Blues & suds returning to Pondicherry Square

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Dreams by the town’s economic development director of a revitalized Pondicherry Square have taken flight with news that the Mount Henry Brewing Company will be taking over the Big Kahuna Café. Professional brewer Robert Prindall of Bridgton, who’s brewed up suds for 12 years at Bray’s Brew Pub in Naples, is leasing-to-own the historic Masonic Hall from Kahuna owner Tom McCarthy, and will reopen the 140-seat second floor space this spring as a blues and jazz venue called The Benchmark Pub.

Not only that, Prindall and his business manager Angela Roux will, within a year, open a micro-brewery on the first floor, and offer retail sales of their line of beers and related merchandise, such as T-shirts and mugs, to the public.

The deal, approved conditionally by the Bridgton Planning Board Tuesday, was put together by Alan Manoian, Bridgton’s Director of Economic and Community Development. Prindall had earlier received board approval to open a brewery on Home Run Road, but the project wasn’t deemed economically viable because it would have to be all done at once.

Prindall said the Masonic Hall at 272 Main Street, at the corner of Route 302 and the Harrison Road, offered a much better choice, as it allows him to develop the project in two phases. After Manoian put him in touch with McCarthy, Prindall said, “I was really impressed with the potential” the sturdy, 1867 wooden-floored building had for a full-time brewery operation.

“I can definitely put a brewery in here,” he told the board.

Opening The Benchmark Pub for the first year will give him time to become acquainted with the space and to apply for and purchase extra sewage allocation to serve the brewery’s needs. The extra allocation shouldn’t be a problem, since the town recently completed expansion of its wastewater disposal fields. The Masonic Hall is currently approved for 230 gallons a day, and he’ll need 750 gallons a day of sewage allocation to operate the brewery, which may eventually expand into the basement, he said. A lot of water is used in brewing beer, and Prindall said he’ll need to install a series of settling tanks to allow the solids to drop out so they don’t reach the leach field.

Planning Board Chairman Steve Collins said the approval of the brewery phase of the project will be contingent on Prindall acquiring the extra sewage allocation, as well as documenting his financial and technical capability. The board’s vote was unanimous, and its members were enthusiastic about the plans.

“What a key anchor piece that was for the town of Keene,” New Hampshire, said member Fred Packard, referring to the economic boon provided when the Elm City Brewing Co. opened in the historic Colony Mill Marketplace near the heart of Keene.

“If you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs,” said board member Dee Miller. “It’s a wonderful project, and I have no problem with it.”

One neighbor in attendance Tuesday, however, did have some concerns about the return of a pub venue to the square. Beverly Moore, of Iredale Street, said Bray’s Brew Pub has a reputation for “loud, loud music,” and wondered if The Benchmark Pub would be more of the same.

Prindall reminded her that he was the brewer at Bray’s, not the owner. “Please don’t hold me accountable” for another person’s operation, he said.

Besides, he pointed out, he will be bringing back to life a “140-seat hall sitting in the middle of downtown that has been empty for three years. Nothing will be done with it if this isn’t done with it,” he said. “What else, unless you want to chop it up into apartments.” McCarthy operated The Big Kahuna Café for around eight years.

Packard said the Masonic hall “is built like a fort,” and was designed to be soundproof because of the secrecy surrounding Masonic rituals.

Prindall joked that despite his Mohawk haircut, he doesn’t plan to bring in any rock ‘n roll groups or heavy metal groups to the pub. He’d like to bring in blues bands with big names, not just local acts. “I’ve been playing blues for 30 years. Rock clubs don’t make as much money as blues clubs,” he said. He also may try jazz brunches on Sundays.

The only changes to the exterior of the building will be in the signage, with The Big Kahuna Café sign replaced by a similar-size round sign, perpendicular to the street, announcing The Benchmark Pub.

He’ll serve beer and wine only, and offer meat and cheese platters for food. Hours of operations for the pub will be from 3 to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and from 3 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The brewery will be open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Odors from the brewing operation will be minimal, said Prindall, “no more than a small-scale bakery.”

As for parking, Prindall acknowledged he’ll be relying “on the kindness of the town” to provide parking for his customers, since the building only has three parking spaces out back and nine public parking spaces on his side of Main Street. Manoian said the nearby municipal parking lot has 39 parking spaces, and he’ll be seeking an agreement from Norway Savings Bank to allow shared public parking at their lot — an arrangement he called “standard operating procedure” in many active downtowns, including Nashua, N.H. Additional on-street parking spaces will also soon be available on lower Depot Street, he said, with completion of a new street-defining sidewalk there.

Prindall said his ground floor retail space, which may eventually also be run as a pub, will be located on the right side of the building from Main Street. The brewery operation will be located in the rear. He’ll be leasing out the other retail space at the far left that now houses an antique store.

“I hope this will grow well beyond what we’re doing at Brays,” Prindall said.

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