BANGOR, Maine — Sanford “Sonny” Miller, whose buffet-style restaurant on Main Street became a legendary local meeting place until it closed four years ago, died Thanksgiving night at a local hospital due to complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 82.
The reaction Friday in Greater Bangor to the loss of Miller, an iconic figure in its business community, was one of profound loss. For many of his generation and those who worked for him, Miller epitomized the hardworking entrepreneur, tough, reliable and straightforward as a businessman, but compassionate and quietly philanthropic in responding to those in need.
“On the exterior, he was a businessman,” said Miller’s longtime friend Leonard Minsky, “but on the interior he had a genuine concern for people. That may explain, in part, his success as a restaurateur.”
Minsky, one of an informal group that regularly had lunch with Miller at his restaurant, recalls how, as a vendor of restaurant supplies, he and others gave Miller a boost to get his business going and that Miller never forgot the gesture.
“From a vendor’s point of view, he was very appreciative of those who helped him get started,” said Minsky, whose own contribution included “some free napkin dispensers so he could get the place going.”
Minsky described Miller as an extremely competent businessman, fair and honest: “He met you half way and he expected you to meet him half way.”
In the past year, as Miller battled health issues, Minsky said former Miller employees often asked him about their onetime boss’s health.
“Judging by the amount of his people who have asked more than once” about his condition, Minsky said he saw reflected in their concern the “genuine concern for people” that Miller had exhibited in his relations with his employees.
Arthur Brountas, whose own experience as a downtown businessman and restaurant owner paralleled Miller’s, described him as “a hard worker and a tough businessman” whose entrepreneurial spirit was evident more than half a century ago when the two of them were shining shoes — Brountas on Main Street near Spiro’s Shoe Hospital and Miller on Exchange Street.
They each could make the shining cloth and shoe brush crack, polishing with experience and flair, and when the two would get together “we used to kid each other that we were the two best shoe shiners in Bangor.”
Miller was a determined businessman, said Brountas, but equally committed to helping those in need. “He was much more generous than a lot of people realize,” Brountas said, ticking off a list of community investments that include a scholarship fund at Bangor High School.
Jack Quirk Sr., patriarch of the Quirk family of automobile dealerships, also reflected on how his friend “was very generous to the community, but without making a show of it. He was a big sponsor of the university and was involved with the hospital and a lot of other things in the community.”
Gov. John Baldacci recalled working in the kitchen at Miller’s Restaurant back in the early ’70s.
“I actually worked for him,” he said of Miller. “When Dad and my uncle separated in business [the Baltimore Restaurant], Sonny had offered my father, myself and my brother Paul a job.”
The Baldaccis worked for Miller for a while before opening their own restaurant on Alden Street.
“He was there for us,” the governor said of Miller. “He certainly helped my family out during a very difficult time, and we really appreciated that.”
Baldacci called Miller the dean of the restaurant business and remembered how Miller would check out the competition, driving around town to other restaurants “checking parking lots to see how they were doing. He wanted to know who was getting the lion’s share of the business.”
Miller succeeded by being an innovator, “always trying new things,” Baldacci said, pointing out the salad bar and buffet at Miller’s as examples. “No matter what the challenges in the economy and the restaurant business, he handled them with skill.”
Miller’s Restaurant was a Bangor landmark for 55 years. In 2005, the family, including Miller’s son John, who by then was the owner of the restaurant, sold the restaurant to Penn National Gaming Inc. for $3.8 million.
Miller’s closed on May 15, 2005, and Penn National’s Hollywood Slots moved into the facility, where it remained until last summer when the gaming facility moved across Main Street from Bass Park — not far from one of the Miller family’s earlier restaurant incarnations.
Miller’s was a bustling business until the mid-1990s, according to a 2005 Bangor Daily News story about the restaurant’s final days, when national restaurant chains arrived in Bangor. The number of employees had dropped from a peak of 108 in the ’60s.
The Miller restaurant dynasty had its roots with Miller’s grandfather Max, who sold hot dogs in front of the former Merrill Trust building on State Street in Bangor, Sonny Miller told the BDN in a 2001 story about the buffet’s 50th anniversary. Miller’s father, Meyer, continued the tradition when he started a restaurant in the Washington County town of Baileyville.
That restaurant didn’t last, however, and Meyer Miller returned to Bangor to help start up a Miller’s Luncheonette on Washington Street in 1951. The 24-hour business was located across from the old Union Station.
The investment began with a third mortgage on the family’s home, a $4,000 GI loan and a $500 loan from a relative, according to Sonny Miller, who helped his father, mother and younger brother Robert run the business.
“It was a family affair and that’s what it took,” Miller said in 2001, by which time he had retired. “It took people that were dedicated, and we had everything invested.”
As the business grew in popularity, the Millers moved in 1955 to a site on Main Street across from the Bangor Auditorium. The location made it a popular choice for fans during the annual basketball tournaments.
After a fire destroyed the business in 1962, the Millers moved the restaurant to the Main Street location that had been the site of another popular eatery, Aunt Molly’s restaurant.
Seven years later, Miller opened the Red Lion, an English-style pub complete with an iconic, double-decker bus that could be seen parked along Main Street near the Lion. In 1994, the family added an off-track betting facility.
“An era in Bangor has ended,” said Bill Zoidis, who once owned another Bangor stalwart, Pilots Grill, which opened in 1940 and closed in 2002, at the time of Miller’s closing. “Miller’s is an institution. … Sonny has been a great innovator and a great merchandiser. When Miller’s closes, a part of the soul of Bangor will be gone.”
Sanford Miller was born on Jan. 18, 1927, and grew up on Bangor’s east side, where his many Jewish neighbors started calling him Sonny. He graduated from Bangor High School in 1944 and immediately left for a stint in the U.S. Navy, he said in a 1993 BDN story. He served with the Seabees in the Philippines and left the Navy as a storekeeper in June 1946.
He returned to Bangor, according to the 1993 story, and that fall left for one year to study at the Bentley School of Accounting and Finance, now Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.
He again returned to Bangor to work as a bookkeeper and car salesman at the Hammond Auto Company. Miller also got into the jukebox and pinball machine business before Miller’s Luncheonette opened.
Reflecting on his and Miller’s early years more than half a century ago, Brountas recalls how as a 21-year-old he had assumed responsibility for Peter’s Spa on Main Street after the death of his father.
Miller, meanwhile, was working on the other side of the downtown at his family’s restaurant near the now demolished Union Station.
“I’d close up [12 a.m.] and then go down there and wait until he got out after the midnight rush” often at 2 or 3 a.m., and Brountas said the two would then share the moment.
“We used to ride around in a car and smoke King Edward cigars and dream about what we wanted to do,” Brountas recalled of those early mornings with his friend.
An obituary appears in today’s paper on Page B7. A funeral service will be held at noon Monday, Nov. 30, at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, 144 York St., Bangor.