Town of Clinton Seeking New Operator for Harbor Food Stand
Changes will once again be coming to the town dock concession stand on Riverside Drive. On Feb. 3, the Town Council unanimously voted to release the operator of the Clinton Harbor Grill from the last year of his lease and will now look to find a new vendor for the space before summer starts.
On Feb. 1, Evan Johnson, the operator of Clinton Harbor Grill, sent Town Manager Karl Kilduff a letter asking to be let out of the third year of a three-year lease he had been awarded in 2019.
“Over the course of two years, I have struggled to make the business viable for myself, my staff, and my family,” the letter stated in part.
Johnson’s letter stated the uncertain outlook of the food service industry combined with the recent birth of his first child as reasons why he wants to get out of his lease to find a more stable work environment.
“While I’m truly disappointed I cannot continue to operate the business, I have no doubt that someone familiar with the business can make this a winner. I look forward to resolving this as soon as possible, with the best interest of the town always still in mind,” the letter concluded.
At its Feb. 3 meeting, the council unanimously voted to grant Johnson his wish and release him from the lease early. Now, the town will try and find a new tenant for the space before the warm weather gets here.
“The goal would be to find a replacement vendor who is experienced in operating such a facility and can be up and running for May or June. It is an amenity to the public for the summer season,” Kilduff said to the Harbor News following the meeting.
Finding a new operator for the concession stand can be a tricky endeavor, Kilduff said during the meeting. Kilduff elaborated to the Harbor News that finding a suitor with the highest price on a bid doesn’t always mean it’s the right choice for the town. The benefits of a well-run and popular business in that location can have larger contributions to the town by making it a destination people want to visit, which makes getting the best price for the lease not necessarily the top priority for the town.
“The town wants a combination of items: a successful vendor, a source of revenue, a stable relationship, a quality amenity to serve the public, etc. There is more to the selection process than simply a rental payment. Typically, there is not a deep bench of operators to pick from and while a potential vendor may offer a high bid, they may not be in operation the following year. The offerings being sold may not mesh well with the public and again, it results in a short-term relationship,” Kilduff said.
Kilduff pointed to the recent process the Parks & Recreation commission went through to find a vendor for the beach concession stand. That commission awarded the town beach concession stand contract to Hog Wild, a restaurant in Westbrook that already had established success and popularity, which he said set up the beach stand for success.
Clinton Harbor Grill first started serving food in Clinton in spring 2019, but its opening wasn’t without controversy. For 10 years, a sandwich from Sal D’s, the previous operators of the concession stand, had been a summer staple in Clinton for residents and out-of-town visitors alike. However, in 2019 the business chose not to participate in a town bid process that could have returned it for an 11th season.
That year the town’s Board of Selectmen (BOS) opted to substantially increase the rent for the stand from the $200 per operating month that the Voss family that had run Sal D’s paid. The contract for the stand was put out to bid for the first time and the BOS received a bid for $2,000 a month to operate the stand in April of 2019.
The reason given at that time for the need for a rent increase was that it was required to offset the maintenance costs the town incurred working on the building. Many in town and on social media alleged that some town leaders wanted to push the Voss family out, an allegation then-first selectman Christine Goupil adamantly denied at the time.
Pointing to the costs needed to run the stand, Goupil said to the Harbor News at the time, “It certainly raises the question why the previous administrations did not put it out to contract during the 10 years or account for the expense to the town to operate the facility at a loss.”
The Voss family could not be reached for comment regarding the possibility of returning Sal D’s to the concession stand in 2021.
In finding a replacement tenant for the property, Kilduff reiterated getting the right price for the stand can’t be the only consideration for the town.
“We only lose money by not having a replacement vendor to serve the public. If we identify a new operator and can come to agreeable terms, there may be no loss. Again, it is not just about making money. We are offering an amenity that improves the experience in the harbor and helps build interest in the town, which provides some spin-off benefits to other businesses in the community,” Kilduff said.