A former convenience store on a busy street in Portland’s Oakdale neighborhood might not seem like the most obvious place for a new pub.
But to Michael Barbuto, it’s the perfect spot.
Barbuto, who along with Kevin Doyle co-owns another bar, CBG on Congress Street, said he’s always loved neighborhood bars and worked at them in Boston before coming to Maine.
The Oakdale resident said he’s passed the former 7Eleven convenience store for years when walking his dog and it was his “ideal late-night snack shop” before it closed.
“You put the right spot in and it will galvanize a neighborhood,” he said. “I’ve seen it in Somerville (Massachusetts), you have rougher-looking corners, but a cool cafe or something goes in and it can really tie the neighborhood together.”
With that in mind, Barbuto and Doyle plan to turn the former convenience store at 170 Brighton Ave. into an English/Irish pub called the Continental.
But the location of the Continental does raise a question: Just how successful can a bar outside the city’s Old Port be, especially when the customer base is most likely the same faces every day?
‘It’s a unique atmosphere’
Sam Minervino knows a thing or two about neighborhood bars. His name is on one of the better-known neighborhood spots in town: Samuel’s Bar & Grill on Forest Avenue.
Minervino said his advice to would-be bar owners has been they should be looking to open smaller, neighborhood places.
“It’s a great way for neighbors to stay connected,” he said. “I have so many people who come into Samuel’s who never would have met, and yet they live half a mile from each other. It’s a good way to stay connected, to find out what’s going on in your neighborhood.”
In addition to Samuel’s, Minverino operates Pizza Villa on outer Congress Street and Tomaso’s Canteen on Hampshire Street. Tomaso’s, open since 2015, replaced Sangillo’s Tavern, which lost its liquor license because of the high volume of police calls it generated.
Minervino said the reason places like Samuel’s keep bringing in reliable regulars is affordable prices. But the owner also stresses to the employees that everybody should feel welcome.
“I think the one most important thing is even if you see the same people every day, never take them for granted,” he said. “They don’t have to come in the door, so make an environment that makes them feel welcome and special. That way, people will come back.”
Minervino, who bought Samuel’s in 1988, said his bars emphasize the communities they serve. Samuel’s, for instance, has held fundraisers for regular customers and staff who need financial help. Every year, they do a patio party where the only cost is a donation that goes to a local cause.
“I also think it’s the type of place where you know your regular customers, and everyone takes care of themselves,” he said. “I don’t worry about people causing trouble, because they’re regulars. It’s a unique atmosphere where everyone watches out for each other.”
When Miniverino opened the door on a Thursday just before 11 a.m. for this story, he forgot to lock it behind him. Two familiar faces came in almost immediately, and an employee told them the bar wouldn’t open for another half hour.
The two men said they’d be back soon.
‘You have to seek us out’
Joe Hardy tends bar at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it East Deering watering hole Howie’s Pub.
It’s a relatively tame Wednesday night at the outpost on the corner of Veranda Street and Washington Avenue, which claims to have the coldest beer in town and has been a neighborhood icon for decades.
Hardy and co-owner Adam Moore purchased the bar from the previous owner in 2017 and said the ingredients for a good neighborhood bar are simple: a good crowd, a good atmosphere, and a place where regulars can feel comfortable. And, importantly, those regulars don’t even have to ask for a drink: the bartender sees them walking in and has the usual libation ready and waiting for them.
“People want to feel welcome when they come in,” Hardy said.
On this Wednesday night, Hardy and Moore are taking care of a room that never quite fills up but is never empty. Hardy said they were regulars at the bar before the original owner, Howie Chadbourne, sold them the business. It’s almost completely regulars who come into the pub, and the only time tourists come in is when they are purposely looking for a dive bar, which he attributes to the rise of Airbnb.
“You have to seek us out,” Hardy said.
Hardy joked that the regulars range from younger folks who live nearby to people who have “lived here 100 years.” He added that the true regulars know how the system works.
“You know how I know you’re a regular?” Hardy said, pointing towards the front door. “You see the flag outside and know that means we’re open. We don’t have a phone; you just have to look for the flag.”
