When Bill Umbel sold his Portland bar and music venue Empire Dine & Dance in 2013, he took his time prepping his next venture. But his love for music, especially guitar-driven Americana and country, led him to Hawkes Plaza off Route 302 in nearby Westbrook.
Over a few years, Umbel revamped country music legend Al Hawkes’ former TV repair business into a restaurant and pub, and maintained the working music studio on the ground floor that was home to Hawkes’ record label, Event Records. He also named it Lenny’s, after the late influential Maine guitarist, Lenny Breau.
The American Journal spoke with Umbel this week about the pub’s focus on music, but also his experience so far in growing a business in Westbrook.
Q: Lenny’s, named in honor of guitarist Lenny Breau, was designed with a focus on music. What has excited you most about your first eight months in business?
A: When I decided to open a restaurant at Hawkes Plaza I knew the place had to be food first, as that is what will make people return. We have accomplished that goal and will continue to make sure it improves and is consistent. My dedication to the music scene in Maine is well documented and I’ll continue to push that for the good of the music community. As for the name, I was quite aware of Lenny Breau’s relationship with the building and his stature in the guitar world. To say he was an astonishing player at a young age is an understatement and he should get the recognition he deserves. He developed a style of playing that only a handful of players in the world can do today. Having a place where guitar players can play and keeping his legacy alive has turned into a central theme of Lenny’s Pub. we are working to cultivate an environment where we are known for top-tier players. The name Lenny’s was just easy – it flows off your tongue and has a comfortable feel to it. When I decided to use that name, I called Denny Breau, Lenny’s younger brother, for his family’s blessing and he was thrilled. Denny is a highly accomplished player and skilled entertainer and he was thrilled to have me recognizing his brother. He’s played here several times and will be returning on Dec. 2.
Q: You are closing in on a year in business. How would you describe the surrounding community’s reaction to Lenny’s?
A: Yes, I’m approaching a year in business and Lenny’s has been very well received by the community, and I really appreciate that. I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to do this project and I’m cautiously optimistic for the future. The city of Westbrook has been great and I would encourage anyone looking to locate or start a business to consider the city.
Q: There is also a working music studio in the basement of Lenny’s. How has that played into your music-centric atmosphere there?
A: (The studio) is located in the old part of the building where the original Event Records (Al Hawkes’ label) was run. I’m proud that the relationship with the local recording community is strong and will continue to encourage that aspect of the building. On a side note, the recording equipment that Al Hawkes and Dick Greely used at Event Records has been purchased and is currently up and running at Acadia Recording studios in Portland. I had the privilege to watch Sean Mencher, Matt Robbins, Kris Day and Nate Gibson from the University of Indiana record on it recently. There are very few places in the country that still have that kind of equipment and I think it will help to keep Maine on the national forefront as artists are looking for that unique sound that the old analog equipment can bring to their sound.
Q: Do you have any goals for Lenny’s as you approach one year? Also, we heard you’ve had some guitar lessons from Al Hawkes himself. Will we see any more performances from Bill Umbel?
A: I’m working on other plans for the building that will continue to honor the legacy that proceeded my ownership and will work to be a contributing member of the community from a cultural aspect, as well as providing jobs and a place for people to feel at home. Yes, I did take lessons from Al years ago and continue to practice every day. I’ve played here on numerous occasions and will continue to sit in when I can.
Bill Umbel, left, looks over the crowd at Lenny’s early this year. Since opening the pub in February, Lenny’s has kept its focus on a community bar and restaurant that celebrates the musical history of the site.
Books in the Brook
Books in the Brook, which brings together area authors for monthly readings, returns on Saturday, Nov. 5, from 4-5 p.m. at Continuum for Creativity, 863 Main St. This month’s readings feature crime writer Bruce Robert Coffin and novelist, memoir writer and essayist Shonna Milliken Humphrey. Both writers will read from recent works and have books for sale.
Also at Continuum, the Lowry’s Lodge poetry series returns on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. with award-winning poets Suzanne Langlois and Richard Foerster.
Congin Craft Fair
The third annual Congin Parent-Teacher Organization artisan and craft fair will take place Saturday, Nov. 19, from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. This year’s event, which is a fundraiser for Congin Elementary School, 410 Bridge St., features more than 60 vendors. They include artists, crafters, culinarians, and independent sales consultants. The creations include fiber arts, woodwork, recycled arts, jewelry, photograhpy and more. The event also includes a bake sale, raffles, silent auction, door prizes and concessions.
Holiday pop-up market
The Holiday Pop-Up Market, organized by the Downtown Westbrook Coalition, will be located at 1 Westbrook Common, in the same building as House of Pizza, next to CVS. The market will launch on Small Business Saturday, Nov. 26, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. It will then be open the three weeks after that – November 27, December 4, and December 11. Market hours each week will be Sunday from noon-5 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday