Frank Keenan Serves up a Hearty Roadside Menu

Frank Keenan works the grill inside his food truck, Keenan’s Roadside Kitchen.

The pull-out where he’s located, on Route 102, has maybe half a dozen cars and pickups parked there, this lunch hour. Folks pop out of their vehicles and amble up to the truck’s service window to order one or another of Keenan’s specialties, the gumbos and seafood and barbecue he loves to cook and eat himself, the tangy sauces, the deep-fry, the blackened, the hot or not wings, the hearty burgers, the veggie medleys, the Greek-style gyros.

The customers are local residents, fishermen from nearby wharfs, tourists out to sightsee the back roads of Mount Desert  Islands “back side.”

“When the sun comes out, it’s like blossoms on the trees: People pop out from everywhere,” Keenan says.

Doug Johnson, who lives in Orono, stopped by Keenan’s Roadside on a recent weekday afternoon, after dropping off the bum keel from his sailboat at Chummy Rich’s boatyard nearby.

“He’s going to build a new one for me,” Johnson says of the boat repair, as Keenan bustles about inside the truck, cooking up Johnson’s order of one of the  “On Da Go” specialties, seafood gumbo. “I just come down for mostly day sails, do a couple of overnights here and there. I’m kind of new to the whole sailing business.”

Keenan opens the window screen and hands down a takeout bag as Johnson reaches for his wallet.

“Been here long?” Johnson asks him.

“Last year, I was here for most of the summer, until I got tired of the highway,” Keenan responds with a laugh, his voice big and gruff.

A car zips by with a whoosh.

“This year, I’m here early and I hope to stay late,” Keenan continues. “It beats roofing. That’s what I did this winter.”

“It’s easier on your back,” Johnson says.

“Well, it’s not so much the back,” Keenan says. “It’s the shortness of life. You only get so  much time, you know?”

Johnson opens the bag, peers in, and inhales. He looks happy.

“Thanks a lot. I’ll probably be back!” he declares.

“Once you eat that, you will be,” Keenan says.

This is Keenan’s third summer at the pull-out. Here, he’s positioned at the head of Bass Harbor, home to many fishing boats all year long, a terminus of the year-round ferry to Swan’s Island, and a busy working waterfront for boatbuilders and seafood dealers. During the summer, the action swells with numbers of local and visiting sail and powerboats, kayakers, tour boat operators, seafood eateries and general tourist traffic.

On the road at the apex of the harbor, Keenan is nicely visible to comers and goers. This year, he set up at the beginning of May, what with the season’s warm weather and lack of snow. As usual, the locals found him immediately, and the growing number of boaters and tourists are now stopping by. A family of ducks have also benefited from his attention. Already this spring, he’s run out several times to stop traffic for the resident mother duck who crosses her ducklings between the water side and the tree side of the road.

“Usually, at low tide, she’ll bring them up and go across to get underneath one of these trees for cool,” the big guy with a soft heart says. “I may soon have the answer to why the duck crossed the road. Maybe I’ll having a duck-watching website. A duck blog.”

Keenan is a gregarious guy who clearly enjoys a good meal himself. He has a pleasant smile and a mop of curly, graying hair pinned under a ballcap. He’s the kind of guy you can schmooze with at length, a little self-deprecating but plenty confident. His gift for story-telling gets a bit mumbly and  jumbly at times. He likes to talk about his wife, Liz, an artist and a high school teacher, and his son, Casey, a high school student who is also, Keenan says, “a rock and roll star.” Casey played at the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor last year, his band opening for the Pete Kilpatrick Band, which has opened for Dave Matthews.

“And the guy from the band came up to me and said, ‘Hey, is that your kid?’” Keenan says. “I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘That kid has got it.’ I said, ‘Really?’ I had no idea what he was talking about because Casey doesn’t tell us anything. He’s 15, you know? He doesn’t tell us what songs he’s playing, he doesn’t tell us anything.  He gets up onstage and starts playing and he leans into the mic and starts singing and Liz and I are going, ‘We didn’t know he could sing.’ He was unbelievable.”

It was actually the arrival of his son into the world, 15 years ago, that led Keenan and his wife to give up the first restaurant they had at the time, called Keenan’s, which was famous for its Bar-B-Que Baby Back Ribs – which also happen to be on the Keenan’s Roadside menu. Liz had found a steady teaching position at the high school, and Frank wanted to have a more flexible schedule to be around for their growing boy. Plus, he didn’t want to raise their son in a restaurant environment.

