Spend a day with Brunswick restaurateur Mike Jerome, and you never know where you’ll end up or what new ideas will percolate.
You may find him working on glitchy electrical outlets. When a microwave at Fat Boy Drive-In, the historic hamburger shack he bought in 2020, was shorting out the whole place recently, he and his team problem-solved to fixed it.
You may see him managing his staff of 60 or so. He seems to know everybody by name and on a recent June day as he went from restaurant to restaurant – Fat Boy, Tex-Mex bar and candlepin lanes Bolos, and new brunch spot Flip – he greeted his employees personally, not only talking with them about bathroom locks and staff scheduling, but also bantering about their outfits and their families.
He could be predicting the weather. If it’s good weather, he’s learned to expect crowds at the seasonal Fat Boy. If it’s bad weather, it may be Bolos that needs to staff up.
Or he might be referencing his latest Pinterest discoveries.
“I think we should get lights like this,” Jerome said with enthusiasm at a recent Monday morning meeting of his company, Jerome Inc. He held up his smartphone to show his senior management team a photo of a ballroom filled with Edison light bulbs and big white lanterns.
“Yeah, because that’s what you found on your Pinterest last night, huh?” Chief Operating Officer Samantha Moore teased him.
“Well … yes.”
Jerome often wears an excited grin and gestures energetically. Just a minute into talking to him, it’s clear his brain is moving a mile a minute, chock-full of ideas that are itching to be brought to life. He’s an ideas man, according to those who work for him.
He said he came to Brunswick for the community, and he’s constantly brainstorming new ways to enhance it, chiefly by creating new businesses and making them good places for his employees to work. When he sought a liquor license for Bolos, he told town councilors he wanted to create more than just a bar. His interest lay, he said, in “building another community gathering spot.”
His restaurants in the community of Brunswick are a diverse group. That’s because, he said, he doesn’t want to compete with himself, and also it keeps life interesting. Previous ventures include Portland Pie Company in Brunswick and Kamasouptra in Portland, a soup business he started with his siblings almost 15 years ago. (They closed the business in 2021.)
“He has rehabbed some pretty important spaces in the community,” Brunswick Town Councilor Dan Ankeles said about Jerome. “A lot of people in the community were afraid that a very historical Brunswick institution (Fat Boy) would go under and just disappear. I really appreciate that a local person has put so much time and resources in to keep in what’s great about Brunswick there.”
THE ROAD TO RESTAURATEUR
Jerome grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland; his father is Scottish, his mother is American. His first job in the food industry was making pizzas at a Pizza Hut in Edinburgh. At 16, he came to the United States for boarding school. He went on to study biology at university in the states, with plans to go to medical school. But halfway through college, Jerome realized he didn’t want to be a doctor. He quit school and moved back to Edinburgh.
There, Jerome found a job at the Hard Rock Cafe, “attracted to the bright lights, large staff and fast-paced environment,” as well as the restaurant’s connection to the United States. “It was awesome,” he remembers today. “It was just kind of this revolving door of young travelers from all over the world.” He fell in love with the food industry while working there, finding himself especially drawn to the closeness and collaboration of his restaurant “family.”
After two years, Jerome moved back to the United States, and eventually enrolled in cooking school in Texas. He wasn’t interested in cooking as a career, per se, but he knew by then he wanted to run his own restaurants, and he hoped his education would one day help him do so.
“I wanted to make sure that if something happened to the bartender that I could jump back there and help, and if something happened in the kitchen then I could jump back there and help,” Jerome said, “and it would always be a seamless transition.”
After graduation, he moved to Portland, tired of the Texas heat. He’d been struck by Portland’s beauty when he’d visited the city to attend a wedding. His first job in Maine, as a shift manager for Portland Pie Company in Scarborough, taught him more management and business skills, he said, and his bosses “helped me kind of navigate the waters of starting a new business.”
Jerome’s first go at ownership began as a family effort. In 2009, he and two siblings, took out a micro-loan from the city of Portland to start Kamasouptra, which sold an array of house-made soups at the Portland Public Market and then later at the food court in Freeport. (His professional life continues to be a family affair. His dad, Mel Jerome, works as the facilities and maintenance manager at Jerome Inc.)
