Closing Cowbell Grill & Tap: What the owners want Lewiston to know

Mar. 12—BIDDEFORD — Cowbell Grill and Tap on Lisbon Street in Lewiston is scheduled to close its doors permanently at the end of service on Sunday. Either way you see the story unfolding, it's a loss for the employees, customers, the city and the owners.

One of the most difficult decisions for any business owner is knowing when to close a business. It's usually a confluence of circumstances that build to a point of no return or a single catastrophic event. For the owners of Cowbell Grill & Tap — Alex Markakis and Jimmy Albert — it is a decision they have wrestled with for some time, but they point to several key factors in their decision to close the Lisbon Street restaurant, reasons they were eager to share with the Lewiston-Auburn community.

"So when we went in there in September of 2018 we compared it to Biddeford," Markakis explained, "very vibrant, a lot of walk-in traffic. Obviously then COVID hit and post-COVID, it just hasn't been the same."

Fuel restaurant had just finished off a successful 11-year run in downtown Lewiston, becoming a destination restaurant attracting a loyal local following and drawing celebrities from afar. Some in the local business community were skeptical from the start, but still hopeful, that a burger and beer joint could replace Fuel.

"Financially, we were cranking," Markakis said, "and Fuel shut down and he was making money." But the soon-to-be 31-year-old admits the restaurant business can test your patience. Staffing, especially post-pandemic, has been particularly difficult across the hospitality industry.

"Turnover can be extreme in this business," Albert said calmly. "What it comes down to is we sustained that location even though we weren't making money. We thought we had a very strong core group of both employees — front of house employees who are still with us, as well as customers."

Markakis added that they really have not had a lot of turnover in Lewiston.

"People just wouldn't go there and the primary reason was the parking," Albert said.

The owners pointed to recent parking bans and snow removal scheduled on Friday or Saturday starting at 7 p.m.

"Compare it to Biddeford. They do it overnight," Markakis said.

"They get it, Lewiston doesn't; 7 p.m. just shuts down our business," Albert added.

Did they ever talk to the city about parking?

"We didn't get a lot of cooperation from the city, we got a lot of regulation from the city," Albert replied.

Lincoln Jeffers, the Economic & Community Development director for the city, said the issue of the timing of parking bans has indeed been brought to the city's attention. "Most recently, we heard from the local businesses that told us our local snow removal bans started too early. Our Public Works heard them and pivoted quickly. Public Works implemented (a) new policy that night to start snow removal in our downtown at 11 p.m."

"There's also a synergistic effect," Albert said. "You're able to locate a restaurant next to a restaurant, it gives people a destination, an entertainment district."

"We haven't had many experiences at all post-COVID with other business owners to develop that synergy downtown," Markakis added. "2019 leading all the way to COVID, we were all working together. Instead, you've got other business owners that are working against each other. I'll leave it at that."

The city's economic development director responded: "Over the last year we have had several new downtown businesses open, including Obscura Café (& Drinkery), Rusty Bus (Brewing Co.) and Blue Jay (Coffee). Forage (Market) reopened, LA Arts relocated, and Sonder & Dram is finishing out the floor above to bring Bon Vivant, a casual fine dining experience to Lisbon Street. That makes Lisbon Street a foodie destination."

At the same time Brenzels Caribbean Cuisine opened and closed on Park Street in a three-month period last year, so did Sherman Oaks California Kitchen on Lisbon Street. Mother India is open for take-out but has not reopened its dining room.

Circling back to the regulatory complaint, the partners said that after the restaurant reopened after the worst of the pandemic, they wanted the city to shut down Lisbon Street during an event such as Trek Across Maine, and to possibly hold block parties similar to the way the city of Biddeford does. They were told you can't just shut down Lisbon Street and said they felt it was a constant power struggle with the city.

They credit former president of the Downtown Lewiston Association, Michael Dostie, with making things happen downtown for businesses. After he left the group last year, they said the momentum was lost. "We were just looking for more from the downtown district or committees, just the city in general to help business in that area," Albert said.

"When it comes to what to do, the area is also returning to its event heyday," Jeffers said. "LA Arts will be hosting several events in their new gallery space and we are returning to big-city attractions as we did with the Holiday at the Plaza festival where thousands spent hours on Lisbon Street celebrating."

Markakis and Albert concede being separated from their six other restaurants and bars in York and Cumberland counties played a role in their decision, but said they believe in their concept and believe it may have fared better in another location.

They considered buying the former Pedro O'Hara's on Main Street in Lewiston, which has a substantial parking lot, but couldn't agree on terms. They said they were also approached about moving to the former Ruby Tuesday on Center Street in Auburn where Olive Garden will soon open, but the site was too big for them.

The message for the city, Albert said, is get behind the downtown.

"Again I'm drawing this parallel where we've had such a wonderful experience down here (in Biddeford)," he said. "We were one of the first ones in down here and everyone filled in around us. We've had a great experience in Biddeford, it's just on the map for everybody. I expected Lewiston to be a little more than what it is."

Would they come back?

They say they would — in a different location.

"We don't want to be downtown," Albert said.

Jeffers agreed it's never good news to find out a business has decided to close.

"The city was disappointed to hear of Cowbell's decision," he said. "My department is always looking to work with businesses and serve as their ombudsman, working to assist when challenges arise. We wish them continued success."