The Maine attraction Essay and $100 give couple an inn in New England


Center Lovell, Maine -- For openers, the hot-water faucet in the inn kitchen snapped off in Janice Cox's hand. Also the front door knob. And her husband, Richard, was struck by a number of falling objects: fluorescent tubes rotted at the ends and frying pans shaken free of undersized hooks.

But then, as Mr. Cox says: "What do you want for $100?"

Even considering a few bad mattresses, frayed linens and some kitchen appliances built in the Eisenhower years, you'd have to say the former Maryland Eastern Shore couple got a bargain. As the nation learned through network news programs, newspaper and magazine stories, the Coxes paid $100 and submitted a winning essay to become the new owners of the Center Lovell Inn & Restaurant, a 200-year-old, 11-room manse in western Maine.

It's been three months since the Coxes welcomed their first guests and served their first gourmet meals on the screened porch where diners can watch the sun set over the White Mountains and hear loons cry flutelike on Kezar Lake. Little by little, the Coxes are getting the place in shape and adjusting to their new life, a change so swift it might have been sparked by lightning.

In four weeks the Coxes moved from wage-earners to entrepreneurs, from the Maryland suburbs to moose country, from the dream to the reality of running a New England inn.

"Sometimes I can't believe that we're here," says Mr. Cox, a former chef at Loews Annapolis Hotel. "I mean, just to pack up and move like that."

Ms. Cox, former manager of Busch's Chesapeake Inn, a 300-seat restaurant in Annapolis, says, "I've never had any second thoughts."

There's been little time for that. By the time the winners were announced, the inn had already opened under the previous owners, Bil and Susie Mosca. The Coxes could not close the place and take their time moving and setting up.

It went this quickly: On May 16, Ms. Cox got a telephone call from Mr. Mosca telling her that a panel of judges had selected the Cox essay from 25 finalists picked by the Moscas from 5,000 entrees. She called Mr. Cox, who was in Canada for a cooking seminar.

"I thought she was just playing games," says Mr. Cox. "It was incredible. I cut my stay a little short, came to Boston to meet her."

From there they drove to Maine on May 18 to look at the inn for the first time. On June 7 they moved. On the evening of June 11 they served their first meals to 38 people, about half the capacity of the dining room and porch.

"How we did it I'll never know," says Mr. Cox, who started working in restaurants as a boy in Little Italy and later studied cooking formally in Canada.

"I think it was sheer persistence," says Ms. Cox, a gregarious woman who could pass for Bette Midler's sister. "I think if we were going to have a breakdown it would have been those first few days."

That's when they had about 72 hours to file business forms with the Internal Revenue Service in Lewiston, get a liquor license in Augusta, have menus written and printed, stock shelves and refrigerators with food and drink and figure out how all the equipment worked. Or didn't work. All without knowing one end of Maine from another.

"It was really intense," says Mr. Cox.

Mr. Cox, who looks like a cross between Sean Penn and Robert De Niro, talks a lot about intensity and passion, and how you

have to love

this business or not bother. The day starts at about 7 a.m. with breakfast preparations and usually doesn't end until around midnight, with a few slack hours in the middle. Sometimes they catch a midday nap.

"Fatigue is a major factor once in a while," says Mr. Cox, who is 25. "You can't let the guests see it."

If a sample of diners' opinions on two nights is any measure, the guests like what they see and taste.

"I'm sorry Maryland lost such a wonderful chef," says Donna Mutrie, who with her husband, Paul, owns a store and restaurant about 10 miles south in Fryeburg. "We're very pleased."

"This was excellent," says Robert Hanger, who spends his summers by a lake in East Waterford, about 40 minutes away. He had ordered the coquille St. Jacques, a baked dish of scallops in cream sauce with mushrooms and Swiss cheese.

The innkeepers' work days are a bit longer than they anticipated, but as veterans of the restaurant trade the Coxes are accustomed to long hours and bursts of frenetic work. They say they've not had any nasty surprises about the innkeeping life.

They plan to remain open year-round, closing in March and April and four days at Christmas. They are setting aside March and April, known in these parts as "mud season," to scrape and paint the outside of the white, three-story inn. They have already replaced bad mattresses and old linens and bought some new kitchen equipment and furnishings for guest rooms. The Coxes say they've probably invested about $10,000 so far.

The couple works with a staff of two servers and one housekeeper, and Ms. Cox's parents, Earle and Harriett Sage, moved up from St. Michaels to lend a hand. Mr. Sage, a retired engineer and home builder, does household repairs. Ms. Sage works as hostess and interior decorator.

"We figured we'd come help out," says Mr. Sage, "This was a chance for the kids to get what they wanted."

Married in 1991, the Coxes, who moved to Maine from Stevensville, have talked for years about running their own restaurant or inn. No one could have anticipated the path they would follow to their ambition.

It started with the Phil Donahue show. Mr. Cox's cousin had seen the program in February featuring the story of the Moscas' essay contest. She told Ms. Cox about it, and the couple began work on the essay.

The first good omen came when Ms. Cox won a Pick-Three Maryland lottery prize of $400. She used $100 of it to enter the contest. As part of the contest, Mr. Cox says he and his wife gave up rights to the essay to the Moscas, and the 250-word essay is to be published in the October issue of Yankee magazine. The Coxes say they cannot talk about what they wrote.

The Moscas, who ran the inn for 19 years, made their goal of $500,000 on the contest and returned 2,000 entries. Published reports say the Moscas bought the place in 1974 for $39,500 and spent $200,000 on renovations.

Their success in a depressed New England real estate market has unleashed a wave of contests. Asking for an essay, a jingle or a joke and fees ranging from $75 to $350, property owners in New Hampshire and Maine have been trying to unload restaurants, general stores, a waterfront home, a karaoke bar and miniature golf course.

The phenomenon recently appeared in Maryland, as Dorothy W. Munro of Easton announced she's trying to give away her 15-room Victorian mansion through a $100-per-entry essay contest. She's hoping to raise between $400,000 and $450,000.

The Coxes are using conventional methods to sell their home in Stevensville. Ms. Cox, who grew up in upstate New York, says she misses her friends in Maryland. Mr. Cox misses his family. xTC Otherwise, they don't look back.

Says Ms. Cox, "I get up in the morning and I look out the door and I see those mountains and I say, 'This is good.' "

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