Ricky’s Diner under new ownership

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

It’s a classic 1950s diner with a loyal following of locals, who come — often more than once a week — for the home-cooked comfort food and friendly faces it offers.

And soon, Ricky’s Diner, at Bridgton’s Pondicherry Square, will offer yet another big draw — traditional French Canadian dishes like poutine and tourtiere, served up with enthusiasm by the diner’s jovial new owner, Gilles Labelle.

Labelle and his wife Brigitte Plouffe, originally from Mont-Laurier, a small town in northern Quebec, took over the diner two weeks ago from Rick and Diana Lewis, owners for the past 11 years. Rick built the business up into a successful year-round operation, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, through years of hard work. But he says that at age 62, it’s time to quit.

“I’m de-dinering,” he joked. “It’s a lot of work.” But he quickly adds, with a hint of pride, “It’s probably one of the most successful businesses ever to come to downtown Bridgton. Believe me, we will miss it.”

Rick has also worked for years with his son Kevin in his construction business, and put the 257 Main Street diner up for sale two years ago. Its success, which he credits to a simple formula of “good food and good service, and keep your prices as low as you can,” had stretched him pretty thin; in recent years his role was confined to doing the buying and the closing.

That meant that he relied heavily on his staff — and they delivered, most notably in the culinary skills of longtime chef Greg Meisner, and the organizational wizardry of head waitress and scheduler Joyce Beaudoin.

Having a good crew that pretty much could manage the place by themselves was a big selling point for Labelle, who saw the real estate listing online and

PROUD NEW OWNERS — Gilles Labelle and his wife Brigitte Plouffe, new owners of Ricky’s Diner on Main Street in Bridgton. (Gail Geraghty photo)

came to visit. For while he loves to cook and loves the people who are part of the food industry, he had almost no direct experience in it, other than in college.

For the past 26 years, in fact, he has worked in the hi-tech field — with 17 years at Hewlett-Packard and nine years at Celestica, an electronic manufacturing company. The couple moved to the United States in 1987, living in big cities all over the country before settling in Londonderry, Vt. six years ago.

It was a comfortable living, and they raised two sons and a daughter. But in 2008, just a month before the crash, he was laid off. His world had changed with a bang.

After living off his severance package for a while, Gilles and Brigitte thought about the future. With two kids in college, and having not even reached age 50 yet, it was time to regroup. Their youngest son, David, has a speech impediment, and they thought it would help him if they moved to a small town where more people would know him.

“And my wife has been home taking care of the kids for 25 years,” Labelle said. “It was time to give her something to do.”

Both have hit the ground running since buying the business and moving to a rented home on Malcolm Road, with Brigitte working as the bookkeeper and Gilles doing everything from bussing tables to helping the cook to making coffee, in order to learn. “I want to manage by example. At Hewlett-Packard it was called management by walking around,” Gilles said. “It’s really going to be a family operation.”

Their first weekend as owners was Columbus Day, and the place was packed, he said. “It was trial by fire. The first thing I did was spill the coffee.”

Gilles is excited about introducing, in the near future, two or three popular dishes from his home country, where all of he and Brigitte’s family still lives. Poutine is a popular diner staple in Quebec, he said, consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds and slathered in brown gravy. The McDonald’s, A & W and Burger King in Canada sell it. Gilles plans to import the gravy from Canada.

Ricky’s will also offer tourtiere, a meat pie made with minced pork and/or veal or beef, and a kind of traditional patee that is spread on toast.

“Oh, yeah, a lot of people are asking for those three things. We’re going to bring them here, but everything in time,” he said, smiling. “So far, we’re just all happy to be here.”

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