HOULTON, Maine — It’s an Aroostook County haven for lovers of theatrical artistry, fantastical tales and imaginative marvels.
And much like Harry Potter’s secret passageway to the Hogwarts Express off Platform 9 ¾, it is a portal to magical worlds for spirited sleuths, adventurous gamers and those who just want to have fun.
The sometimes quirky Shire Ale House and Shiretown Gaming Center in Houlton’s downtown offers cribbage tournaments, Pokemon, Dungeons & Dragons meet-ups, murder mystery cosplay dinners and the largest steak in town.
The ale house and gaming center are among the many small businesses that after the COVID-19 pandemic have packed the downtown with interesting and sometimes offbeat enterprises. Roxanne Bruce, who co-owns the business with her husband, Patrick Bruce, has taken the lead in bringing people to the downtown area through the town’s Renaissance Committee.
For those really ready for a seemingly insurmountable feat, there’s the $150, 8.5 pounds of food meal, fondly called the Doomster Fire Challenge. Those brave enough to try must clean their plate within an hour. For those who just can’t eat that last bite, their name goes on the Wall of Pain. Success equals 50 percent off the meat-packed sandwich along with a custom mug and T-shirt.
Some have climbed the Doomster Fire mountain, but so far all have failed, Roxanne Bruce said, laughing.
The Bruces started their company in 2021 after their oldest son, Patrick III, 17, said he wanted to open a gaming shop for his senior project.
“He said, ‘I’ll run it, I’ll learn it,” she said.
In January 2022 they opened a game shop downtown. Initially, they worked with Uncontained Food to provide meals for the gamers. But the food company went out of business and they no longer had food available. That was a problem because they were open until 10 p.m., she said.
So they started looking for a space for the gaming center and a restaurant.
Patrick Bruce is a military trained chef and Roxanne Bruce worked in theater and did theater lighting for stars like Robin Williams. She continued her education and now has a doctorate in business with a focus on small agricultural businesses.
When the building that now houses the ale house and game center became available, a friend purchased it and the couple is leasing it to own. They currently use about 3,000 square feet of the space, including the restaurant, gaming center and three other businesses in the space.
The third Saturday of every month, the Shire Ale House offers a murder mystery dinner for adults, plus two, kid-friendly murder mystery dinners each year. One on Harry Potter’s birthday and another for Christmas.
The murder mystery dinner is a three-course meal: Appetizers, main course and dessert. A pirate murder mystery dinner, Blood and Rum, is slated for Saturday, Sept. 23. Everyone who signs up for the murder mystery dinner calls or registers online in advance. They are assigned a role and are given initial clues.
Most participants dress up for their characters and the ale house has props available. For Saturday’s dinner, there are currently six spaces left.
The ale house meals are mostly locally sourced and the Bruces try to work with local farm ingredients, especially produce and fruit.
“We would love to work with more farms,” Roxanne Bruce said.
She also does her own foraging for the restaurant’s forager’s special. Whatever she has been able to find is put on the menu, like chanterelle mushrooms, she said.
The menu that includes Druid’s Soup, Wizard Kabobs, the Werewolf, El Diablo, the Barbarian’s Rage, the Snitch and Butcher’s Revenge is allergy-friendly and they will try to accommodate patron needs.
Roxanne holds a small business training each month at the restaurant with the goal of having local business owners meet each other and learn how to do bookkeeping, accounts payable, and how to work with other small businesses.
“We could all be doing so much more if we were all working together,” she said.
The Bruces are also bringing ComicCon to Houlton — April 5, 6, 7, 2024 — the three days leading up to the eclipse, at the Houlton Airport.
“We will have speakers, booths, vendors,” Roxanne Bruce said. “Hopefully we will have the information up on the website by October.”