I started working at Carburs kitchen in Burlington Vermont in August of 1977. Little did I know then, that for the next 12 years I would become completely enmeshed in the company and in the restaurant business.
After working in Burlington for almost two years, the opportunity to become part of the management team in Portland came up. I jumped at the chance with the caveat expressed to ownership that as soon as a position became available in Burlington, I would be allowed to move back. As irony would have it two years later I was asked to return to Burlington, but Portland, by that time had become the place I wanted to make my permanent home.
Because Carburs was a young and flexible place to work (by 1982 standards mind you), I was allowed to assume a corporate position while remaining in Portland. This would involve a great deal of travel between restaurant locations for me over the next five years but I was happy to have the chance at greater professional responsibility while still calling Maine my home.
As with most restaurants, the menu plays a large part in how the business is perceived. In the case of Carburs, the menu was the signature “brand” that made it such a unique and fun place to dine. Because the menu offered a very large selection of sandwiches and other fare there was ample opportunity to “name” the items for local personalities and places. Although this may not have been completely new concept at the time, the owner’s flare for the clever and unique raised the bar considerably.
From the Carburs entry in the 1977 Grub ‘n Grog Guide by Judith and Paul Yochum:
“The Flashback (Discovered by an exhibitionist with his trenchcoat on backwards): Turkey breast, bacon, blue cheese dressing, avocado spread, lettuce & tomato.”
“This is a new restaurant on the Portland scene- the slogan on the sign is ‘Famous Since 1977’- we think this sign will still be hanging there in 2077!”
“Even though only two weeks old at the time of this writing, they have run out of menus to sell (they had 500 available) and they already have long lines at lunchtime!”
In 1984, with an eye towards the restaurant concept expanding to more locations, it was decided to “homogenize” the menu to give it a broader appeal. With some trepidation (many of us old timers feared the loss of local flavor) the new “generic” menu was rolled out in all locations. While the menu was a success, the company was also experiencing growing pains as founding partners differed on the best direction for expansion plans. In early 1986 those differences eventually led to the company splitting up the locations between partners and interested upper management. At that time I became a partner in the Portland operation and decided that returning the menu to a “local” format was a priority.
I took it upon myself to engage many of our loyal and notable customers to see if they would be interested in being part of our new, and again “local” Carburs menu. The overall response was very enthusiastic as most people enjoy seeing their name, product or company in print in a fun and novel way. Including these people and their businesses with clever puns and references was good fun and a great challenge. With the help of a local budding artist, Helen Rasmussen (who happened to be a bartender at Carburs because there are a lot of budding artists in the restaurant business), the new menu was born.
Averyl suggested that I recreate some of the menu items in future blog posts if there is an interest. Let us know what you think!