Announcer: You are listening to Love Maine radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle, and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Patrick G.: I hope that we kind of go more towards the model of like, let’s get these kids as much opportunity playing with each other and grow some really strong home grown programs right in our community. So that all these kids have the opportunity, and not just the kids that can travel to Massachusetts and play organized hockey tournament.
Joshua Perry: But it makes you be more aware of your game and trying to stay on top of it, you know. To still be relevant 18 years later, I’m very fortunate, you know, I feel very lucky. And I don’t take it for granted, you know.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 282, Pond Hockey and Portland Eating. Airing for the first time on Sunday, February 12, 2017.
There is great value in building things that give pleasure to others. For the past five years, Patrick Guerette has been the tournament director of the Maine Pond Hockey Classic. Bringing players like south Portland firefighter Joshua Perry to central Maine.
Portland restaurateur and artist Jay Villani opened his first eatery, Local 188, 18 years ago, and now has three more. Maine is a happier place as a result of their efforts. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: For many years, I’ve lived in the small town of Yarmouth and we have a wonderful skating rink behind our bank on Main Street where people play pond hockey. And today we have two individuals who are quite committed to the idea of pond hockey here in the state of Maine. We have Patrick Guerette, who is the senior program director at the Alfond’s Youth Center in Waterville, and the tournament director of the Maine Pond Hockey Classic being held February 10th through 12th in Sidney.
We also have Joshua Perry, who is a firefighter and paramedic for the South Portland Fire Department and the captain of two south Portland fire department teams at the tournament.
Thanks for coming in today.
Patrick G.: Thanks for having us.
Joshua Perry: Thanks for having us.
Lisa Belisle: So this is a pretty great idea to do a pond hockey classic. Whose idea was it?
Patrick G.: Kind of my idea. So when I started working at the Alfond Youth Center I met the CEO and we were talking about different creative fundraising ideas that we could do. And I’d just read an article in USA Hockey Magazine about pond hockey tournaments, so the idea was fresh in my brain. And I was like, hey that sounds like something we could do in Maine and in this area and so he kind of challenged me to put it together. And you know, five years later, here we are. So think it was a good idea. It still seems like a good idea.
Lisa Belisle: Well what do you think Joshua, you’ve been doing hockey for, you told me 30 years or something?
Joshua Perry: Yeah, last year was our first year playing in … I’ve never played in a pond hockey tournament before. I heard Pat on a local radio show promoting it. It sounded like a fun idea and last year was the first time for almost all of us playing in a pond hockey tournament. And we had such a good time, we’re back again and we’re bringing more people this time.
Lisa Belisle: Now both of you have a history of playing hockey. Was it always on ponds or was it in regular rinks?
Patrick G.: So for me, I picked up organized hockey very late. So my whole childhood of hockey was pond hockey. So I didn’t start playing organized hockey until I was a sophomore in highschool actually. So for me pond hockey was all I really knew. And I didn’t even play a lot of that. It was not until really later into highschool and college that I’ve enjoyed playing hockey on a high level. So I try to play hockey all the time now because I didn’t get it younger when I was a kid.
Joshua Perry: Yeah, I played both organized hockey growing up and just skating around and just … That was what I loved about it that it was a lot of freedom to just go out and skate and it wasn’t so structured or organized. It was just kind of stress free and you could practice different things, be creative and just have fun with your friends. And I think that’s one of the big draws about pond hockey and skating around is it’s just a good time with your friends. You don’t have that structure and pressure from practices and games and everything.
Lisa Belisle: And you grew up in Millinocket.
Joshua Perry: I did, yep. So we had a lot of lakes and ponds that we could, if the weather cooperated, we could skate on. There was a big public skating rink in town, all our games were outside, so it was pretty interesting.
Lisa Belisle: It also, it seems like you’re always kind of working with the elements. Sometimes it’s a little colder, sometimes it’s a little warmer. What happens when the ice on the pond isn’t quite as good as you’d like it to be?
Patrick G.: Well that’s pond hockey. I think a lot of people would say is, you know, every year we have people that say stuff about well the ice isn’t good. And it’s like, well it’s not a rink, you know. And so you’ve kind of got to deal with what’s thrown at you. And a lot of it for us as tournament organizers has been trial and error. We’ve learned a lot over the past five years about what you do and what you don’t do. Like one year we were like people were complaining about the ice so we decided to flood and that just made it worse because of the temperature. So it was like, we’re not going to do that anymore if temperature’s not right for it. So it’s just kind of knowing how to treat the elements. And then just kind of working around whatever comes your way.
So like last year we had extremely cold temperatures, which was funny because it was super warm all winter and people were even asking if we were going to have enough ice to do a tournament. And then we had, you know, negative 20 with windchill kind of factors throughout the weekend. And then previous years we had winter storm Nemo our first year of our tournament. So it was just, it’s always been kind of fun to see what’s going to get thrown at us at the last minute, so. I don’t look at the extended forecast because it either stresses me out or misleads me into believing that it’s going to be all perfect and hunky dory, so we just don’t look at it until like the week of and say, whatever comes our way, we’ll handle it.
Lisa Belisle: And you’ve never had to actually postpone or cancel it.
Patrick G.: We actually did one year. That was two years ago, we had several storms that were back to back of heavy, heavy snow and the ice was great but the weight of the snow actually when plowed her all off, was breaking the ice. And that was an issue anywhere we would have gone. So that was kind of what we ran into. And we had people that had already gotten plane tickets and hotels and it’s not one of those things you can postpone necessarily so what we did was we refunded everybody’s money and said let’s bring it back the next year and kind of pick it up from there. And that’s when these guys got involved, so. We learned a lot that year about what to do and what not to do and so we’ve put kind of some stop gaps in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Lisa Belisle: So Joshua, you actually spent some time outside of the state.