In between slinging beers and moving back and forth to the kitchen to prepare bar food, Hardy said generations of regulars have come through the doors. He said Thanksgiving has become a big day at the pub when regulars who now have adult children bring them along.
He said the pub’s charm, coupled with people not wanting the hassle of going downtown just to get a beer, spells success for places like Howie’s.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t have to ask what anybody wants,” Hardy said.
‘You’re just welcome here, and that’s nice’
In addition to Hardy and Moore, Hardy’s wife works at Howie’s on Tuesdays. They also retained a bartender who worked for the previous owner, which creates a small crew and a family-run atmosphere
“They knew we would keep it a true neighborhood bar,” Hardy said.
Another part of Howie’s success is the location, close to Windsor Heights, but also right off Interstate 295, meaning “no matter where you’re going, you’re halfway home” when you pass by, Hardy said.
The bar was renovated during the pandemic and Hardy said they had regulars offer to help. One of them, 61-year-old Shawn Donohue, chimed in that he was one of the crew.
“You take care of the people who take care of you,” he said from the end of the bar.
Donohue, who worked for 20 years at the nearby former B&M baked bean factory, now lives in Lisbon. But he said he still makes an effort to stop into Howie’s once a week. He said he started coming in because it was a nice local spot where he could come and unwind after work.
“You could always count on them being here,” he said. “It’s changed a lot, but (Hardy and Moore) maintained that anybody is welcome here.”
Donohue said he “loves these guys,” and praised Hardy and Moore for keeping the pub a place where neighborhood residents and regular customers can gather.
He said he never feels alienated at Howie’s, despite sometimes being the oldest person in the room. Even though he sees people he’s known for years when he comes in, he still meets new people and makes new relationships.
Donohue said while some things have changed, including the menu and the interior design, the feel of the pub has remained a “neighborhood, working-class bar,” but one that’s been brought up to modern standards.
Just a few seats down the bar sit Kaela Holmes and Connor Kelly, two regulars who live about a mile away. Holmes, born and raised in Portland, said Howie’s has been around most of her life.
“My mother is a regular here,” she said.
Holmes said the appeal of a place like Howie’s is that it bridges the gap between a rowdy dive bar and the more expensive spots downtown.
“There’s a lot of people on their way home from work,” Holmes said of the cast of characters at the bar. “The younger crowd is people who live nearby.”
She said a lot of the regulars are people who have been coming in since Chadbourne owned the bar, but the younger patrons still feel welcome.
“This is something Portland is missing because it’s changed so much,” Holmes said. “If you just want to go to get a beer, have a place to relax, a place like this makes it an easy decision. You’re just welcome here, and that’s nice.”
‘The neighborhood decides’
Back in Oakdale, Barbuto said the plan is to open the Continental in September. They have building permits but are waiting for a change-of-use application to be approved by the city before beginning renovations.
“It appeals to a lot of people,” he said of the European bar he hopes to open. “It’s not too specific in any direction. Those places always feel a little bit cozy, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Barbuto said even if someone does open a bar in a neighborhood, it’s not a given that it will become the neighborhood watering hole; it’s up to the locals to decide if they’ll come in regularly.
“The neighborhood decides if you’re the neighborhood bar,” he said. “You try to provide a great product, you have to want to be there every night and find good people to work for you. And the neighborhood decides, they have to show up. You’re the fortunate one if they do.”
He said there is something about knowing all the regulars’ names that sets a neighborhood bar apart. He said it makes you feel accepted, where if you see the regulars out walking around or at the store, you wave and say hello, and they do the same.
“There’s something about knowing the community is happy to know you’re there,” Barbuto said. “When that finally clicks, it’s like the business is breathing on its own.”
He said an aspect that sets a neighborhood bar apart is a person might walk in without even planning to go there. People come in straight from work, or on their day off. They come in when they’re sad or happy. They come in because of the nice spring weather or because it’s getting colder.
“It’s automatic,” Barbuto said. “It feels comfortable, like walking into your living room.”