'Everybody loved Jerry'

Community remembers a man who left his mark
By Ethan Andrews | Dec 24, 2015
Courtesy of: Gail Savitz Jerry Savitz

Jerry Savitz, a Belfast entrepreneur and businessman who died Dec. 14 at age 74, may have been best-known locally as the owner of Darby's Restaurant. But his list of endeavors was so extensive that in conversations with friends and business associates, accomplishments viewed as major chapters in another person's life were recalled as mere footnotes in his long and varied career — a veal farm in Appleton with 100 calves, for example; a run for state Legislature; jaunts in commercial scallop fishing.

The enterprising son of one of Belfast's chicken processing plant owners went on to start businesses that would begin transforming Belfast's waterfront from a backdrop and poultry industry dumping ground to the hub for marine businesses and tourism it has become.

Savitz was born in Malden, Mass. and graduated from Crosby High School in Belfast. His father, Abraham "Al" Savitz, was one of several owners of Penobscot Poultry Co. and Jerry showed an entrepreneurial streak early. While in college, he saw a market for the hackle feathers from the necks of roosters as adornments for women's hats. He enlisted workers at his father's plant to do the plucking, then sold the feathers for a profit sizable enough to catch Al's attention.

As Jerry Savitz recounted in a 2011 interview with Belfast Community Television, his feather business was taking off as the poultry industry was heading south, literally and figuratively. One day he walked in with a check for the feathers. "My dad looked at the check and said, 'What is that? The last six months?' and I said, no, that was last week. So that was the end of my feather business."

Greg McDaniel, a longtime friend, said, "For a kid whose dad was the big poultry guy, everybody loved Jerry." Given the disparity of wealth in the Broiler Capital, McDaniel said, the fact that Savitz got along with everyone was "just phenomenal.”

In the early 1970s, Savitz launched a series of businesses from a building at the foot of Main Street that later would be home to Weathervane Restaurant. At the time, Belfast historian Jay Davis said, the waterfront was a sort of wasteland.

"There were like three or four boats mooring in the harbor and no place you could get gas,” he said. “There was nothing, and Jerry started a little marina business and did a bunch of little things that started the renaissance of the harbor .... That was a big deal. Jerry was quite literally right in the middle of it."

Savitz' marina eventually gave rise to Belfast Boatyard, a precursor to Front Street Shipyard. The marina was small but it brought boats, and with the boats came opportunities. From the start, one business led to another. Savitz opened an engine repair and a boat carpentry shop. Later he would open a string of businesses with "Mostly" in the name, including "Mostly Fish."

"We had guys at the marina who needed to sell lobsters," said McDaniel, who did carpentry work for a number of Savitz' waterfront businesses. "So we built a tank and then another tank and another. We built a lobster pound there between all of this."

Savitz had his own boat and used it for lobster and scallop fishing. Back on dry land, he had lobster meat and crab picking businesses. He started a small takeout food business that would expand later under the guidance of business partners to a full restaurant.

In 1985, Savitz and his wife Gail bought and restored a local restaurant. They named it Darby's, after the Darby family who owned it from 1910 to 1940. An earlier entrepreneur, George Darby, at one time boasted the only ice cream fountain in Maine. Later, Darby's Ice Cream Parlor became Lunt's Café.

When Jerry and Gail purchased the establishment, Savitz described it as a place with a bad reputation, little octagonal windows and a crooked Budweiser sign.

The Savitzes kept the original walls, tin ceiling and antique bar, which gave the restaurant the feeling of an earlier time.

Darby's Restaurant expanded several times to keep up with demand, first to the second floor, and in 2009 to an adjacent storefront to the south. The latter was the first project to go through the city's in-town design review process under new "mandatory compliance" rules. Today the restaurant stretches across the ground floors of three buildings on High Street.

Savitz played poker on Monday nights and golf on mornings and weekends. Before the start of the business day, he regularly played a round at Northport Golf Club with friends, including David Outerbridge, a writer who regularly penned articles for golf magazines and sometimes brought Savitz along to research the subject.

When they were invited to play at St. Andrews in Scotland, Terry Whitney, director of Northport Golf Club, said the club looked the other way so they could doctor their scores to meet handicap requirement for the Scottish course.

"We OK'd it. We knew what they were doing, just that one year, to get it down so they could play over there," he said.

When Savitz and local businessman Lloyd Wentworth opened a restaurant on Searsport Avenue, Savitz called Whitney over to hit golf balls toward the harbor to test its suitability for a driving range.

That part of the business never took off; like the many ventures Savitz pursued, it wasn't a make-or-break proposition.

"Jerry tried a lot of things. Some panned out some didn't," said Mayor Walter Ash, whom Savitz challenged for a seat in the Maine Legislature in 2002. At the time, Savitz told a local newspaper he would continue bringing his "fleet of Peugeots" to Ash's Eastside Garage, win or lose.

He lost, but he made good on that campaign promise.

"Jerry was a customer of mine before he ran and and he was a customer after," Ash said. "He was just a class act, that's all."

Savitz was instrumental in launching the Belfast Maskers. Though he wasn't an actor and did not have a theater background, he backed the passion of his friends, including Outerbridge and his wife Lilias and a theater veteran named Basil Burwell, who first pitched the idea of setting up shop in a vacant railroad building by the waterfront.

"Basil said to him, this would make a great theater," said Aynne Ames, artistic director for the Maskers from 2004 to 2014. "And so they set off to do it. And they did it for a long, long time."

For 17 years the Maskers held court in the building, which was demolished earlier this year. Ames said Savitz' early insistence on hiring a creative director instead of relying on volunteers elevated the Maskers from a community theater company to an organization that attracted large donors and accomplished actors.

"He understood professionalism," Ames said. "He understood that it makes a difference to be trained in something, that you have to have knowledge and passion in something to make it work."

Savitz would later serve on the board of the Basil Burwell Endowment Fund, which supports local theater today. He also served on boards of the Belfast Co-op and Coastal Mountains Land Trust.

"They keep saying he was an entrepreneur, and he was," Ames said. "But it wasn't just about himself. It was about other people and their ideas. He was enthusiastic."

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