CAMDEN — Buying a building in Camden during the pandemic gave the owners of Wolfpeach time to build their vision of the year-round restaurant they plan to open later this year.

Wolfpeach is inspired by the a la carte menus and casual elegance of the old-school chop houses of New York, Chicago and Montreal, according to Gabriela Acero and co-owner Derek Richard.  The new restaurant will reframe that classic menu with less steak and more local seafood and seasonal produce — “the bounty of what coastal Maine has to offer” — while holding true to the focus on the “main ingredient shining on the plate,” Acero said.

The concept is simple good food and beverages that highlight the ingredients we have access to, while honoring the seasonality, she said. Wines, beers, ciders and a handful of cocktails will be domestic and locally sourced from New England and Maine.

Along with food and beverage is the hospitality, which Acero sees as translating how she would treat a friend invited to her home for dinner to a restaurant they hope will become a community hub. That can mean “you remember people’s name, their birthday, you remember what they got last time, or save one last bottle of something they liked for them,” she said.

Acero and Richard met in Oxford, Maine. She is from Maine and was returning after a decade in fine dining restaurants in New York City. He had moved to Portland to work as a chef at The Honey Paw restaurant, and stayed. In Oxford, both brought their backgrounds in fine dining to the newly launched Oxbow Beer Garden. Then the pandemic hit the restaurant industry hard and “we were trying to figure out what to do,” Acero said.

“Watching what was going on with restaurants put into relief some problems that have existed in restaurants for a long time,” she said. Both were tired of working for other people and felt things could be done differently and better. They knew they wanted to live in the Midcoast, and began looking for a location for a home or a business or both.

Buying the Elm Street property and former home of the Drouthy Bear pub in September 2020, fit perfectly with their idea of creating a restaurant that would be open year-round, with the added benefit of being able to live in the apartment upstairs. Owning the building, without having to rely on investors, also meant they could renovate the building themselves, and open Wolfpeach as a no-tipping restaurant where they pay staff a living wage. They also plan to cover the cost of employee health insurance and come up with ways to balance the seasonal swing in earnings that tipping can bring.

When they bought the property there were no vaccines and lots of unknowns. Acero was nervous about opening and hiring staff, having just gone through this themselves. They did not want to put staff in dangerous situations or hire and then have to let staff go, she said. There was a lot of discussion about how to move forward and they decided to wait on opening the restaurant, and to wait to launch Wolfpeach’s menu as well.

In the interim, the couple launched Dickie Steels’ BBQ on Saturdays and Sundays in April, and then added Monday pizza nights. The barbeque comes from Richard’s background in Austin, Texas, and they bought a custom-fabricated smoker he will continue to use when the restaurant opens. The pizza comes from Richard’s joy in baking bread, Acero said, which led to his role in opening Oxbow Beer Garden, where they met.

As vaccines rolled out, the couple fixed up the backyard behind Wolfpeach and put out picnic tables, which are first-come, first-serve seating. While Acero was worried about the backyard’s uneven ground and a less-than-perfect fence, they found people loved it.

“I feel like we’re friends with all our regulars,” Acero said. “How lucky are we that we get to hang out with our friends, eat delicious food and sit around a fire.”

Although the no-tipping policy also extends to the contact-less online ordering system now in place for barbeque and pizza, customers were leaving cash tips. Acero and Richard decided to collect the ‘tip’ money on a two-month cycle and donate it to nonprofits. The first two months they raised over $1,000 for Maine Inside Out in Portland, which works with incarcerated youth, Acero said. The willingness of customers to do this and participate, especially during a period when she and Richard do not have the capacity to donate money or time, is amazing, she said. “We’re honored to be part of this.”

When asked why Wolfpeach, Acero spoke about 16th century Europe, when tomatoes were first brought there from the Americas. They were related to plants in the nightshade family, such as belladonna, and believed to be poisonous, but were also labeled as the devil’s fruit and associated with witchcraft at a time when “the witch hunts in Germany made Salem look like nothing,” Acero said.

“We still live in a world where fear of the other and the unknown is an immensely powerful thing, with COVID as an example,” she said. Looking back at the tomato’s history, she sees, that “not only could all of those people not have been killed, but everyone could have calmed down and enjoyed something delicious.”

With some caveats, and hope for promised pandemic funding to come, Acero and Richard hope to open Wolfpeach in November.

Dickie Steels’ BBQ and pizza will continue through September. For menus and details on how to order take-out barbeque and pre-order pizza, see the website www.wolfpeachmaine.com.