Words by
Michael Landgarten
Photography by Scott Erb
Man with a Plan

Modest and unassuming, this 58-year-old Bowdoin College grad (class of ’80 with a major in art history) moves the conversation seamlessly from Marxism to the politics of the minimum wage to life skills he learned from a middle-aged food server. (That would be Lillian Mangos, for whom Lil’s Café, Landgarten’s other restaurant, is named.) Only if you do your research and ask will he talk about visits to Bob’s from Martha Stewart and The Food Network’s Guy Fieri or his vision, developed with two partners, of bringing new life to Kittery Foreside Wallingford Square. Today, that short block has become a bustling foodie destination packed with offerings like Anju Noodle Bar, MEat butcher shop, the Wallingford Dram, Lil’s Café, Maine Squeeze, Anneke Jans, and others. 


From computer programmer to art history to food entrepreneurship, you’ve been on quite a journey.


It feels very disparate, but there is a thread among each. I was a late child of the 1960s. My sisters are all quite a bit older than me and protest was front and center for me even at age 15. Civic responsibility was embraced by my family. I was always told to work toward the kind of society that helps others. John Lennon was a hero of mine. So were Dylan and Springsteen. They all talked about making a difference.  


I also worked in my dad’s plumbing supply factory, which was dangerous and horrible. This also influenced my desire to be counter-cultural in identity. So, interestingly, the Clam Hut was a strange way of saying “I’m different from the rest of my family; I’m not going to try to be rich. I want to be around a working-class environment, and I want to make sure people are treated right.”


I know you were quite involved in last November’s referendum that raised the minimum wage significantly, from $7.50 to $9 starting last January with $1-an-hour increase through 2020 to $12.


I will say this and it’s pretty straightforward: If you pay people a decent wage that allows them to live decently, they will be your best employees. There is nothing better than a happy, productive employee who is paid appreciably. 


Is there anything that frustrates you overall in your company or with the food industry?


Sometimes, things don’t go the way I want them to go. If I treat my frustration as the measure of my experience, though, I’m on an emotional roller coaster all the time. Dealing with life as it unfolds is optimal. I’d say one of the biggest things is that life interrupts, not people. But this is my job and being aware of the culture around me—how it’s changing or what it’s missing. That’s what I care about.


Let’s talk about Lillian Mangos, a longtime server at Bob’s. She obviously was important to you and you told another interviewer that she completely stole the show when Bob’s was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” show. 


She was a one-of-a-kind. She pulled in the parking lot one cold November day and said ‘you hiring?’ I said, ‘not right now.’ She then said, ‘well, you should hire me; I’m a good worker.’ And that was it. I ended up hiring her. She turned out to be one of the best employees around. People would come from around the country after we were on TV and ask: ‘Where’s Lillian?’


And then as chance happened, I was looking at a building in Kittery and wanted to open a coffee shop/bakery with my partner (Eileen). Lillian was in declining health, after suffering a stroke. We finished the place and got to tell Lil about Lil’s Café before she passed away. It’s a very special place. Always will be.


One word that has been used to describe your commitment to food is ‘fanatical.’ Do you agree with that? 


Definitely—I want to find the best quality. My team has operationalized ways to get the highest quality and I’m forever grateful. And, this quality results in a better overall climate. Good quality results in fair wages and fair wages ends up being a motivator for better workers. It’s all about finding and doing your best.


I love hospitality and we get to make people happier. One purpose of a restaurant is to restore a soul…which is very inspiring. We are so lucky. We get to feed people. There is a dignifying quality when I serve. Whoever is at the table, it’s a moment to get them uplifted. It’s very rare when we can’t fulfill that mission and if we can’t, it’s also important to say, ‘Well, we failed on this one.’ 


Restaurants exist only because we rely on people. We stay open only because it’s on the terms of our patrons. I never forget that.


How did you come to start a Share our Strength (SOS) chapter in Portsmouth, in which food industry people come together to raise money and cultivate community awareness about childhood hunger and feeding others?


Hunger is not what this country should be about. Growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, I went to some pretty poor schools. So, there was always that feeling. And, then living in Maine, we see poverty everywhere. There is just a sense of injustice, too. Being in the food business, you want to give food to people because it’s not a super-wealthy industry. Most of my friends jumped on board because they felt the same way. Restaurant folks hear the word ‘hunger’ and it’s a very powerful, provocative word. We generally don’t like it. So, we like to give by doing and we can be creative in how to make a meal do that and SOS events are our chances to help feed people. 


What is your impression of the so-called “foodie movement?” No one seems to be able to clearly define it, but we’ve heard it talked about and written about quite a bit.


Well, I have mixed feelings. I like some of it. Other parts I don’t. It reminds me a lot of recycling. On the surface, it sounds good. But it’s a lot more complex because, while it may be seen as a good thing, it can leave more people out. Folks get too fussy and crazy sometimes. I’m not a fancy food person—I may cook it, but I don’t go to the expensive restaurants. Sometimes I’m tired of it, and sometimes it annoys me. But, there are concerns about no additives and buying local, which are good things. But being worked up over the right jam makes no sense to me. I say: Just eat.



Other thoughts?


I had a mentor who said to stay away from seamlessness. What do I like about it? I remember one of my customers saying: ‘Best clams, worst coffee!’ That taught me something. I want to get great at a few things. I don’t have to be outstanding at everything because it’s really hard.


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