Joshua Perry: I have.
Lisa Belisle: What were you doing?
Joshua Perry: I was in the Air Force for eight years and I lived in Montana for three years and three years in Germany.
Lisa Belisle: So when you came back to Maine, did it feel like you had a renewed interest in doing things outdoors and really embracing the weather that we have?
Joshua Perry: Montana and Germany were pretty similar and I packed my hockey gear wherever I went so I got to play a bunch of hockey in Montana and I played a fair amount in Germany as well. Our base team played a bunch of local German teams so that was pretty interesting, a different style of hockey. But yeah, after spending eight years away I was pretty excited to come back home and be back here and …
Lisa Belisle: So you have two teams that you’re in charge of, and they’re all firefighters?
Joshua Perry: Yeah, pretty much. We had a couple people drop out so we’ve reached out to a couple other people from … One’s a brother in law of one of our players, one’s from Lewiston Fire, one’s my neighbor. So, just had to fill up a couple spots where people backed out at the last minute, and we wanted to make it work.
Lisa Belisle: And these are all people who have some background playing hockey.
Joshua Perry: Almost. We had such a good time last year and the guys at work are probably sick about hearing us talk about how much fun we’ve had. One guy bought gear this year and is going to learn how to play. We don’t really care, we’re just in it to have a good time and to hang out with each other. We’re a small department with three different stations and four shifts so we don’t always get to see some of the guys and this is a great way for us to hang out together and spend time with our other coworkers that we don’t get to see as much, so that’ll be pretty fun.
Patrick G.: Yeah, it was really funny. After last year’s tournament, it was either you or one of your players reached out to me and were like, “Listen, next year, could you have a division where it’s just you show up and you play and there’s no tournament or competition. Because we just want to come up and play and have a good time”. And I was like, “That sounds like a good idea”. So we actually added a just for fun division this year, where there was no playoffs, there was just you get guaranteed to play games both days. Which, we actually didn’t get enough teams signed up for that, but we had another outside team that was interested, so I think it has merit and I think it’ll grow from there. But I thought it was interesting that these guys kind of came up with it. I was like, yeah that’s way easier for me to organize to just do it that way. So I was like, let’s throw it in there, see what happens.
Lisa Belisle: So how is it structured? What are the divisions and how many people do you usually get?
Patrick G.: So this year is our biggest tournament, we have 62 teams that are signed up. We have four divisions that will be playing this year, so we have a, we call it an open A which is like our highest level of competition. The team that won it last are all UNE alumni hockey players so that tells you about the level of competition that’s there. Then our open B is a lot of I would say upper level men’s leagues teams or guys that are kind of getting back into it that maybe were at a high level before.
We have a recreational C division which is kind of like your general everybody, we still want to be competitive but we know we’re not a high level player. And then we actually have a 40 and over division this year, a 40 and over as well. We had a women’s division as well, we didn’t get enough teams so they’re going to play in- The women’s team that we have is going to play in the open B division because they’re all ex-college hockey players and they’re like, yeah we’re going to take on all the boys. So that’ll be fun. And then the just for fun division, again, we had to roll those teams into other divisions.
So we always, if a team wants to play, we’ll find an opportunity for them to play in one of the divisions. And we’d like to continue to expand so next year we’ve talked about adding a 50 and over division because a lot of the guys in the 40 and over are actually 60 and over so like can we bump up the ages a little bit so we don’t have to skate against 41 year olds.
Lisa Belisle: So how many people does this entail between all the people on all the teams and then you have volunteers and you have people like yourself. What are we talking about?
Patrick G.: You know, probably throughout the course of the weekend, players, volunteers, spectators, probably looking at about a thousand people that’ll be involved. So about 500-ish players and you know we have a lot of different volunteers and it’s funny that Snow Pond, which is also Messalonskee Lake is a very popular ice fishing spot in central Maine, and we’re really close to the Sidney boat landing which is where a lot of people access it so we’ll get a lot of extra foot traffic of ice fishermen who’ll just be like, “Hey, what’s going on over there, let me check it out”.
So we encourage that too because I think it adds something for the players to have spectators around checking it out, and cheering them on. I even know that these guys last year that got knocked out of the tournament and they went back out and were cheering on the team that knocked them out of the tournament just because they wanted to stay engaged and involved which I thought was pretty cool.
Lisa Belisle: So it sounds like you really make a weekend of this.
Joshua Perry: Yeah, we try to. I think that was the big draw for us with the just for fun division because we know we’re not… Actually last year we did make it to the playoffs, but this year with that many more teams we know we’re done on Saturday and we just wanted to come out and have a good time and kind of make the weekend out of it. And we were kind of sad that it didn’t happen but we’re going to stick around and play each other, play another team on Sunday just for fun.
Patrick G.: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: So what is it about hockey that has appealed to you and has caused you to bring your gear to Germany and to Montana and to keep doing this?
Joshua Perry: It’s just such a fun sport. I mean, growing up in Maine and as cold as the winters are and as much snow … You got to get outside and enjoy it or it’s going to be a long time. I don’t know what the draw of the sport was for me but it’s just something that’s captured a big part of me and I love doing it. My son is going to be five next month and we’re out on the pond two blocks from our house and this is the first year he’s really been interested in skating and to watch him take his first skates was almost as proud of a moment as watching him take his first steps. And getting him outside and wearing him out. So that’s been the big draw for me.
Lisa Belisle: And does his mom also skate or play hockey?
