Charlie Zorich, left, and Kirk Linder opened a farm-to-table restaurant The Hichborn in Stockton Springs in 2018. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — The local town manager and select board apologized Monday morning to the owners of The Hichborn restaurant — and all residents of the town — before the board unanimously voted to renew the restaurant’s liquor license.

Last month, the officials had delayed renewing the license for the fine dining restaurant after Selectman Darren Shute recounted an incident that happened in June at Hey Sailor! in neighboring Searsport, which is also owned by Kirk Linder and Charlie Zorich.

The decision to renew the license came as a relief to many in the room, which was crowded with well over 100 people, most of whom were there to support Linder and Zorich. More people who couldn’t get in stood outside the town office. 

After the vote, the married couple emotionally spoke about what the events of the last few weeks have meant to them.

A public hearing about the liquor license renewal for The Hichborn in Stockton Springs drew a standing-room-only crowd.  Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

“I am sad, angry and disappointed that this has happened in Stockton Springs, the town we call home and [where we] operate our business,” Zorich said at the public hearing, adding that the couple’s future in town had been cast into doubt. “I am deeply offended by the disrespectful attitude of the select board … We have done nothing to deserve the character assassination of my husband. I would strongly caution any potential businesses or investors to reconsider Stockton Springs.”

Later, though, he expressed a more hopeful view, and said he was heartened by the outpouring of support. Some in the room had driven more than an hour to be at the meeting, he said, and that meant a lot to him and Linder.

“I’m feeling optimistic,” he said after the hearing was done. “I’m glad that we were able to speak our truth. It felt amazing … I’m very happy with the outcome.”

The board’s decision on July 25 to hold off on renewing the license reverberated through the community, with many worried that it constituted an abuse of municipal power. 

“I was flabbergasted,” local resident Jessie Francis said. 

She said it was important to her to come to the public hearing to bear witness to what transpired. 

“I love The Hichborn. I love Hey Sailor!. I also believe in municipal government,” she said. 

At the July 25 meeting, Shute told the other board members and the town manager that he and his wife had gone to the Searsport restaurant when out of the blue, Linder allegedly threw him out, verbally assaulted him and chased him 100 feet down the street. He said that he had public safety concerns that stemmed from the incident and wanted to air some of those concerns before granting the Stockton Springs liquor license for The Hichborn.  

In the audio recording of the July 25 meeting, which was not attended by Linder or Zorich, Shute can be heard saying that he had no idea why it had happened and asked if Linder had a substance abuse, mental health or anger management issue. Later, he told the Bangor Daily News that Linder “ran into my finger” outside the restaurant and told him, ‘You assaulted me — the next time I’ll kill you.’” 

Linder had a different memory of the incident. He told the BDN he asked the Shutes to leave the restaurant after they had expressed their unhappiness about the menu with their server, including the fact that Hey Sailor! does not serve Coors Light. Linder said he told them they could order or leave, and the couple chose to leave, but as they were heading out the door Darren Shute allegedly said that he was a selectman, and it wasn’t the last they’d be hearing from him.

At the Monday morning hearing, Linder said that Shute’s allegation that Linder had made a death threat was false and harmful.

“It’s so very absurd, and cruel, and dangerous,” he said. “I am asking Darren Shute to publicly retract that statement, and then resign as selectperson.”

Mac Smith, Stockton Springs’ town manager, included a note in the agenda for Monday’s meeting that said he had received 90 messages about the liquor license issue, with 87 in support of granting the liquor license and three in support of Shute.

The manager also included some correspondence with Stephen Wagner, the town attorney, who said that he would be “extremely cautious” about making decisions about the license based on character, or on an incident that happened in another community that did not lead to a police charge or even a police report.

Town officials seemed to try to defuse the tension on Monday by voting to renew the restaurant’s license prior to holding the public hearing. They noted that at their prior meeting, no town official suggested that they reach out to Linder and Zorich to get their side of the story, and no one seemed to think that delaying the liquor license renewal could be construed as problematic.

“I would like to offer an apology to Kirk and Charlie, to the three members of the selectboard and the citizens of Stockton Springs,” Smith said about how the matter was handled at the prior meeting. “We have a very beautiful spirit in this community. To the extent that I destroyed, or hurt, that spirit … I apologize.”

Shute also held out an olive branch of sorts.  

“I would like to apologize to the owners of The Hichborn as to how I expressed my thoughts,” Shute said. “When the renewal application for the liquor license came onboard, we had public safety concerns. I commented in that meeting twice that I did not want to see that license expire. This is not a vendetta.”