So, you want to run an inn-restaurant?

Competition: The former Maryland couple who won a Maine inn through an essay contest nine years ago plan to pass it on the same way.

Destination : The Northeast

March 03, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

Dreams run their course, too, especially when they involve such long working hours.

So the former Maryland couple who made the national media rounds nine years ago when they won a Maine inn through a contest have decided to call it quits. They're giving away the 11-room Center Lovell Inn and restaurant as they got it -- in an essay competition.

After more than 20 years in the restaurant business, Janice Cox says she and her husband, Richard, need a break.

"It's not so much the inn, it's being in the restaurant business so long," says Janice, former manager of the now-defunct Busch's Chesapeake Inn, a 300-seat restaurant near Annapolis. "It takes up all your time. You just don't have any time for yourself. The upside is the people are so great."

The Coxes, who moved to southwestern Maine from Stevensville in June 1993, were a hit with folks local and beyond, as they won accolades for their hospitality and their improvements to the inn's food service.

Richard, formerly a chef at Loews Annapolis Hotel, transformed the inn menu from homey to gourmet, and together they sank about $400,000 into repairs and renovations.

Janice says they put most of the money they made back into the business, but still came out ahead after nine years. Last fall, they started seriously considering moving on.

"I want to do it while I'm still happy" running the business, says Janice, who handled much of the inn management while Richard ran the restaurant, which seats nearly 70 people when the screened-in porch is open for the summer.

Their combined skills made them a fine inn-management team. It was an extended family operation, as Janice's mother and father moved up from Maryland's Eastern Shore to help out. Her father, Earle Sage, who died last spring, acted as house maintenance engineer. Her mother, Harriet, served as restaurant hostess and helped with interior decorating.

The inn has been open seven days a week from May through October, on weekends in the winter and closed in March and April. In the busy season, the Coxes would typically be in the kitchen to prepare breakfast by around 7 a.m., have some slack time in late morning and early afternoon, then be back to work on dinner preparation, service and cleanup between 3 p.m. and midnight.

In a story published by The Sun in 2000 after a visit to the inn late in October, the Coxes were not complaining, but one could hear weariness slipping into the conversation.

"It's like you never shut down, and that kind of wears on you," Richard said at the time. "I kind of wish we could leave, lock the door and go to our house."

They'll be able to do that soon. Where they'll be going and what they'll be doing is not clear, says Janice. For now, she says they're planning to stay in the Northeast and not return to Maryland. Richard grew up in Baltimore, Janice is from upstate New York.

The essay contest run by former Center Lovell Inn owners Bil and Susie Mosca became part of a trend in the midst of the depressed New England real estate market of the early 1990s. The phenomenon made news around the country as owners tried to unload general stores, restaurants, homes, bars, even a miniature golf course.

The Moscas held copyrights to the essays and have not allowed publication. They could not be reached for this article.

The real estate market is in better shape now than in the early 1990s, Janice says, but she and Richard want someone to take over the inn as they did.

"It was a dream of ours," she says. "Perhaps someone else can do it, too."

Whoever wins will apparently have a leg up on the Coxes when they started. The couple took over a property built around 1805 that needed work. They have since repaired the roof, replaced the heating system, insulation and windows, shored up a shifting foundation and re-sided most of the main house. The rooms have been redecorated. Work is now being done on the barn next door, which is believed to be a few years older than the main house.

The inn property includes the main house with six guest rooms and innkeeper's quarters on the top floor, and a smaller house next door with five guest rooms.

The grand white house with the dormered mansard roof, wraparound porch and cupola stands close to Route 5, rolling north toward Maine's little section of the White Mountain National Forest. From the front porch there's a nice view of the mountains in New Hampshire, where the sun sets. A stand of trees hides the view of Kezar Lake a short distance away down a grassy slope.

The contest fee has gone up $25 in nine years to $125, but otherwise the rules are much the same. The fee can only be refunded if fewer than 10,000 entries are received, although the Coxes reserve the right to accept fewer than 10,000.

The contest winner will be judged on the basis of an essay of no more than 250 words saying why the contestant wants to run the inn. The winning essay, according to the rules, will be "judged on the basis of originality, thought and desire to run a country inn."

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