Joshua Perry: Yeah, she comes out. She doesn’t play hockey but she’ll come out and skate around or encourage us to get out of the house and go skate so she can have some alone time, but yeah.
Lisa Belisle: So, Patrick, yours, you have a girl or a boy?
Patrick G.: I have a boy.
Lisa Belisle: You have a boy. And he’s only nine months old.
Patrick G.: Yep.
Lisa Belisle: So you haven’t probably done much with skating at this point.
Patrick G.: No he’s just learning how to crawl right now, so. But he’ll skate the next winter. Again, I work in youth development I would say and so I’m never going to force his hand but I’m going to provide opportunities for him to do the things, especially the things that I really like to do. So he’ll probably have skates pretty early on in life. And you know, the other sports that I like, he’ll probably have the opportunities to do those. But if he says, “I want to be a musician” or “I want to be an artist” we’ll support him in that too. So whatever he wants to do we’ll do. But I hope he likes hockey.
Lisa Belisle: Well I would think that after putting all this amount of time into the Pond Hockey Classic that obviously if he could come along and he could be part of this as time goes on.
Patrick G.: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that you know, when you’re talking about like what is the allure of hockey, and I think for a lot of kids it’s you can skate faster than you can run. So it’s like the idea of kids like to go fast. So I think getting kids on skates so they can go faster than they can normal is really kind of a thrilling … And it takes less energy so they can go further faster. And it’s a great team sport too. There’s not a lot of sports where you have to … You know, it’s really hard to be an individual hockey player and take over the entire game. Just because of the nature of the game. But there are some other sports where it’s a little easier so I like the team aspect of it.
Lisa Belisle: So originally your tournament was up in China Lake, is that right?
Patrick G.: Yeah, so we had a great spot in China Lake for the first couple years. There were some limitations but it was highly visible, right off a main road in China. It’s this place called The Landing. So they had a building right there, small parking lot, and after the first two years we kind of quickly realized that we were going to outgrow this location so we started looking for other spots just because there was not a lot of parking right out there. There was plenty of ice but no parking and none of the other amenities.
So I started driving all around central Maine looking at any spot that I thought might work and it’s almost embarrassing that I didn’t know that the New England Music Camp, which is where we are located out of, which is now the Snow Pond Center for the Arts, was like the perfect location right in the town that I was living in.
And I stumbled across it and I talked to the owner. And it turns out that his family is kind of a hockey family, they grew up in Connecticut as Whalers fans, and they were like, oh this would be great, they were totally on board so they’ve been very good about supporting the tournament. But it was kind of just funny I was like, I wish I would have found this place the first year. Not that China wasn’t great, but they have everything. They have a lodge that overlooks the lake, great drive on access right where they’re at. And then again we’re so close to the Sidney boat landing that it makes it great for trying to move stuff over to the tournament and whatnot. It’s because they plow that out for trucks to be able to put out ice shacks and whatnot. So I honestly can’t believe that we didn’t find it sooner.
Lisa Belisle: Well there’s a lot going on in central Maine that I’m not sure a lot of people know about. You grew up obviously much further north in Millinocket. Did you know that all of this was going on in central Maine, Joshua?
Joshua Perry: No, I think I just happened to be listening to the radio station about the tournament and I just was looking for something fun to do with my coworkers. And let’s give it a try and see if we can get a team together, and luckily we were able to get one together. So that was all our first time playing in a pond hockey tournament.
Lisa Belisle: So were you surprised by anything in the last couple years with regard to this pond hockey tournament?
Joshua Perry: I was surprised at how easy it was for us to get an actual team together. I thought it was going to be a little bit more challenging for us to get a team. I think last year was your first year at Snow Pond.
Patrick G.: Yeah, it was the first year at Snow Pond, yeah.
Joshua Perry: And we knew that was the first time being there, it was first time playing in the a tournament so we didn’t have any ideas of really what to expect. And the weather was crazy and Pat and the volunteers put on such an awesome event being the first time at a new location, the weather … They did a fantastic job and we had so much fun. We were pretty impressed by that and surprised by that so it made getting a second team a little bit easier.
Lisa Belisle: So when you’re not on the ice actually playing in the games it sounds like you do a lot of supporting other teams.
Joshua Perry: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Or maybe doing some supporting of other teams.
Joshua Perry: It was the polar dip that you could watch. My wife and son came up and there was a skating rink on the side, there was a beer garden. That’s where a lot of the teams hung out, especially around the fire staying warm or just waiting in between games.
Lisa Belisle: So who was doing the polar dip?
Patrick G.: So that’s another fundraiser that we do for the Alfond Youth Center. We used to do it later in the year but when we started doing this event we just were like why don’t we just do it together, it’d be kind of fun from both sides. And so it’s mostly local people from the central Maine area that come out and do the polar bear dip. You know, we have local businesses, and local celebrities like politicians, and you know, selectmen that will jump too and raise money for the Alfond Youth Center. So that’s actually it’s like our 23rd year doing the polar bear dip I think. It could be 22nd. Don’t quote me on that, but I know it’s recorded.
So it’s been going on for awhile, it’s always been a fun kind of thing to jump in really cold water. And it’s really neat because we’re cutting a hole in the ice to jump in. It’s very shallow so nobody gets swept away but it’s kind of this neat little atmosphere. You know, in the past we’ve done it at a pool that we filled up in front of Alfond Youth Center. I don’t think that has the same allure of jumping in the middle of a lake in the middle of a pond hockey tournament, so.
Lisa Belisle: So you attract teams really from all over, not just within the state of Maine.
