins are often slim. Even if the menu is magnificent and the service superb, a poor location can be fatal.
So when Michael Gagne set out 13 years ago to create a high-end restaurant offering fine dining, he chose a puzzling - some might say foolhardy - address: an island. In a town with barely 1,000 year-round residents. In the middle of the woods.
"That whole 'location, location, location' thing - I missed that somewhere," Gagne joked. "If you just happen by the Meetinghouse, you're lost. You don't know where you are."
The "Meetinghouse" is Robinhood Free Meetinghouse, the 85-seat restaurant Gagne has run in midcoast Maine since 1994. Housed in a 19th-century former church, it sits on a forested road nearly a mile from the town's main road.
It's a modest, post-and-beam structure that embodies simplicity and practicality. On the first floor is an intimate dining room with contemporary art and original woodwork. On the restroom walls are old chalkboards on which are written, in fading lettering, the last catechism lesson taught at the church more than a half-century ago.
Upstairs is a breathtakingly different scene. The second floor is a former chapel with 10-foot-high windows, 16-foot-high ceilings, a working antique organ, and white linen-clad tables surrounding rows of wooden pews. The airy, expansive space also has a raised choir loft with tables that overlook the spacious room.
"We like to say that upstairs is a religious experience," said Gagne, 53, a Biddeford native, "because it's like you're eating with God."
In this setting, Gagne has built Robinhood Free Meetinghouse into one of the state's most acclaimed restaurants. Open year-round, it offers an ambitious menu of about 20 entrees ranging from rabbit to duck breast to grilled lamb tenderloin to lobster, prepared by chef de cuisine Troy Mains. Nearly everything - sauces, pates, chutneys, dressings, even ice cream - is made in-house. In an effort to support Maine growers, Gagne purchases many of his ingredients, including cheese, produce, eggs, and poultry, from local purveyors.
The white clapboard building has a rich history. Built in 1855 by local Methodists and Congregationalists as a nondenominational house of worship, it later served as a high school and library. To raise the $2,600 needed to construct the church, townspeople leased pews to prominent families for $60 apiece.
In the early 1990s, two Georgetown residents, Pat Burns and Elizabeth Spaulding, bought and began to renovate the building, which they planned to turn into a community gathering place. Enter Gagne, who leased it from them for his catering business.
After an overhaul of the structure, Gagne - who began cooking at a clam shack in Old Orchard Beach when he was 14 and has worked in the food business ever since - bought the property and opened a full-service restaurant there. He calls the project a "perfect marriage between commercial enterprise and a building restoration."
To help generate exposure for the restaurant, Gagne also launched Gagne Foods, which makes what he calls "Michael Gagne's Robinhood Free Meetinghouse 72-Layer Cream Cheese Biscuits," sold as an oven-ready frozen dough. The butter and cream cheese mixture is carried by several big grocers and retailers, including Whole Foods, Stonewall Kitchen, and Hannaford in Maine, and can be turned into plain dinner biscuits, herb parmesan biscuits (both of which are served in the Meetinghouse's bread baskets), and cinnamon rolls.
The biscuits used to be produced and packaged at the restaurant, but earlier this year Gagne moved the biscuit operation to a factory in nearby Bath.
The restaurant does its most robust business during the summer when seasonal residents and tourists swell Georgetown's population. During this high season, the Meetinghouse is open for dinner seven days a week. From mid-October to mid-May it scales back to only Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, and also offers catering and cooking classes. Winter is the restaurant's toughest season, since "the threat of snow will pretty much take 60 or 70 reservations down to zero," Gagne said.
Despite the volatility of the business, Gagne considers the food industry personally, if not always financially, rewarding.
"When I step into my dining room, besides the chink-chink and tinkle-tinkle of crossing glasses and fork reaching to plate, you hear the laughter and the cacophony of community," he said, "and that's what I live for."
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.