Portland, Maine, remodeling contractor Nat Towl likes unusual and challenging projects. A few years ago, Towl helped convert a firehouse in Malden, Mass., into a home for tech entrepreneur Dave Waller. Towl has also been involved in another of Waller's extreme projects: the conversion of the Graves Island lighthouse outside Boston Harbor, covered by the Boston Globe here (see: "Renovation of Graves Island lighthouse inches forward," by Joseph P. Kahn).

But Towl's core business is commercial fit-up, especially for restaurants. He's done that work in Seattle, Wash., and Phoenix, Ariz., and these days, it's keeping him busy in Portland. Currently, Towl's working with three business partners—two local chefs and a financial backer—on a series of new restaurant ventures where Towl is not just the construction contractor, but also a part owner. Coastal Connection dropped in on Towl this  month in the basement space that will hold the team's next offering—which Towl describes as a "drinking establishment—with food." "We're going to bring Tiki back in a more modern version," Towl says, "but we're also going to have some nautical elements. And we're going to pay homage to the history of rum, rum-running, Prohibition—before Prohibition, the laws that became Prohibition started here in Portland, so there's some neat history here."

Nat Towl in the basement space under construction at 4 Free Street in Portland, Maine. To Towl's left will be 70 linear feet of lounge seating, with additional easy chairs and tables. To his right, the rough structure of a 40-seat Tiki bar is taking shape.
Ted Cushman/JLC Nat Towl in the basement space under construction at 4 Free Street in Portland, Maine. To Towl's left will be 70 linear feet of lounge seating, with additional easy chairs and tables. To his right, the rough structure of a 40-seat Tiki bar is taking shape.
Seating along the wall will be cushioned, comfortable, and dimly lit, to evoke "that kind of dark, out-of-the-way, a bit outlaw, sensation," says Towl. 

"But the middle of the room is a 40-seat bar with a rum collection hanging from the ceiling. A thatch roof, lit up with bright colored lights, a Tiki drink menu ... there’ll be Pu-Pu platters, there’ll be raw bar, sushi, the whole thing. So we’re just trying to have fun with it, and not take ourselves too seriously."

But in a small city that's already well supplied with first-rate dining and live entertainment, Towl knows he and his partners can't put the business on cruise control. "Portland has been a foodie city for a long time," says Towl, "but there’s room for good stuff still. But what’s good about Portland is, if you don’t bring an A game, you might not last."

"Finding the right space was hard," says Towl. Most of the spaces on the market had big  windows facing the street — not exactly suited to a noir-novel and South Pacific mash-up. A realtor showed them the basement space on Free Street on an afterthought, and the team saw its potential right away. However, says Towl, "we walked into this and it was an absolute pit. There were three different layers of concrete, and there were portions of the floor in here that were just still dirt. So we’ve come a long way. You’re hitting it at about the three month mark. The first two months were digging — excavating for concrete, trenching for all the underground plumbing, and all that."

Ted Cushman/JLC Seventy feat of built-in curved benches will line one wall of the space, with drinks and food served at small tables.
Ted Cushman/JLC
The technical parts of the job — fire code issues, sprinklers, kitchen ventilation, egress, et cetera — are just one piece of the puzzle, says Towl. A successful restaurant start-up also depends heavily on the business arrangements. With years of experience under his belt, Towl can sum up the issues neatly. "It's a formula," he explains. "You really need to find the right space, find the right landlord and the right lease, and not spend too much money to open. And then you can have a profitable venture. Lease negotiation is probably as important as finding a good space, and a good landlord. The goal, when you're doing one of these, is not to be paying rent while you're building. All of these agreements come with a period of rent-free time, during fit-up. Ours is six months, and it ends in February. So we need to be opening up in January."

Winter is the slow season in Portland; when summer comes, the team plans to expand with a thousand-square-foot outdoor patio that will practically double the size of the restaurant, just in time for the annual influx of cruise-ship vacationers and summer people. But opening in January gives the business six months to establish cash flow before having to invest in improving the outdoor part of the space. Says Towl: "Our financial backers set the cost control limits. But my other two partners are chefs and restauranteurs, and so we know what it costs to operate. We made very conservative estimates on what this restaurant can do on a given night in February, in June, right through, and we stretch that over a year. We basically figure what kind of debt we can manage, what kind of profit range there is, with very conservative estimates. and then we set our budget based on that."

For now, says Towl, "I'm the one who has to say 'No' to people who want to do cool things. And it's hard — because I want to do cool things too. But of a hundred cool things, we get to do 74 of them. And we have to say, 'We can do that after we're generating income.' But we prepare: we put power where we can't put something now, because we know it's coming in a year, when we can afford it. So nobody will know this when they're in here, but there are places where there will be something soon — but not yet."

What about sound control? Towl answers: "Sound control? ... We're going to have a band. Right over there. Come back when we're pouring the rum."

"Come back when we're pouring the rum," says Nat Towl.
Ted Cushman/JLC "Come back when we're pouring the rum," says Nat Towl.