AUBURN — Michael Violette had worked at the same local restaurant for about 16 years, starting at age 16. He’d played hockey since he was a kid, through high school, and then in a men’s league as an adult.

The city’s new ice rink was looking for someone to run a concession stand.

He knew food. He knew hockey. He took the shot.

Upper Level Pizza & Grille opened in the Norway Savings Bank Arena just over a year ago.

Almost everyone who works in a restaurant says they’d like to open their own place one day, Violette said. He was no different.

“I think this is a good fit,” he said. “If you opened your average restaurant on Center Street, you have to attract people there. I already have people in the building, I just have to provide them with good service and quality food and keep them here.”

Violette, 36, grew up in Auburn and graduated from Edward Little High School in 2000. He said he’s always enjoyed the customer service aspect of restaurant work.

“Being able to get to know people, talk to people, the fast pace,” he said.

When he decided to go for it on his own, Violette submitted a bid to the city to run the arena’s only concession space. He’s got a six-season lease.

The name was an easy choice — he’s on the second floor, feet from prime ice viewing.

From December to February, Upper Level’s busy season, he sees a lot of the same faces every day.

This time of year, weekends can be nonstop, until as late as 10 p.m. He has between four and five employees. A recent 16-hour day was so busy, “we never even stepped out into the lobby,” Violette said.

On weekdays, he’s open from 4 to at least 8 p.m., depending on games and ice times. His weekend mornings start at 6 a.m. prepping dough for popular breakfast pizzas.

“If I don’t stretch them and get them risen right away, I can’t cook them for 7 a.m.,” Violette said. “Primarily in the morning it’s breakfast sandwiches, breakfast pizza and a whole lot of coffee for early-morning parents.”

Lunch starts around 10 a.m. — children have been on the ice since dawn and they’re hungry.

His best sellers are chicken fingers and hand-cut fries. Violette goes through 400 to 500 pounds of potatoes a week during his busy season.

“We try to do as much fresh as we can,” he said.

He also tries to forecast each day to cook ahead of demand. If younger kids are playing, they’ll have parents, often siblings. Older teens might drive themselves or get dropped off. Game days will bring out parents, grandparents and friends.

The stand serves pizzas, Italians, burgers, popcorn, hot dogs, pretzels and a host of drinks.

“If you rushed from work and were planning on grabbing dinner here and I’m not here, you probably won’t take that chance next time, that’s why it’s seven days a week (in the winter),” Violette said. “People kind of rely on me to be here.”

The payoff for seven-day workweeks from September to March: A light schedule the rest of the year that has him able to spend lots of time with his children ages 6 and 8.

His 6-year-old daughter plays in one of the hockey leagues, so in-season, he’ll duck out and watch her.

“I go down and play men’s league and pickup games a couple times a week when I close,” he said. “I enjoyed my other job, it was a little scary leaving, but it’s definitely been rewarding.”

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Michael Violette checks on a pizza at the Upper Level Pizza & Grille in the Norway Savings Bank Arena. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

Michael Violette displays one of his pizzas in the kitchen of the Upper Level Pizza & Grille in the Norway Savings Bank Arena. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)

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