HOULTON, Maine — The Elm Tree Diner was synonymous with great service and fine food for seven decades, serving people from both sides of the United States-Canada border.
The Houlton eatery was widely known for its delicious fried foods, homemade staples like turkey dinner and meatloaf, and a large variety of breakfast options. At one time, its location at 146 Bangor Road was considered prime real estate because the road, also known as U.S. Route 2A, was the primary route for motorists traveling between Houlton and Bangor.
A 2009 fire put a damper on business but only for about a year until it could be rebuilt. But when faced with the new challenges of serving food during the COVID-19 era, the restaurant closed its doors for what many thought was for good.
That is until Wendy and Wayne Shaw entered the equation.
The Littleton couple are finalizing the purchase of the restaurant from Rene Holmes McGillicuddy and plan to resurrect Elm Tree Diner’s proud tradition of serving high-quality food to people in southern Aroostook County.
The Shaws plan to hold a soft opening next week, once the restaurant passes its state inspection. A grand re-opening will likely happen closer to Christmas, Wendy Shaw said.
“We had been talking about the idea of taking this over,” she said. “I have wanted to own my own restaurant for a long time.”
She said she had decided on a whim to talk with the previous owner in October to see if McGillicuddy was interested in selling, she said. After that, the wheels were soon in motion for the Shaws to acquire the business.
Wendy Shaw has worked in the restaurant industry for many years. Most recently she was employed at the Littleton Pit Stop, where she cooked and served food. She also has experience waitressing at a Taste of China in Houlton and A Place to Eat in Oakfield, as well as working at Brookside Restaurant in Smyrna.
“I took a few years off to raise children,” she said.
Her husband, Wayne, will focus much of his efforts on their other business ventures — a trucking company and repair shop in Littleton.
It’s unclear exactly when the restaurant opened. It is believed that The Elm Tree Diner opened sometime between 1945 and 1947. It was operated by Caleb and Brenda Bell for many years before Gary Dwyer purchased the establishment in 2007 and expanded to accommodate more diners.
After the restaurant was destroyed by a fire in 2009, then-owner Gary L. Dwyer opened a new location — Elm Tree North — on the North Road. Nearly one year to the date, the Bangor Road location reopened, with a new building featuring a bigger dining area capable of seating more than 100 people.
McGillicuddy took over the establishment after Dwyer died in 2019, before closing the doors in October 2021 due to staffing issues and COVID-19.
All of the prior recipes, as well as some new ones, will make their way onto the menu once it reopens, Wendy Shaw said. In fact, her great-grandmother’s recipe for homemade doughnuts will be featured prominently during breakfast hours.
Taking over the business was not as simple as handing over a set of keys and turning on the grill, Wayne Shaw said. Since the business had sat dormant for more than a year, a considerable amount of cleaning needed to be done.
The couple also had to arrange for a food and beverage distributor, find a head cook and fill multiple wait staff positions.
“We have filled pretty much all the positions already, with a lot of them being family,” Wayne Shaw said.
Both of the Shaws’ mothers plan to work at the restaurant, emphasizing the family-friendly environment they want to create.
The restaurant will be open seven days a week, starting at 5 a.m. most days for the hungry breakfast crowd. On Sundays, the eatery will open at 7 a.m. Closing time will vary, as they try to figure out exactly how late to stay open. Initially, the restaurant will be open until 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and either 9 or 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
The couple said they have no plans to change the name of the restaurant.
“Everybody knows this place as the Elm Tree Diner,” he said. “People that moved away 30 to 40 years ago come back for special occasions and want to visit the Elm Tree.”