Patrick G.: Yeah, that’s actually … So we’ve gotten teams … This year we have teams from as far away as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Long Is … Teams and players, actually, I was talking to one captain the other day that they have a brother that might be flying up from Florida to play in the tournament. So definitely it’s attracting people from away. I think a lot of … You know you kind of hinted earlier, like if you’re from Maine there’s always something that draws you back a little bit. So for some people that are out of state this is their opportunity to come back and kind of experience the winter, their childhood winter as an adult. I think that’s what this kind of provides for a few people.
And you know there are other people that have never played pond hockey before. That they grow up in the southern states and have only played rink hockey so there’s an allure to that as well. So I think there’s a lot of unique aspects to this that people don’t necessarily get if they’ve never grown up in like New England or the northern United States and been able to skate on a pond, so [inaudible 00:22:13].
Lisa Belisle: What are some of those aspects? I guess I’ll ask either one of you. Maybe either one of you can answer.
Patrick G.: Well I would say that pond hockey is different in the sense that the ice conditions, because the ice is always going to be a little imperfect so it’s kind of, you never know what the puck’s going to do. So I would say it really works on like good fundamentals as far as like hand-eye coordination and stick work. So it’s much less of a skating game and it’s more of a passing and stick handling game. I don’t know if that’s your thoughts.
Joshua Perry: Yeah, the rules are a bit different. I think the ice conditions can kind of equalize the teams a bit too. So you kind of in the back of your head like, oh, that corner over there is bad I can’t go as fast into that corner. Or there’s no boards to pass the puck up so it really emphasizes on skills of passing and it takes away some of the other dynamics that you can do on a rink that you just can’t do. You got to just be really good at shooting and passing. And just being outside is just the different aspect of it, it’s a lot more fun than going to a rink.
Lisa Belisle: Is it structured, is the game structured, is it with the same number of minutes and time outs?
Patrick G.: No it’s shorter. So we do 20 minute halves of running time. And you can do it differently. I mean pond hockey when you grow up as a kid it’s like we’ll play to 11 goals or play to however many goals, or play until it gets dark and we’ll say last goal and whoever scores wins.
But for the structure of the tournament we do two 20 minute halves. And then you know, the short half time, that just keeps the flow moving. We also have a lot of … One thing I actually think that the fact that we don’t have an official out on the ice too. So we have a score keeper who’s kind of there as our eyes and ears, but that it’s really self-regulated game play. So that’s also kind of part of pond hockey is there’s no ref, there’s no, you know, so it’s kind of gentlemanly rules.
Joshua Perry: Call your own penalties and …
Patrick G.: Yeah and nobody goes in the penalty box really until there’s a extreme violation, so. So a lot of it is just making sure that we’re having this mutual respect and admiration. That we’re both out here playing and having fun. We all have to go to work on Monday so let’s not get anybody hurt, and let’s have fun and play hockey.
Lisa Belisle: So how often is this penalty box utilized, and what would be something so egregious as to land someone from the pond hockey tournament in it.
Joshua Perry: No, there’s no penalty, it’s just a turnover of the puck and who gets the puck. Like you’re not supposed to really play goalie or camp out in front of the goal. Or who the … When the puck goes out of bounds who did it go off, who did it last touch. And just, you’re not supposed to lift the puck, you’ve got to pretty much keep it on the ice or below the shins. And so it’s just small things like that that it’s kind of gentleman’s agreement.
Patrick G.: Yeah, and these guys were really … So it all like … These guys have always been very good about … I would say they’re very polite. So we have some players that get a little intense and we all know who they are. And they’re the people that are at risk of I would say ending up in the penalty box, so. Fighting will get you kicked out for the rest of the tournament. So we’ve had a couple, like the first year we had a couple of people that wanted to take the game into the snow bank with each other and so they earned a ticket out of the tournament. So I’m pretty staunch on no fighting. You know, we do try to make this a family friendly event. So we don’t want people doing that. And there’s other things too, if like somebody does something to intentionally try to hurt somebody of injure somebody that’s going to get them sent home too. So really it’s like, it’s a very firm line that basically physically trying to harm somebody will get you sent home right away.
Lisa Belisle: So we talk a lot about people leaving Maine, younger people leaving Maine. But you’re both individuals who have come … You left and you came back. And you came back and now you have children, and you’re raising your children within the state of Maine. I know that Josh you talked a little bit about coming back, but why did you decide to do that?
Joshua Perry: I always knew that I wanted to be on a city or career firefighter, and then when I left the Air Force I really wasn’t sure where I was going to go, and I kind of wanted to come back home. I think … I knew I was going to start a family and be here, the quality of life that Maine has. And when you’re away for a while you just really get that perspective of what Maine has to offer and what you miss about it. And everything I wanted as an adult and what I wanted in my future, Maine had to offer and that’s pretty much why I came back.
Patrick G.: I’d say my story’s pretty similar. My wife and I when we got married and we decided we wanted to start raising a family, we both kind of knew that Maine was where we grew up and we really liked what it provided for us as children. And I was actually living in central Massachusetts and you know, I hate traffic too. And so I always say when I spend 60 minutes in a car I want to go 60 miles not 16 miles. So I think one of the things that I really enjoy about Maine is being able to get a lot of places in an hour. Especially from central Maine, I can get to the coast, I can get to the mountains, I can get to Bangor or Portland. So there’s something I really like about that. But now that I have a nine month old I definitely want him to be able to experience playing outdoors and not have to worry about some of the things that you have to worry about in a city or more densely populated area. So we have a big yard and we wouldn’t be able to have that in a lot of other places, so I definitely enjoy those types of things.