“I’ll tell you why,” he says. “I’ll never forget this one. I was prepping and I was watching the World Series on TV. It was the finals. The guy said the coach couldn’t be here today, and it’s too bad because his kid is the starring pitcher. Well, it seems he owns a restaurant and there was a fire and it seems he had to go back and take care of things. And I said to myself right there, ‘I will never put myself in that situation.’”

Keenan grew up in South Amherst, Mass. He used to deliver pizza to students at Hampshire College in the day when the new college had just sprouted from the area’s expansive cow fields. His first job, when he was going to Greenfield Community College, was at the Whately Diner, once listed as a top-10 diner and a draw for various celebrities passing through western Massachusetts.

“It was a 24-hour diner, so you had to do everything at once – get the eggs going and get the steaks going,” he says.

He cooked for a while at a University of Massachusetts fraternity house, “phi kappa a—h—,” as he says.

“I would kill myself to make great food,” he says. “And they’d be playing games, and I’d put the food out and they’d throw it all on the floor. It was something different every day and no respect. And I said, ‘I’m not cooking for you people. You’re a bunch of gorillas.’ Most frats hire a cook. They actually pay you pretty well.”

He and Liz ended up on MDI by accident.

“I didn’t even know where this place was, to be honest with you,” he says. “My wife and I came up here before we got married, on a whim. It wasn’t anything like, ‘Oh, we have to live there.’”

Later on, he was teaching in Springfield, Mass., bought a big boat, and was looking for parts for it in the classified-ads publication Uncle Henry’s. The magazine fell open to the real estate section, where there was an ad to “’own your own general store slash restaurant.’ I was like, ‘Hey, Liz, let’s go check this out.’ We didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know we had actually been here before. We came up and we saw it and it was like, ‘This is a way out of the city.’ I hated Springfield.”

The place they bought was the former Duddy’s restaurant in Bass Harbor. The couple started up Keenan’s from scratch. At first they had trouble getting a foothold in the business.

“We worked backward,” he says. “We started behind. Nobody would come in because it was Duddy’s. In those days it was toward the end of the Wild West period in Tremont.”

Eventually, the restaurant became a local hotspot. Even after they closed, 10 years later, Keenan remained famous ever after for his cooking – especially his ribs, which he continues to serve up at community events such as the Backside Blast on the Tremont town wharf.

Keenan likes to tell stories, and he’s got a way with color. He recalls when someone tried to bust into his restaurant at about 3 o’clock in the morning. The intruder ran into Rufus, the couple’s big Newfoundland mix.

“I hear this commotion and I look down from the stairs and all I see is two feet sticking out from beneath the screen door, and Rufus is going ‘Grrrrr,’” he recalls. “I yell, ‘What’s going on down there? And I hear this whimper, ‘You know me.’ ‘I know you, who?’ ‘Help!’ ‘Yeah, you’ve met my dog.’  It’s like frigging ‘Mayberry R.F.D.,’ Ernest T. Bass from the hills. That’s what this reminded me of, a comedy of fools. I said, ‘You take your pal who’s hiding around the corner and you go scuttle back, ‘cause I’m going to go load my shotgun.’ And Rufus never forgot. After that, I swear to you, when [the guy] would walk by, Rufus would meet him at the edge of the property and walk him all the way around the triangle.”

There are stories about other musicians in his family, about relatives, friends and acquaintances and their connections with headhunters, Tongan war clubs, Hunter Thompson, Buddhism, and the Iron Horse café in Northampton.

A lot of people from western Massachusetts, he says, ended up in Tremont.

“This is very indicative of western Mass.,” he says of the local terrain. “This is like western Mass. with the ocean. Same sort of elevation. It’s very similar. I think that’s part of the draw; it’s the mountains on the ocean thing. You get it all here.”

When the family gave up the restaurant, Keenan took up carpentry, which gave him the flexibility he wanted as a parent. But as his son got older and more independent, Keenan decided to get back into cooking. He looked into a few chef jobs. But it seemed like he wasn’t finding the right fit.

“So I figured the hell with it, I’ll just  do it for myself,” he says. “And this is an easy way to get into it, as far as capital goes. It’s a hell of a lot less than buying a piece of property, and it’s mobile, so if I really want to go set up at the waterfront concerts, I could. And if I don’t want to do this anymore, I could park it and do something else tomorrow. There’s not a big thing with it. And I do love to cook. And I always keep coming back to it. And I’m good at it, I guess.”