MAKING A HOME IN BRUNSWICK
In 2013, Jerome and his family moved to Brunswick. The family was attracted to the town for the excellent school system – he had two daughters at the time (later, he had a third daughter; and now he has a baby with his new wife) – and for the community itself. Early on, though, he was astounded to discover that Brunswick had no full-service, dine-in pizza restaurant. He reached out to his former employers at Portland Pie Company about it. Though they weren’t interested in opening a location in Brunswick themselves, they gave Jerome the green light to license the brand and do it himself.
He opened the Brunswick location in January 2016, and the business flourished. Some five years later, he sold it. “It was time,” he said simply. The last few years have seen a flurry of business activity for Jerome. In some respects, he resembles a Brunswick Mister Monopoly. He owns this, this and this, acquired then, then and then. In 2018, he began leasing the space on Dunlap Street that would become Bolos. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, he took over the beloved Fat Boy, and after that, Bench Warmers, a bar on the corner of Maine Street and Station Avenue.
Buying Fat Boy Drive-In as COVID-19 raged was a risky move. He was anxious, but a friend in the business reassured him. The drive-in, she told him, was tailormade for social distancing. Customers never enter Fat Boy; their order is brought to their car.
” ‘Fat Boy’s is the only thing that can be open the way it should be and the way it always has been,’ ” Jerome said the friend told him. ” ‘People are going to flock there because it’s the only place that’s a normal experience right now.’ And she was right.”
As for Bench Warmers, he ran the bar for eight months under the name Bench, then spent a year remodeling the spot, and converting it into something entirely new – Flip Breakfast. He did so to fill another gap in the market he’d identified: Maine Street lacked a sit-down brunch spot with a traditional menu. Inside, he transformed the dark space with turquoise paint and a pink neon sign, among other changes. Outside, he added a brightly colored sign the shape of an egg.
Now, another Jerome restaurant conversion is afoot: Bolos is being remodeled this month. It will reopen as Bolos Burger Bar, and, hold onto your bowling shoes, the candlepin lanes will be gone. Jerome is aware that’ll make some old-timers unhappy.
“When purchasing The Bowling Bowl in 2019, our favorite part about the building was the nostalgic feel, history, and candlepin lanes where so many memories were made,” the website says. Unfortunately, it went onto say, “each year it becomes harder to maintain, fix, and replace parts that are essentially non-existent unless custom built. We understand this may be upsetting, an end to an era, but we can assure our customers that Bolos will continue to be a fun, safe space for parties and entertainment.”
Jerome is adding an entertainment space for performances and gatherings, and adding traditional games like corn hole, darts and croquet.
Jerome’s newest venture is for the spot that used to be My Tie bar on Maine Street. He recently began leasing the space and plans to convert the basement bar and function space into offices for Jerome Inc., as well as a rental space for private events, and maybe, he says – and you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he suggests it – a membership beer club?
These days, it’s possible to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner – not to mention have a drink or play a game – at a different Jerome business in Brunswick without ever straying out of town, or even all that far from Maine Street.
For Jerome, staff is uppermost. Jobs should support lives, he said, not the other way around.
“I want (employees) to walk in and say to me, ‘Mike, come look at my new car.’ And to know that the success of the restaurant concept that I started, that they had a huge hand in making successful and keeping successful, afforded them to buy that new car.”
Bowdoin College junior Libby Boutin has worked for Jerome since she was 15, when she started as a host at Portland Pie. She’s since worked as a server, bartender and manager. This summer, Jerome created a paid internship just for her, which combines event planning, managing Fat Boy, and shadowing the company’s chief operating officer.
Boutin said what started out as a place to work hard and make money quickly has became much more to her. She described Jerome as her unofficial college counselor (he wrote her letter of recommendation to Bowdoin), cheerleader and mentor. “He really wanted to see me succeed a lot, which was awesome,” Boutin said.
Boutin is certain the skills she’s acquired working for Jerome — such as collaborating with partners, running a business, and planning and running events — will come in handy no matter what career she goes into.
For Jerome, creating a good working culture is essential. Profits, he believes, will follow. That belief has guided his business in a big way. He said he opened Flip in part to give managers Shawn Russell and Celeste Thibeault, who previously worked for him at Portland Pie and Fat Boy, incentive to stay with Jerome Inc. yet be able to learn and grow.
“It’s great to have locally based business owners that reinvest in the community and put down roots here and put in a commitment to us,” Ankeles said. “We want more of that, so I can’t wait to see what he does next.”