Lisa Belisle: You have degrees in education from the University of Maine and you grew up in the central Maine area. Does it strike you that we do a lot with organized sports with younger children so that there’s a lot of rules, there’s a lot of tournaments, there’s a lot of games, there’s a lot of structure. And that what you’re talking about is here, you’ve gotten a little older and now you have to kind of self-correct. There’s a whole different set of rules, or maybe it’s not the same rules you’re used to.
Patrick G.: Yeah. I mean, again we talked a little bit about the difference of playing pond hockey and he mentioned not having the structure of an organized practice and how that’s good for development of your skills, so it’s like, you know you’re not going to, as a youth on a hockey team you’re probably not going to try some things because you don’t want to make a mistake and cause your team to lose. But in pond hockey you can take all those risks and take all those chances and there’s no negative repercussions so you can learn a lot. Because we learn more from our mistakes than our successes, right? So you make a mistake, okay I won’t do it that way again. So I think that’s one of the things I really like about the style of game play with playing pond hockey and getting kids out.
And I think there’s kind of this grassroots movement back to that and you see USA Hockey is doing more cross ice, three on three, so that kids are touching the puck more and having more opportunities to kind of try things and make mistakes. So I hope we continue to do that. I get in debates all the time with people about the pros and cons of youth travel activities, you know, they spend all the time on the road so how much time are they getting to actually play games and is that the best return on your investment as far as like what you can actually do for your child during those six hours and a one hour game.
So it’s like I think the answer’s different for everybody. But I think, you know, well it’s right for my kids and my community. I hope that we go more towards the model of like let’s get these kids as much opportunity playing with each other and grow some really strong home grown programs right in our community. So that all these kids have the opportunity and not just the kids that can travel to Massachusetts and play organized hockey tournament.
Lisa Belisle: Well I appreciate both of you taking the time out of your very busy schedules to come in here and have a conversation with me today. I’m looking forward to going up and seeing it for myself. I encourage anybody else who’s interested to go up and see it for themselves. This tournament is the Maine Pond Hockey Classic being held February 10th through 12th in Sidney, Maine. We’ve been speaking with Patrick Guerette who is the senior program director at the Alfond Youth Center in Waterville, and the tournament director of the Pond Hockey Classic. And also with Joshua Perry who is a fi-firefighter, sorry. And also with Joshua Perry who is a firefighter and paramedic for the South Portland Fire Department, and the captain of two south Portland fire department teams at the tournament.
Well, good luck, I wish you all the best.
Joshua Perry: Thank you.
Patrick G.: Thank you. And can’t wait to see you in a couple weeks.
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Lisa Belisle: Today it’s my great pleasure to spend time with Jay Villani, who is the owner of Local 188, Sonny’s, and Salvage BBQ and co-owner of the newly opened Bunker Brewing Company here in Portland. And also the father of a couple kids and the husband of a wonderful artist named Alison. Thanks so much for coming in.
Jay Villani: Oh, my pleasure.
Lisa Belisle: I’m really fascinated by the fact that you started 18 years ago with Local 188 and you’ve become like this little megalopolis. In all the best ways.
Jay Villani: Yes, yes, and yeah. I’ve been very fortunate in this town. You know, we started as a group of artists who just wanted to hang out with each other and have a place to show our artwork, and it kind of grew organically into what it is today.
Lisa Belisle: Now tell me why it’s called Local 188.
Jay Villani: My wife and I had a little gallery prior to opening 188 called the Pleasant Street Collective, so we were just sticking with workers movements and themes. It really had nothing to do with the farm to table movement or buy local thing. It was just, it was like a union hall, you know, and we just wanted to go with that theme of a place where people can gather and hang and be who they are, you know. And again, it just kind of snowballed into what we have today.
Lisa Belisle: So you originally came from Staten Island.
Jay Villani: I did, I did. Via New Mexico, it’s where I met my wife out in New Mexico. I was traveling out west and landed in Santa Fe and met her and then she got accepted to graduate school back in the city. So I followed her back east and when she finished graduate school we went camping up in Millinocket and drove through Portland on the way back to her parents with some lobsters and said we would give it five years. And here we are. 24 years later.
Lisa Belisle: Well that’s not … It’s kind of impressive that you’ve managed not only to stay together for 24 years but also have these two children who are 15 and 13, so right in the teenage years, and then you have all of these businesses. And you’re both artists. That’s a lot of kind of energy moving around there.
Jay Villani: Yeah, it’s, you know, it’s not … There’s some friction sometimes with it, you know. But again it’s not all me, it’s who I’ve been able to surround myself with. You know I have a lot of great people that I work with who help make this a reality. So, you know, I can’t take all the credit for it.
Lisa Belisle: So how did you get interested in food initially?
Jay Villani: Well, you know, being an artist in New York, the only work I could really find was restaurant work, I just had an aptitude for it. You know, I had a lot of good chefs who told me if I pulled my head out of my (bleep) I’d be good at it, you know. But I didn’t want to be that guy. You know, when I was a kid there wasn’t really any Food Network or cooking shows, it was just bitter old guys with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths over a stock pot. You know, this is what you got to look forward to, kid. You know, it’s like, ah, no, no, no.
But I was just good at it, you know. I was the kid who got fired on Wednesday and rehired back on Friday because I could handle volume. It just started washing dishes, one day a salad guy didn’t show up. You know, can you do this? Like, I’ll do it chef. And then the grill guy didn’t show up. I can do that chef, you know, and that’s how I progressed.
And really the impetus for opening my own restaurants was that I could make just as little money working for myself without someone berating me all day. So I just got tired of working for (bleep) is basically what happened, you know, so. And here we are today. I’m sure some of my employees would dub me that, but I don’t think so.
Lisa Belisle: So it is an interesting industry that you work within because you’re right, I think the glamor of food is somewhat recent.
Jay Villani: Oh, yeah, it’s within the past 10 years or so it’s really just boomed from like a Hollywood perspective. It’s crazy.
Lisa Belisle: But there’s still, I mean, it’s hard work. It’s hard, it’s long hours, it’s late at night, and it’s hard.
Jay Villani: Yeah. I think what the real return is, is the feedback you get from people on a nightly basis for better for worse. The meal was great, it was sub-par, you know, you deal with that on a daily basis. And it’s also a long haul thing. It’s a marathon, you know, it’s not a get rich quick scheme by any stretch of the imagination. With rising costs, you know, margins are really low. And that’s why we have three of them because it’s hard to really make a go with just one. But we like the challenge. You know, I really like designing rooms. I’ve always approached our businesses as sculptures. The energy, the kinetic motion, how they flow. That’s what really turns me on about them.
Lisa Belisle: Well if you are designing each of your businesses as a sculpture, then how would you describe each of them?
Jay Villani: Well, you know, Local is always going to be my favorite because it was the first one. Sonny’s is a very kinetic, it’s the bar scene, the type of food that they’re doing there. And Salvage is just like a party, you know. It’s like a mobile, like a Calder mobile, it’s just constantly spinning and whirling and twirling and so much going on. It’s a lot of fun.
Lisa Belisle: And then what about the one that you most recently opened?
Jay Villani: The brewery? The brewery was a way for me to pay it forward actually. Chresten, my partner, the brewer Chresten Sorensen, he was leading our bread program for a few years. He was working out of Sonny’s and supplying our restaurants with breads. And he was just a home brewer and kept bringing in beer and the beer was great. And after a few pints one day he asked me if I was interested in owning a brewery and seemed like a really good idea at the time.
But, you know, again, someone did that with me. My partner Matt, when I wanted to open up something I had someone there who gave me a little money, gave me some faith and we were off and running. So it was kind of nice for me to do that with Chresten. It was a good way to pivot also, you know, restaurants are hard and breweries are hard too, but it was just a nice transition from like retail to production. It’s, and again, it’s the kids who are brewing down there are awesome to be around and it’s just a really fun experiment right now.
Lisa Belisle: My experience as a waitress was brief and very instructive. And also incredibly difficult. I thought waitressing was very, very difficult. But more of my experience lately has been going to restaurants. And I think that what a lot of people believe is that the food is the thing. But what I … And I think food is very important. But what I think is most important for me is the feeling, is the vibe, is how you’re treated and what the relationship is with the server, and what the server’s relationship is with everyone else.
Jay Villani: Yeah, there has to be connectivity, you know, that’s very important to me. That our front of the house and our back of the house are on the same page and that we don’t take for granted that people are coming in our doors and spending their money, you know. And they’re here for an experience and what we’re trying to provide for them, and I want to get that across to the customer. You know, that’s very important to me that people leave happy.
You know, we get some feedback that they’re not always happy, but that’s the feedback you really got to focus on. You know, everyone can blow smoke up your (bleep). Oh, this is great, what a wonderful meal, blah blah blah. That’s awesome, you know, but the person who’s upset, you’ve really got to pay attention to it. And how do you correct that. You’re not going to please everybody every time. Some people do walk in the door and are just miserable, I mean, your hands are tied. But there’s got to be a way to correct it. I’d rather have people leave happy or at least know that we tried to make them feel better about their experience than just throw your hands up and say, oh well, I couldn’t help you. So that’s never a good thing.
Lisa Belisle: Well and it does, at least my experience is that a little goes a long way. If something goes really wrong and somebody just apologizes or does something very small, like would you like to have a dessert, exactly, yeah.
Jay Villani: A dessert, or a gift certificate. Or, it’s on me tonight, try us again at a different time. It’s you know, a little effort, a little effort. It’s kind of the same philosophy with my kids. A little effort goes a long way, especially in math, Sonny. That’s the name of my son by the way so it’s kind of trite that Sonny’s is named Sonny and there you have it.
Lisa Belisle: Well I was going to ask you about that next, and now that clarifies things for me.
Jay Villani: Yeah. That’s where that came from.
Lisa Belisle: So how has it been trying to … If you have Local 188, which is 18, so I’m just going to call this your first child. Then you have a 15 year old and a 13 year old and then you have a few other children that are restaurants. How does that all work?
Jay Villani: Well, I call them all my kids. Even the waiters, the cooks, everyone, they’re my kids, you know. So everyone vies for your time and that’s … You know, I’ve learned to listen over the years. You know when I first started I was kind of clueless. So I was, someone called me a screamer and a control freak. You know, it had to be my way, my way, my way. But I quickly learned that I couldn’t do it by myself. And I think once I figured that out we really started to blossom by empowering people and letting them do their thing and bring to the table and harness what they do best, you know. And I think that’s been my greatest attribute as an employer, that I’ve been able to recognize what people do really well and harness that energy and put it in the context of a bigger picture, you know, and to help push and make things grow.
Lisa Belisle: So how do you make that transition from, we’ll just call it in quotes “the boss” to the boss who listens. Because some people just want to say, listen, I own the business, we’re all going to do it my way and if you don’t like it just leave.
Jay Villani: Yeah that just doesn’t work that way. Or it doesn’t work that way for me. I’d rather do it collectively as a group. Again, going back to the collective. Those principles are very important to me. Listening and empowering people. It’s kind of like Jedi mind tricks. I could really … I can get out of you what I need with you thinking you gave it to me and that’s important, you know, and making you feel good about it though at the same time.
