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New faces at Willard Beach concession stand

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Posted: Thursday, June 25, 2009 12:00 am

When the steady rain finally stops, Seaside Grille will open its shutters for summer business.

Kevin and Melinda Strout, who have experience operating lunch trucks, are the new vendors of the Willard Beach concession stand, which typically opens after Memorial Day and operates daily through Columbus Day.

But rainy weather and maintenance work needed at the city-owned "snack shack" has kept the place closed for the start of the summer season.

Last weekend, under cloudy skies, the Strouts showed up at the concession stand before final repairs had been made to the humble-looking building.

The couple cooked hot dogs and hamburgers on a grill they set up next to the overhang. It was their "soft opening" for the concession stand, which they have fixed up with a new menu board and named the Seaside Grille.

The Strouts handed out the grilled food free as a way to introduce themselves to the families who frequent Willard Beach.

"My boys come here every summer," said Marie Hamman, who lives on nearby Franklin Terrace. "It would not be summer without the snack shack doing business."

"You don't see neighborhood beaches like this anymore," said John Daly of New York, who held his young son's hand. Daly, who was staying with friends in South Portland, said this was his first visit to Willard Beach.

Kevin Strout said he hopes to build good will with customers, young and old, who pack Willard Beach on hot days.

At the Seaside Grille, the Strouts plan to sell onion rings, mozzarella sticks, chicken baskets, clam cakes, cold sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers and soft drinks. The couple also will have the usual array of candy and ice cream that tantalize kids who play at the beach.

"The Willard Beach concession stand seemed like a good opportunity, and we grabbed it," said Strout, who also installed a new deep fat fryer. "It is the perfect location. The people are friendly, and it is right on the beach," he said gesturing at the sandy waterfront.

Mayor Tom Blake said despite the popularity of the snack shack, the city has had trouble over the years keeping the place operating without incurring a lot of expense.

The city is not discussing why the previous vendor left prior to opening this summer, but city crews have done extensive work to get the place in shipshape order.

Strout said he signed a lease to operate the concession stand for one year. The Strouts come to the job with plenty of experience.

They operate two lunch trucks - dubbed the "Weenie Wagons" - that go to companies and construction sites in Portland, South Portland, Scarborough and Westbrook.

Stops include the construction site for Westbrook Middle School, Yankee Ford in South Portland and the Maietta compound in Scarborough.

Strout said he is used to making the most from tight resources. He started his lunch truck business eight years ago with a rundown vehicle he bought from a vendor who was struggling.

"I turned it into something really nice, with a good reputation," he said.

Today he and his wife have two new trucks with warming ovens and steam tables. They sell the usual burgers and dogs, but also breakfast sandwiches, meatball sandwiches, Italian subs, chop suey and macaroni and cheese.

By far, hot dogs are the most popular items sold on the lunch trucks. The Strouts go through 20 pounds of red hot dogs each day.

Strout said he plans to work hard to keep regular hours at the beach concession stand. Previous operators have been criticized for being lax about hours of operation.

Strout said he expects to open at 10 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. But if the weather is hot and the beach packed, he will extend the hours. Likewise, if it is pouring rain and the beach is deserted, he will close shop for the day.

Strout says he expects his own children to be regulars at the concession stand. He and his wife have four school-age kids.

"I have a great life. My kids are awesome," said Strout, who lives in Saco. "My wife and I have been together since we were teenagers. And we love running our business together."

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