BANGOR, Maine — Mickey Lakeman has eaten many Coffee Pot sandwiches over the years. The Medway resident can’t even begin to count how many times he’s waited outside the green-walled State Street building to place his order and get his lunch from Skip Rist, the man who has made the sandwiches since the 1950s. In warm weather and in cold, he has been there, as have countless others.
“I’ve been going here for 52 years, so I’ve eaten a lot of sandwiches in my time,” said Lakeman. “I remember when Skip changed from using a cigar box to a register for the money because the IRS made him. He’s an institution.”
On Wednesday morning, the long-standing rumors were proved true. Just shy of 80 years, The Coffee Pot, one of the most distinctive and beloved businesses in the history of Bangor, is closing its doors. Whenever the bread runs out Thursday afternoon, the Coffee Pot sandwich is no longer.
“I found out from my daughter and I rushed down 50 miles to get one,” said Lakeman. “I have to have one last Coffee Pot. It’ll never be replaced. It’s the onions. It’s perfect.”
Rist said he kept quiet about the closure for months, despite making the decision earlier in the year. He knew that if he told people, he and his seven employees would be inundated every day until the final closing. The summer months have been tough for him in recent years, and he’ll be having knee surgery soon. It was time to retire.
“I’ve been working since I was 13. I guess it’s time to stop,” said Rist, 72, who stood behind the counter Wednesday in his trademark white apron, greeting friends and patrons as they came forward to make their order and wish him well. “I felt kind of bad about not telling anybody, but I knew we’d be mobbed. We couldn’t make enough of them.”
Rist took over The Coffee Pot from his father, Richard “Grover” Rist, who opened the business in 1930 on Hancock Street. He moved the business to the current location in 1937, the year Skip was born. For the thousands of people who have patiently waited in line for a sandwich, this week’s revelation of its closure is bitter-sweet, but not unexpected. By midmorning Wednesday, phone calls had been made, text messages were sent, and folks from all over eastern Maine began rushing to Bangor to get in line.
As of 1 p.m., there were more than 70 people in line, in 19-degree temperatures. Hundreds had already been in and out. And folks kept coming — each one looking dourer, as the prospects of getting a coveted sandwich looked more dim as time progressed.
“This is all my husband wants for his birthday,” said Laurie Roy, of Old Town, who didn’t make it in time to get a sandwich. “I’ll be back first thing in the morning tomorrow. I’m thinking 7 a.m. I’m going to bundle up.”
“I have to get back to work by 1:45, and I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” said one bystander. “Hopefully my boss will understand. This is history in the making.”
Jerusha Scott, of Union, was in town running errands with her daughter Alexis when she heard the news about the closing. She dropped everything to get to State Street.
“I used to push her in the stroller to get here, when I lived in Bangor,” said Scott. “She’s grown up with them. I’ve grown up with them. I don’t think there are very many people left in Bangor who haven’t.”
Rist has seen generations of patrons come through and has watched the city change over and over again. Through it all, he has stuck with the same recipe: ham or salami, or both, with onions, tomatoes, pickles, green peppers and cheese. Oil and salt. A fresh-baked roll, kaiser or sub. There’s a tuna sandwich, turkey or roast beef, too. That’s it.
No substitutions. No credit cards. In the 1950s, they were 50 cents. Now they’re around $3.50 for a large. It has always tasted the same, and it has always been a treasured part of Bangor’s history. When asked about his secret recipe, Rist points to the sign hanging above the counter, which displays the ingredients.
“What else is there to say? That’s it,” said Rist. “People ask for the recipe, and I just point.”
To estimate how many sandwiches Rist has made in his career is beside the point. The point is, he figured out how to do it, and then he did it — for six decades. Something about that combination of ingredients just worked, as evidenced by its continued popularity.
“It’s automatic. It just feels normal,” said Rist. “The sandwich is good. The lines out the door speak for it.”
“He can take 10 orders and remember them all. He adds it up in his head,” said Mark Toomey, who drove from Holden to get his last sandwich. “Skip has the best memory I’ve ever seen.”
Bob Gilgan was born and raised in Bangor. His family’s business, Frank’s Bakery, has operated on State Street for decades, just a stone’s throw away from The Coffee Pot. When he heard the news this morning, he finished with his morning client at his business, Bella Hair Studio on Main Street, and rushed up the street.
“I used to work at Logan Airport when I lived in Boston, and I used to get pilots coming out of Bangor to bring me one down on the plane,” said Gilgan. “I’ve been eating them since I was born.”
Robin LeBlanc, of Milford, and her 10-year-old son, Brad, were two of the people assembled outside who did not make it inside. They have just one more day to try to get a Coffee Pot, but regardless of the success or failure, both mother and son have many fond memories of their favorite local delicacy.
“My parents live in Florida, and the first thing they do when they come up in the summer is they go get a Coffee Pot,” said LeBlanc. “No one will ever be able to make one like Skip does. It ends with him.”
No one knows what will happen to the iconic building, after The Coffee Pot closes. Rist expects it to be demolished. He’s not donating it to anyone, as rumors have stated. In fact, Rist isn’t sure what he’ll do in his retirement.
“I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ve worked all my life. Maybe I’ll go get a job at Subway,” said Rist, chuckling. “I guess I’ll just take it easy.”