Bangor fixture Miller’s Restaurant to end more than 50 years of feeding a grateful public

Posted March 26, 2010, at 10:08 a.m.

Talk about Miller’s Restaurant in Bangor and you’ll hear about its all-you-can-eat buffet room featuring more than 200 items: roast beef, meatballs, fried fish, corn fritters, curly fries, homemade salads, self-serve soft ice cream, six kinds of pudding, six kinds of Jell-O, cakes and cookies. But when it comes to the actual restaurant business, you have to talk about people, not food. An eatery is only as good as the ambition of its owners, and the amount of vision between Miller’s founder Sonny Miller and his son-successor, John, is enough to fill two or three of those buffet rooms. That moxie-filled vision, renowned among restaurant leaders in Bangor, is about business and food. The perspective, however, is about family.

Both Millers will leave the landmark restaurant, as well as its annex, The Lion, and a downstairs off-track-betting organization, for the last time on Sunday, May 15, when the restaurant will be turned over to its new owner, Penn National, and converted into an interim home for a gaming racino. It’s not necessarily the loss of cuisine that will make Bangor’s Main Street a bit less tasty. It’s the loss of an old-style family business, as much a part of the city’s identity as the Paul Bunyan statue or the Standpipe.

“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. ” Miller’s is an institution. The Red Lion brought fine dining to Bangor. The buffet was its own niche. Sonny has been a great innovator and a great merchandiser. When Miller’s closes, a part of the soul of Bangor will be gone.”

The influx of chain restaurants over the last 10 years at Bangor Mall and in Brewer is only part of the reason independent restaurants such as Miller’s have been noticing a drop-off in patrons. In Miller’s case, the rerouting of traffic from downtown and the relocation of the annual high school basketball tournaments also made Penn National’s offer of $3.8 million appealing.

But for John Miller, who grew up in the heyday of the business in the 1970s and 1980s and saw the impact of long hours and endless responsibility on his family, a more personal story underlies the decision to get a little distance from the place. He loves the restaurant business, he said, but its demands have taken a toll on the Miller clan. In the midst of all that success, his parents were married and divorced twice. John, who took over the business in 1987, also is divorced and has a 7-year-old daughter.

Family was the most compelling reason to accept an out from one of the most taxing of all of the service industries, he said.

“I always said to my father: If I have the option to get out of the business, I want to do it in your lifetime,” said John, who is 40. “Being in a restaurant family, I don’t want to say there’s no normalcy, but there are so many sacrifices I have made. The changes in my personal life got me thinking hard. I understand wishing for something better for your children. I would prefer my daughter become a professional in some other industry. In the restaurant business, you have to give 110 percent. You have to be on 24-7.”

And you have to have the restaurant biz in your blood. Sonny’s grandfather was a Russian immigrant who sold hot dogs in Bangor. His father had a restaurant in Woodland before helping Sonny open Miller’s in 1951. The food industry is nearly genetic in the Miller male lineage. But these days, even Sonny, for all his pride in his marketing acumen and celebrity, said if he had to do it over again, he would not open a restaurant, and he would not employ all six of his children in the place.

“I want John out of here,” said Sonny, who is 78 and still eats lunch at Miller’s every weekday. (He’ll soon take his lunch at home with his second wife, Joanne.) “I want him to sit back and think about things. I got him in, and I can now see him out of here. If he comes back, it’s his choice.”

Despite their candor about the difficulties they have faced in the business and in their personal relationships, both father and son are upbeat and cheerful, readily recalling the good times and still protective of their extended family, known to the rest of the world as the staff at Miller’s. The chef, David Noonan, has worked for the Millers for 37 years. Noonan’s father and mother also worked at the restaurant. Noonan is going to take some time off, said John. Most of the 80 or so employees have been placed in other jobs. Having the Miller name on a resume, one waitress said, is a bonus in the work force.

Best of all, said John, there is reason to believe that more good times lie ahead. John won’t discuss details, but many speculate that he’ll return to the business — and in the same location — when the real estate opens up again in as soon as three years.

In the meantime, the restaurant has been packed every day with diners getting their last shot at the buffet or shaking the hands of the father-son team for the last time. On-site parking has been one of the conveniences at Miller’s, but finding a space in the restaurant’s lot in the last few weeks has been next to impossible. John estimated that on Mother’s Day, the restaurant seated 2,500 diners. Business may be ending, but it also has been busy.

Last week, one couple drove from Readfield, near Augusta, for a farewell lunch.

“We’ve been coming here since the ’70s,” said the woman. “When our children went to school in Orono, they introduced us to the place. Now we come about four times a year. We come just to eat here. It’s sad, isn’t it, that Bangor is losing this place? Where will people in Bangor eat now?”

George Brountas hopes some of them will switch their loyalty to Captain Nick’s, his seafood and family restaurant on Union Street near the airport. He wishes John the best, but laments the diminishing number of independent restaurateurs in the area.

“I hate to see Miller’s close,” said Brountas, who opened Captain Nick’s in 1985. “My business has already picked up a little bit, but everything seems to be out at the mall. I hope we can all survive — even the chains.”

Brountas said he admires the way Sonny and John always put money back into the business, using it to develop new approaches to food or wacky schemes for advertising. Indeed, Sonny and, after him, John built a reputation among their competitors as tireless innovators, whether it be all-male waiters in Bangor’s first fine-dining restaurant, or TV commercials in which a “mini” John skied down a mountain of mashed potatoes or fished from a boat in a sea of soup.

One year, when Sonny concocted a campaign to sell spaghetti — a buck a bucket — Zoidis and other businesspeople in town gathered as many people as they could to order the special. “We went early and kept buying,” said Zoidis. By the time Sonny’s customers arrived, he was out of pasta. It was a practical joke that is telling about a generation of restaurant owners who were also friends.

“After I closed Pilots, Sonny accused me of working the room when I’d go to Miller’s to eat. I’d go around shaking hands and talking to people,” said Zoidis with a chuckle. “We were good, honest competitors. Once at the Chamber of Commerce, a prominent banker saw Sonny and me talking and he said to us, ‘If two bankers were in the corner like this fixing prices, they’d be arrested.’ But we weren’t talking about prices. We were talking about vacations.”

Nearly three years after his own departure from the business, Zoidis has another perspective, too. Since closing Pilots, he has spent his time reading, traveling, exercising and staying for months at a time in Florida.

“I love it,” said Zoidis of retired life. “I didn’t know there was life after work.”

Sonny Miller has been technically retired for nearly 20 years. But for John, still the owner, the closing will be his first substantial separation from his childhood home away from home.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was get out of my father’s shadow,” said John. “But I did it. When people come in here, they identify with me. And then they always ask: How’s your father? They were big shoes to follow. And I hope mine will be good to follow, too. The sale will give me some breathing room. But I’m in Bangor to stay. I plan to give back to the city more than before.”

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