Vodka Magnate, ‘Nice and Quiet’ Midcoast Town At Odds Over Restaurant

Mar 29, 2017

Imagine opening a restaurant in a far-flung location, but being forbidden to tell anyone it’s there.

That’s what has happened in the midcoast town of Southport, where selectmen have placed restrictions on a waterfront eatery opened by developer Paul Coulombe.

Coulombe made his fortune in the vodka business, but he’s not allowed to sell liquor at the restaurant, and he’s not even allowed to advertise.

To get to Oliver’s, a seasonal restaurant with $24 lobster rolls on the menu, you travel down through Boothbay, over the bridge to Southport, meander along narrow roads and finally turn onto an even narrower road that leads to scenic Cozy Harbor.

The town owns the landing, and the building on it, and several years ago it agreed to lease the property to Coulombe to open Oliver’s.

“We used to have a restaurant there that was very low key, a native fellow ran it and, you know, everybody loved him,” says Southport first selectman Gerry Gamage.

Gamage says the permit was granted with certain restrictions designed to reflect the feel of the original restaurant.

“Didn’t have alcohol, and he didn’t want to advertise, he just wanted to have a few people there. So it was a change of venue, a lot of concern about increased traffic, issues with alcohol being consumed and the like. So that’s why restrictions were made,” he says.

Five years ago, Coulombe made more than $600 million from the sale of his Lewiston-based White Rock Distilleries to Beam Inc., the makers of Jim Beam bourbon. He has used some of that wealth to transform much of the Boothbay region, investing tens of millions of dollars into the golf club he owns, pushing through a proposal for roundabout on Route 27 and building a lavish Southport mansion with a gold chandelier. Just this year he bought a 100-room Boothbay Harbor inn.

Oliver's restaurant in Southport.
Credit Murray Carpenter / Maine Public

But despite all of that spending, Coulombe has repeatedly failed in his attempt to get permission from Southport to sell liquor at Oliver’s or to have the local zoning amended to allow him to advertise the business.

“He has been advertising,” says Southport homeowner Lee Smith.

Smith says there’s a lot of talk that Coulombe has been defying the wishes of the town.

“And from what I heard at the meeting, that upsets a lot of people, because he’s not supposed to be advertising, and yet he still is advertising. So people let the selectmen know that they do not want the advertising to continue,” he says.

“We voted on that and people don’t want to change the ordinance as it is,” says Southport resident Bob Eaton.

Eaton says he agrees with the restrictions that Coulombe agreed to.

“He was well aware of it when he opened the business and so forth. I’d say sooner or later, someday, he probably will, but right now I’d let things go as they are,” he says.

Eaton says he likes Oliver’s, but he also wants to keep Southport just the way it is.

Cozy Harbor in Southport.
Credit Murray Carpenter / Maine Public

“We don’t like to advertise too much because we know what we have,” he says. “It’s nice and quiet, it’s a nice place to live, and in fact, I wouldn’t go anywhere else, myself but that’s just my opinion.”

In another clash with Southport residents four years ago, Coulombe proposed blasting and dredging a channel in order to moor his boat closer to his house. He withdrew the plan after public opposition. But he was permitted to dredge mud from Cozy Harbor, to allow access for Oliver’s diners who arrive on boats at low tide.

Gamage says he appreciates the dredging and Coulombe’s other improvements to the landing at Cozy Harbor. And he personally feels that the restaurant should be able to advertise, in order to ensure that it will be viable.

But Gamage says Coulombe’s way of doing business poses challenges.

“He’s a very forceful individual, so he tends to push things forward, and that rubs people the wrong way. But the bottom line is that he’s rubbed enough people the wrong way that he’d be hard-pressed for him to get something that you and I perhaps would find a little easier,” he says.

Coulombe did not respond to interview requests for this story. And for now, Oliver’s will remain a low-profile eatery, where the man who made hundreds of millions of dollars selling vodka will have to a glass of wine or beer with his meal.