That’s the other thing, people have to feel good about what they do and what they bring to the table. If I have a general manager who brings something up and I don’t pay attention to it, that doesn’t do anyone any good, you know. You have to be able to listen and say, okay, implement it and if it doesn’t work maybe we’ll try it this way, or if it worked, great, I would never have thought of doing it that way, wonderful. It’s all about making people feel good about themselves.
Lisa Belisle: It seems that the hospitality industry, perhaps more than some other industries has a lot of people who are doing it for a diverse set of reasons. So some people it’s good for the, the mother’s hours are good for their kids. And for some people they want to spend time on their art.
Jay Villani: Sure. It’s very nomadic.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. So how does that work as the boss who ultimately has to work with somebody to create a schedule and get staffing done. How do you work with the sort of the ebb and flow of people’s interests and needs?
Jay Villani: You just gotta understand, you know, what people do need. And that’s the important part of running a company. It’s how can I help you succeed? It’s not, do it this way, blah blah blah. It’s how can I help you, you know, and make us better. I think that approach has served us very well over the years. You know, as for as scheduling and things, you just gotta be open to it, you know, and you find that you put the right people in the right position who are committed for the long term and you understand that these people are here for to do a certain job and to pursue other ambitions and that’s okay. I mean that’s basically why most people start waiting tables is because they have a fix they need to support, whether it be art, music, or writing, or comedy you know. It’s the name of the game.
Lisa Belisle: Well and it also … I’ve noticed more and more people who are really, they’re professional servers. So they’re people who take great pride in being able to offer a really wonderful experience. And they do it very intentionally.
Jay Villani: Well that might change with the tax tip credit that is going away. Because people do it because the money’s good. That they could X amount of hours devoted to their job and then X amount of other hours to devote to their passions but with that compression coming down, you know that might not be the trend moving forward unfortunately. You know, it’s gone, the days soon will be gone the days of making 25, 30, 35 bucks and hour waiting tables. You know, everyone’s going to be that flat rate and it’s going to be really disruptive. And it’s going to be interesting to see how we as an industry handle that here. Because things have been going so well for so long, moving forward it’s going to be a hard thing to tackle.
Lisa Belisle: So how has this been tackled in other parts of the world.
Jay Villani: I don’t know, I can’t answer that question. I read studies about Seattle and how it’s helped and how it hasn’t helped. And in New York same thing. You know, until it really affects us at home … You know, we’re girding ourselves for it that’s for sure. We talk openly with our staff about it that changes are coming and we need to be aware of it and prices around town are going to increase and it’s going to be interesting. I mean, I think, I was pro the minimum wage increase. I think it’s very important people make a decent living. I think when it came to the tax tip credit they were really trying to fix a problem that didn’t exist. And I understand the argument that the little towns up north that don’t have the populations to really make a server get a decent living off tips but you could always pay them more, you know, you didn’t have to address the whole. It just, it’s interesting, you know. Scary and interesting at the same time.
Lisa Belisle: So what other scary and interesting things have you observed during your time as a business owner. Maybe just your time on this planet.
Jay Villani: Yeah, well, you know, I’m getting old. That’s a scary thing. You know, I turned 50 last year and I’m looking back at my life and I’m very grateful. And the 35 years, if I have 35 years left I’ll be fired up.
Lisa Belisle: I don’t know if that’s wood you just knocked on, by the way, I think it’s laminate or something.
Jay Villani: That’s okay, that’s alright. It serves its purpose. So just the, that, the getting old part. You know, watching my kids grow has been wonderful and watching the people around me grow. But I ready to … You know, I’ve been working in a restaurant since I was 15 years old and doing this. 35 years in like chef years that’s like 300, you know, it’s a long haul. So I’m thinking about how do I step away from it, you know, what are my exit strategies and how do I put things in place to where it could still keep going without me really there, you know, so those are the uncertainties that I’m facing right now.
Lisa Belisle: So what are you coming up with?
Jay Villani: Fishing. I’d like to go fishing. I’d like to have turquoise blue water and a fishing boat. And that’s pretty much my exit plan at the moment. How am I going to get there, I don’t know. But I’ll figure it out.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, I’m not sure how much turquoise blue water we have in Maine.
Jay Villani: Yeah, no. No, no. I’m Caribbean bound. That’s where I’m going to be.
Lisa Belisle: But you do have a love of the Greenville area.
Jay Villani: I do. My kids and I, we’ve all gone up there with some other families. We’ve been going up there for years camping and fishing and taking advantage up there. It’s very gorgeous up there, it’s beautiful. It’s quiet, it’s green, water. It’s pretty cool.
Lisa Belisle: So when you’re up there and it’s quiet and there’s not as much going on, do you ever crave the excitement of your business?
Jay Villani: No. No, there’s usually a campfire involved with copious amounts of wine and other adults who have other kids and we’re sticking them in tents and, get away from us. You know, so it’s always a hoot when we go up there, so. I shouldn’t say it’s that quiet, but it’s peaceful on a different level.
Lisa Belisle: So it sounds like you still have that social connection even when you’re up there.
Jay Villani: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Everyone needs that. I need it, you know, it’s what keeps me going. People.
Lisa Belisle: Well, you and I were talking before we came on the air about sort of things happening for a reason. That people’s paths cross and you don’t really know where things are going to go sometimes but you have to just kind of acknowledge that it’s not the end.
Jay Villani: Yeah, you know, things happen for reasons, you know. And everyone I’ve met and been associated with, I’m a firm believer in that the you know the reasons that brought us together, though they might not be clear now will eventually come you know, we’ll be made aware of it.
