In the winter of 2011, Jeff and Diane Kelly-Lokocz were at an impasse. Jeff recently finished his job as head chef at Table, the Blue Hill fine dining restaurant owned by his mentor, chef Richard Hanson, which closed that year. Diane, an organic farmer and restaurant worker, was unemployed as well. They were living off the grid in a 600 square foot house on a farm in Blue Hill. They were nearly broke. And Diane was pregnant.
What better time than that to start a new business?
“If you never take any risks, you never know what’ll happen. You don’t go anywhere. Life is risks. What’s the worst that could happen?” Diane Kelly-Lokocz, a Rockland native, said. “You just have to do it.”
On a shoestring budget entirely comprising loans from supportive friends, their resulting eatery, 86 This, opened in June 2011 at 2 State St. in Ellsworth, in a tiny rented space without a full kitchen. A few weeks after opening, Diane Kelly-Lokocz gave birth to their son, Rye, who is 5 years old.
Now located at 125 Main St. in Ellsworth, 86 This serves up burritos, wraps and salads packed with flavorful ingredients such as spicy roasted sweet potato, chipotle and citrus pulled pork; black bean hummus; and house-made hot sauces and salsas — as well as roast beef, chicken and turkey.
“We knew there was a market for this kind of thing in Ellsworth. It was an easy restaurant to open because it’s all fairly simple,” Jeff Kelly-Lokocz said. “This is food that I would make for myself for lunch. I would make pulled pork on the wood stove when we lived off-grid. I ate hummus wraps in between cooking in fine dining.”
The burritos are what 86 This has become most known for, but the food doesn’t subscribe to one particular cuisine or style. You can have a traditional California-style burrito made with things such as pulled pork or sweet potato, but you can also have a wrap such as the Skankin’ Pickle, made with ham, provolone and house-made dill pickles and pepperoncini; the Mountain Goat, made with hummus, quinoa and feta; or the Beet Knick, made with roasted beets, crunchy vegetables, walnuts and dill.
“We wanted to make food that was very high quality, really well done, but also very simple and accessible,” Diane Kelly-Lokocz said. “Anyone can find something they like here. The last thing we want to be is pretentious. Food can be really good, and it doesn’t have to be precious. Think of it as a food truck indoors.”
Neither Jeff nor Diane were sure it would work, but nearly six years later, their big risk clearly has paid off, judging by the steady stream of lunch and dinner customers throughout the day and into the evening. In late 2014, they were able to purchase and renovate a much larger space at 125 Main St., still in downtown Ellsworth, and move operations from their cramped original location, expanding the menu along with it to include house-made soups and baked goods, as well as going from just one employee to 10 employees.
The building, with its 17-foot ceilings, brick walls and hardwood floors, reflects the 86 This attitude: laid-back and welcoming but also decidedly cool and funky. The name 86 This reflects it, too, stemming from an incident in a former kitchen that involved an order that had been 86’ed — canceled — by Jeff but was mistakenly made anyway by a cook. Jeff told that cook the order was 86’ed; the cook told him to “86 this,” accompanied by a middle finger.
“It was a pretty funny thing. It’s one of those things that happens in kitchens,” Jeff Kelly-Lokocz said.
Downtown Ellsworth has seen a lot of business growth in the past five years, and 86 This has played an important role in that growth, alongside other newer businesses such as Sri Lankan-Indian restaurant Serendib, Airline Brewing Company and The Rock & Art Shop.
“There’s a huge potential here for year-round growth,” Diane Kelly-Lokocz said. “I think there’s a new generation of business owners starting to make an impact here.”
The restaurant’s menu aims to please foodies and more meat-and-potatoes palates, but it also offers lots of options for gluten-free eaters and vegetarians, such as their popular vegetarian chili — their other daily chili, made with ground beef and andouille sausage, is also pretty popular.
In 2017, 86 This is poised to expand once again. About a month ago the couple purchased the vacant lot behind 125 Main St. Over this spring and summer they plan to transform the outdoor space into a beer garden and live music venue — a dream Jeff Kelly-Lokocz, a Bangor native, has had since he lived in San Francisco in the early 1990s, experiencing the city’s alternative and punk music scene alongside its vibrant food scene.
“I remember going to see Beck, right as he was blowing up, at this place called Slim’s in San Francisco,” he said. “They had music downstairs, and then upstairs they had dining. Eating and watching a cool show — how cool is that? … Seeing that and the idea of it is something I’ve always dreamed about. I want that for here. You can come in and eat, and you can see a cool band or hang out — and the kids can come too.”
They have other dreams, too, including someday opening a second location for 86 This somewhere else in eastern Maine, maybe starting a food truck featuring much of what’s served at 86 This and maybe, possibly, someday opening a sit-down, bistro-style restaurant. Jeff Kelly-Lokocz is understandably proud of the casual eatery he’s built with his wife, but he’s a chef at heart.
“I want a saute pan back in my hand,” he said. “I do miss it. But we have big ideas.”
86 This is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. It’s closed Sundays. For more information, visit 86thismaine.com.