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Restaurant conceived during winter doldrums is catching on


Any ordinary owner of a cement construction company would have been frustrated by 1993's long and icy winter. But not James D. Gouge.

With constructing new buildings and sidewalks rendered impossible by the weather, Mr. Gouge, a 55-year-old New Windsor resident, took advantage of his free time to complete the renovations for a 9-year-old dream: the only sit-down, family-style restaurant in Union Bridge.

"I've been planning this since the day I bought the place," says Mr. Gouge. He paid $54,900 in March 1985 for the property at 9 Main St. where his restaurant now sits, land records show.

"Last winter was a slow winter for construction, for ice and all," he says. "We had to do some work, and so we did this. Once we got started with work, of course, we didn't stop."

Like both its founder and its name, the Union Bridge Family Restaurant is understated. It seats 45, with six booths, four tables, and a four-person lunch counter colored the blue of nearby Little Pike Creek. There is no music because, Mr. Gouge says, when families sit down to a meal, they need to be able to hear one another.

"I figured that the town needed a restaurant," says Mr. Gouge. "We're trying to revitalize the town, and we figured this is a vacantpot which I happen to own."

But at this restaurant, family togetherness is more than just the intended atmosphere; the very existence of the business depends on it.

Mr. Gouge manages the finances. His wife, 51-year-old Nancy, and a daughter, 29-year-old Connie, gave up jobs in the state government and in a larger restaurant, respectively, to do the cooking and run Union Bridge Family day-to-day.

Four of Nancy and Jim Gouge's five other daughters help out by working shifts during busy times such as weekend nights.

Only two of the restaurant's employees -- a waitress and a dishwasher -- lack blood ties to the Gouge clan.

"The whole family is involved," Connie Gouge says.

Mr. Gouge acknowledges that starting up a restaurant wasn't easy, and keeping the place open in Union Bridge -- where restaurants have been known to disappear faster than the clouds of gray dust from the local Lehigh Portland Cement plant -- could prove even harder. Sit-down eateries, most recently Marie's Diner, have closed, and survivors like Original Pizza and E.J. Restaurant have made it by specializing in take-out business.

"They're not really putting a dent in our business because that's not our niche," says 32-year-old Bruce Jones, the owner of E.J.'s, just a few doors down Main Street from Mr. Gouge's restaurant. "We have a liquor license and a bar area, and concentrate on our unique carry-out crab business."

Mayor Perry Jones says restaurants, most recently Marie's Diner, have traditionally failed in the town of 984 people because

residents too often dine up the road in New Windsor or Westminster.

But Mr. Gouge says his establishment has two advantages that will enable it to survive the inevitable early years of losses and eventually turn a profit.

For one, he says, family members make a reliable and inexpensive source of labor. For another, he doesn't have to pay rent because he owns the building.

"There's no doubt about it: We don't plan on making money for a while," Mr. Gouge says. "It's going to take a lot of work, but I like work, and we're already starting to see the same customers coming back."

The emerging group of regulars at the restaurant includes the mayor, who has stopped by just about everyay since it opened May 17. Mayor Jones, who says he likes the place because he can "get breakfast and coffee for two-and-a-half," considers it is every town resident's civic duty to drop by the Gouges' place.

"People have been complaining for years that we don't have a restaurant in town," says Mr. Jones, whose only regret is that so far he has missed the beef liver and onion lunch special. "So now that we have one, people ought to support it."

Mr. Gouge says he hopes Union Bridge residents will respond to what he believes are reasonable prices and hefty portions. Even the restaurant's sandwiches, which are priced in the $3 range, are served on enormous platters piled high with potato chips.

The establishment's most popular item has been fried chicken, which can be ordered with a full dinner (for $4.25) or to go, at 10 pieces for $7.95. And the house specialty, homemade crab cakes prepared according to Mrs. Gouge's own recipe, is also well subscribed.

"With our crab cakes, it's nothing but good crab cakes and just a little bit of filler to hold it together," says Mr. Gouge, careful not to divulge too much of a family secret.

The crab cakes are also the main feature in the restaurant's priciest offering: a seafood platter offered only on weekends. For $15.95, the hungry get oysters, crab cakes, scallops, flounder, steam-fried shrimp, two vegetables and a roll.

If the restaurant keeps selling lots of seafood platters, there may be an expansion, Mr. Gouge says. The owner says one option might be for him to move the offices of his construction company out of the space next door and convert that into a second dining room.

That, at least, would give him something to do next winter.

"I like the work, really enjoy the work," says Mr. Gouge. "I think everyone involved here, which is basically my whole family, enjoys the work."

The Union Bridge Family Restaurant, 9 Main St., opens daily at 6 a.m. weekdays and Saturdays. It closes Mondays and Tuesdays at 2 p.m., Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 9 p.m. It opens at 7 a.m. Sundays and closes when the customers stop coming. Information: 775-0066.

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