Bill Burke is living that fantasy.
Three years ago, the longtime marketing executive got tired of being retired and opened Billy’s Tavern, a brightly lit, 150-seat bar one block off Route 1, in the quaint Down East village of Thomaston, Maine. But for the 70-year-old Burke, his tavern is not a flight of whimsy. “It is a business,” he says. “You have to treat it like that. It can’t be a hobby. I work a lot of hours. But it’s better than sitting around watching television.”
Burke is no stranger to running his own business, though. He owned Burke Advertising in Cincinnati while he was earning a master’s degree in humanities from Xavier in 1982 and later started his own marketing and brand consulting firm in New York.
While he was working all those years, though, Maine ran through his veins. He forged a deep connection to the state back in the 1960s when, as a budding actor, he was cast in an Avco children’s TV special filmed in Boothbay Harbor. The family vacationed there almost every summer thereafter.
So when Burke retired five years ago, he and wife Louise—who was director of career planning at Xavier for more than 20 years—decided to settle there for good. Almost immediately, though, Burke realized he needed something to do. He already knew a lot about the restaurant business from consulting numerous troubled restaurant operations. Combine that with the secret guy fantasy. Why not?
“One of the things I learned not to do is have a landlord,” he says. “So, my son and I bought an old Grange hall and got to work.”
They took advantage of the wealth of skilled craftsmen and woodworkers who build yachts and fishing boats along Maine’s Midcoast. They hired the local talent to craft a bar, tables and other decor. “We wanted to create a place that looked like it had been there forever,” Burke says. “We wanted that cigarette-color stain.”
But dingy it is not. The tavern quickly earned a reputation as a family-friendly hangout for the villagers dotted with toys and games for the kids. It has an Irish theme with Celtic music, fish ’n’ chips, local oysters and, of course, Guinness beer.
“The Irish guys who come in tell us we pour the best Guinness this side of Ireland.”