You know, I’ve had a lot of people come and go over the years and a lot of people who have been in management. And that even for however brief it is the reason you’re you know there was a young woman who used to work for us and who shall remain nameless. And she was just very, not abrasive, but her management style was very cold and forceful. And I sat her down and I said, listen, you know, you’re a very strong woman and akin you to like a piece of rebar and I’m the grinder that needs to take those burrs off it. And for better or for worse for however long we’re together for, you know, that’s my goal with you.
And she no longer works with us but I have a very good relationship with her outside of that and I think it was because of that conversation, you know, it’s important to be nice to people. Or at least compassionate and understanding of what others need. You know, you’re not going to get anyone to work for you if you don’t understand what they need or do what you need them to do without being supportive. So it’s very important.
Lisa Belisle: And feedback is also important. It seems like sometimes we’re … In other work settings, we don’t necessarily get any sort of feedback unless it’s like a structured 90 day review.
Jay Villani: No, good, bad, or indifferent, it’s very important. Communication is key. We get together every week and we discuss what’s going on and sometimes it’s pedantic, sometimes it’s really productive, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s heated but we always get together and we discuss, discuss, discuss, so it’s very key.
Lisa Belisle: When I was having a conversation recently with another couple that own a restaurant, they were talking about the restaurant space as being kind of an interesting other space. So you have your home space, you have your work space, but then you also have this other space that you go into where you have a meal, you have a communal experience, you have … And I’m wondering if that’s the type of sculpture that you have been trying to create all these years.
Jay Villani: You know the greatest feedback, or the best feedback I ever got about Local was from a couple who used to drive up from Connecticut just to eat with us and they felt like they were in their living room, you know. So I guess that’s … You know, I wanted to create rooms where people wanted to be. Or a room that I wanted to be in. So that’s very important to me, that type of environment.
Tapas bars, and the impetus for Local was like a tapas bar and tapas bars are supposed to be very lively, loud, you know, energetic, interactive, you know, that’s very important to me that people are able to interact. Whether it be with a server, whether it be with the food, whether it be with the people sitting at their table. Whether it be they’re sitting at the counter looking at the kitchen, you know, interacting with the cooks and talking to them while they’re working. That social aspect of it, it’s very important to me.
You know, and I think we have accomplished that at all three of our restaurants. Definitely at Sonny’s, you know, with just the kinetic and the vibe with the bar and the open kitchen concepts. Local, same, the BBQ is just a big giant open, you know, it’s like a hoe down in there most nights and that’s, I think it’s great. The down side to big rooms is when there’s nobody in them and they’re empty and it’s like oh, boy, you know, what’s going on here? But fortunately that hasn’t been the case.
Lisa Belisle: Have you benefited from Portland becoming more of a food hotspot?
Jay Villani: Oh yeah. Yeah, definitely. You know, it has its pluses and minuses. 18 years ago there weren’t that many of us. Gone are the 200, 250 cover nights night in and night out. But it makes you be more aware of your game and trying to stay on top of it, you know, to still be relevant 18 years later. I’m very fortunate, you know, I feel very lucky. And I don’t take it for granted. But yeah, you know, it’s pretty cool that we’re known for being a food city. It’s pretty awesome.
Lisa Belisle: And there also seem to be, at least my experience, I live in the suburbs and there’s a lot of traffic back and forth so there seems to be more people who come and stay over the winter. It doesn’t seem to be that it shuts down so acutely as it once did.
Jay Villani: Yeah, I you know, another thing where Local has benefited. When we opened up in Longfellow square it wasn’t really a destination neighborhood, so I was very dependent on local people so I never really felt the pinch in the winter time that more touristy neighborhoods felt. But I think that has kind of waned over the years with all the … You know, there’s so many new hotels that have opened up and more people come in year round to enjoy what’s going on. You know, it’s not just … I mean, we do have a season, but it’s not as dire as it once was like you know January 1st you know it’s like a ghost town. But we’ve managed to keep the doors open, so.
Lisa Belisle: Well I appreciate all of the effort that you’ve put in to the restaurants.
Jay Villani: Oh, thanks.
Lisa Belisle: I haven’t met your children, I’m sure they’re wonderful. I’m sure your wife is wonderful. But I know that your restaurants are wonderful and I spent a fair amount of time in them so I encourage anyone who hasn’t been there to go down. I don’t know why if you live anywhere in this area or even visit. I don’t know why you wouldn’t know about one of these restaurants.
Jay Villani: Well it’s too kind. Thank you very much.
Lisa Belisle: Well, it’s delicious food, really wonderful people, obviously you work with Spencer Albee is our audio producer and he’s a musician and he also has worked with you for I guess 10 years off and on. So I’m guessing knowing how much I like Spencer, there must be something really great, some great energy.
Jay Villani: He’s a good kid.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. I’ve been speaking with Jay Villani who is the owner of Local 188, Sonny’s, and Salvage BBQ, and co-owner of the newly opened Bunker Brewing Company. And also father of two and husband to Alison. Thanks so much for coming in today.
Jay Villani: Oh thanks for having me guys, appreciate it.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 282, Pond Hockey and Portland Eating. Our guests have included Patrick Guerette, Joshua Perry, and Jay Villani. For more information on our guests and extended interviews visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as drlisa and see my running, travel, food, and wellness photos as bountiful1 on Instagram. We love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our Pond Hockey and Portland Eating show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
Announcer: Love Maine Radio is made possible with the support of Berlin City Honda, the Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine Magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music have been provided by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Lisa Belisle. For more information on our hosts, production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at Lovemaineradio.com
Announcer: You are listening to Love Maine radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle, and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are some highlights from this week’s program.