CAMDEN, Maine ― For the past three years Jordan Benissan, an immigrant from the West African country of Togo, has made it his mission to introduce as many people as he can to the flavors of his native cuisine.
His seasonal restaurant, Me Lon Togo, in Searsport was so successful in its first two summers that he opened a year-round location in Waterville last June.
Business was off to a great start there until March, when Benissan had to close his doors — like most restaurants in Maine — because of the pandemic. With no revenue, the restaurateur was unable to make rent. He said his landlord seemed unwilling to work with him on a repayment plan, and Benissan was ultimately threatened with eviction.
“When I finally took a deep breath and thought of everything, I said, ‘OK it’s fine, I’m ready to take this loss,’” Benissan said.
But it turns out the foodies in Maine weren’t ready to lose such a unique restaurant that easily.
After announcing plans to close his year-round site in Waterville, a Maine food blogger reached out to Benissan to lend a hand. They teamed up with restaurant owners in Portland who launched a GoFundMe for Benissan, with the idea that community donations could help him secure a new location for his restaurant.
In just more than a week, about $16,000 was donated.
Now, Benissan is just a couple weeks away from opening up his latest Me Lon Togo incarnation at 56 Elm St., where he will offer his West African menu for dine-in or takeout customers.
Having nearly thrown in the towel on his dream to make Togolese food available to Mainers year-round, Benissan said the support he received has filled him with hope and diminished reservations he had about re-opening a restaurant during the pandemic.
“I didn’t think that I had a community and people who cared about what was going to happen,” Benissan said. “It is almost a miracle that this happened.”
After being denied a government-backed Paycheck Protection Program loan, Benissan said he didn’t even consider crowdfunding as an option. He is astonished by the number of people who donated despite the economic hard times.
The funds allowed him to secure a lease to a former furniture store in Camden. Over the past month he’s installed a kitchen in the space and created a warm environment full of bright colors and vintage wares that he hopes sparks people’s nostalgia for home-cooked food.
The size of the restaurant will help ensure a safe distance between tables. There are a couple of private dining areas in secluded corners of the space, and Benissan said an outdoor dining area is in the works.
Me Lon Togo will offer a four-course menu, where patrons can select between a few entrees, including a West African gumbo and a chicken dish in peanut sauce. Benissan said the prix fixe options work for his restaurant because diners can try food they might have otherwise looked over.
Benissan is investing most of his energy into getting the Camden site open in the coming weeks, but says he also plans to open the Searsport location in August for the remainder of the summer season.
Benissan moved to Maine in the late 1980s to teach West African drumming at Colby College, where he’s an instructor in the school’s ethnomusicology program.
Shortly after moving to the U.S., he began to miss his mother’s cooking. So, he started to play around in the kitchen, making Togolese-inspired meals for himself. That quickly grew into preparing four-course meals for his friends in Maine who had never experienced the cuisine.
While the ingredients in West African food are familiar — root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and yams, as well as seafood and poultry — it’s the spices and preparation that distinguish the dishes, according to Benissan.
Even though he had no formal experience as a chef or restaurant owner, his friends encouraged him to bring Togolese food to the public. After receiving a small loan and securing a location on Route 1 in Searsport, Benissan was able to open Me Lon Togo in 2017.
Despite the challenges he experienced in Waterville, Benissan isn’t bitter about the experience. Rather, it showed him that he has a community of people in Maine who are willing to support him.
“I know that slowly we are going to go through this and get on the other side,” Benissan said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the street where Me Lon Togo is located.