He bought the truck from a woman who had set it up for selling sandwiches elsewhere in Maine. Keenan says the owner burned out.

“It can get lonely out here on the road,” he says. “You have to be at peace with your mind, I guess, or half crazy, I don’t know.”

The truck came equipped with a prep station, steam table, and a rudimentary wash-up station. Keenan put in a refrigerator, freezers, a potato fryer, a ventilation hood and, with the help of a friend, a three-way electrical system that gives him the choice of running his equipment from an existing power source, a generator, or two giant windmill batteries that run an inverter.

“I pretty much have a complete commercial kitchen,” he says.

The only thing he doesn’t have is an oven, which some may say is inconvenient for items such as calzones. But he makes nice deep-fried calzones, the same way he used to get them in a little Greek restaurant called Mykonos, in South Amherst.

“Niko and his wife Maria,” he reminisces. “You know that Greek liberation army? She was one of them and she was hiding out in Amherst. There were so many people hiding out in Amherst, because it’s a college town.”

The menu is food that he likes to cook, likes to eat, and is feasible for this particular physical plant. Mainly, he likes Louisiana-style cooking with a variety of sauces – good, hearty food. Everything is made order. There are times when he’s cooking orders for 20 or 30  people in 15 or 20 minutes. He arrives at 11 a.m. and stays for lunch and dinner; there’s a lull at mid-afternoon. He preps, washes, takes orders, breads some items, chops up vegetables for others, and cooks. When the evening is done, he cleans up and goes to the store to prepare for the next day.

“This is kind of unique for a food truck,” he says. “I watch those food network shows in the wintertime. Most of those are very uni-operational. They do one thing or another. What I do here, because of the type of clientele, is as much a possible. It’s a full-service operation. Whereas most of these trucks park in front of an office building and people know what to expect every day, here I have as many poles in the water as possible. So it’s a little different like that.”

Being on the side of a road can get interesting, too.

“You catch all the strange ones that come by, that wouldn’t go to a normal place,” he says. “I had one guy from Alaska show up. He was a 55-year-old rapper. And he started blabbing.  I could hear his music and he comes to the window and he’s talking in rap, and not necessarily elementary-school-friendly. I mean, he was swearing. And I’m waiting for him to give me his order. He starts up rapping. I said, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ You’ve got to manage your people, you’ve got to keep rolling. He gives me his order, and then he goes back to his car and he turns up his music a hundred decibels, and I hear him out there doing his hip-hop. I taught in the inner city, Springfield, Mass., and I used to enjoy that with all the kids; we’d do all the beatboxing. But this I didn’t enjoy. ‘What are you doing?’ I’m cooking away, and all of a sudden, I look over and he’s on my screen. He’s like a bug on my screen. He yells in, ‘Hey man, you know what’s going to happen on Sept. 20?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t, but I know what’s going to happen if you don’t get away from my door.’ And he goes, ‘It’s a comet.  Nobody knows it, but it’s going to come by and that’s going to be it, man, and I’m going to Alaska and I’m going to make it.’ He’s a nut. And they’re out there. So, I’m not mean, and I go, ‘Hey pal, that’s great.’ I said, ‘You know, you might want to pack an extra roll of quarters and some clean socks just in case it’s not the comet you’re expecting.’ It’s amazing what you get on the side of the road, even in Bernard.”

Most customers, of course, are quite rational, and he’s more than happy to accommodate tastes. Recently, he had some customers who he thinks may have been from Pakistan. Two were vegetarians.

“All I had was rice and beans, but I also had a few veggies that I used for stir-fry, so I mixed it up and served it with rice and beans and put some red-hot on it,” he says.

The impromptu dish got a rave review from one of the customers, who said it was the best meal she’d had in these parts.

“I really like hearing that stuff. I put a lot of effort into it,” he says. “I’m never happy unless someone else is happy. I’m the George Costanza of the restaurant business. I love to be loved.”

Good reviews by word-of-mouth have been all he’s needed to pull in a nice crowd of locals, summer residents and tourists; many are regulars. He doesn’t advertise.

“Fishermen talk down at the pier. People talk,” he says. “And that’s the way I want to do it. I don’t want to put in an ad that says I’m the best at anything. I want people to say it.”

It’s nearing the dinner hour, and a local family of three pulls up in their pickup truck.

“I know what they want,” Keenan says, turning back to his work. “That’s my calzone order.”

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Laurie Schreiber

About Laurie Schreiber

Laurie Schreiber has been writing for award-winning newspapers and magazines on the coast of Maine for more than 20 years.