PORTLAND, Maine — Though it began with a family pizza recipe, Bill’s Pizza owner John Bradbury knew there were non-culinary factors keeping him in business too.
“The pizza was there, but it was kind of an excuse for people who were trying to secure the deal with” — he checks his phrasing — “whoever they were trying to chat with for the rest of the night,” Bradbury said.
For decades, Bill’s Pizza was the city’s default afterhours meetup spot, the safety net for people hitting it hard in the city’s illustrious Old Port strip of bars, pool halls and dance clubs.
But Bradbury doesn’t witness those kinds of scenes anymore. Mostly, they don’t happen, vanished like so many social interactions over a year living in quarantine.
Soon, just like the social lives of everyone in town, Bill’s Pizza will be shut down.
Famously serving until 2 a.m., the family-owned Bill’s Pizza has been a staple of Portland’s waterfront since 1988, a short walk from many of the city’s prominent bars and shopping zones. The restaurant’s old-school pizza style, part of a no-frills menu that included shakes, sandwiches and fries, had aged into a Portland throwback. Ownership announced on social media that Bill’s Pizza would permanently close Sunday.
The family developed a habit of adapting their pizza ovens to their environments. Bill’s Pizza in Old Orchard switched to an electric oven from a gas-powered one years ago because the beach winds kept blowing out their pilots.
In Portland, they bought ovens that prioritized quickness, halving the number of minutes it took to feed a hungry customer.
“If we couldn’t get a pizza into somebody’s mouth in about 4 minutes late at night after they’ve had beverages, then suddenly one young kid is staring at another young kid’s girlfriend, and then it would all kinda go to the devil,” Bradbury said, adding that the optimal cooking time of 4 minutes and 20 seconds became a running joke among the staff.
That precision mattered. The afterhours clientele was so reliable, Bradbury had it down to a science.
“It could be 1:03 a.m. or as late as 1:10. It depended on the size of the snowbanks outside,” he said.
Caroline Snowe, who worked at Bill’s years ago, said that Bill’s Pizza was the most fun she’s ever had at a job.
“Drunk people were absolutely the driving force behind keeping the late nights busy. It also definitely didn’t hurt that we shared a parking lot with [local bar] Amigos,” said Snowe, who moved to Colorado to work as a veterinary technician. “I made a lot of money there and I’m honestly sad to see it go.”
Drunk people were a big part of Bradbury’s business model, but the coronavirus pandemic hacked away at the others, too. International cruise ships, some of COVID’s first incubators, were canceled or otherwise prohibited from docking in Maine ports. The state’s quarantine restrictions stifled the inflow of out-of-state tourists, and workers in Old Port firms went remote, reducing the number of lunch seekers to vanishingly few.
The late-night crowd made for exciting stories, but the day crowd was where he built connections. “It was regular people — fishermen, people who worked at the stores,” Bradbury said. “You really felt like part of the community.”
It was maddening at times to watch that scene dissolve, but Bradbury understands that the pandemic-related shutdowns were necessary.
“Even though it killed our business, the right thing is to get the world back on track,” Bradbury said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s one of these necessary evils.”
As other Old Port pizza shops became virus hotspots, Bradbury wanted to comply with the state’s guidelines, especially given the clientele’s loosened inhibitions.
“I want the kids to be safe when they’re working there,” Bradbury said.
At the height of the season, Bill’s Pizza employed roughly 25 to 30, many of them young and part-time workers. In the final months, there were four employees keeping the joint running.
Bill’s is a pandemic casualty, but the end might have been coming soon anyway. A gentrifying neighborhood and rising rent costs in the city made for a difficult dynamic.
“Nothing against the city, but it’s extremely expensive to do business in Portland, particularly in the Old Port,” Bradbury said, adding that rent payments cost him $6,000 monthly.
Bill’s Pizza has been in Bradbury’s family for generations. The Maine institution was founded by his uncle in Old Orchard Beach in 1949, using his grandmother’s pizza recipe. The family expanded to the Old Port in 1988, and Bradbury’s cousin, John Bergeron, ran both locations in Portland and Old Orchard Beach for decades. About seven years ago Bergeron decided he had his hands full, and he brought in Bradbury, who knew the drill, to run the Old Port spot.
Bill’s Pizza in downtown Old Orchard Beach will remain open, and Bradbury aspires to reopen his spot in a less costly locale, maybe outside of the city.
But along with the revenue hit, Bradbury also calculates the loss of the connections that Bill’s held in place.
“We miss the relationships,” he said. “There are people that I don’t know how to contact but I know them and I expect to see them, like people traveling from out of state every year.”
Last spring, before restaurants had locked down, two older women came into Bill’s Pizza from Florida, Bradbury recalls. They were sisters, originally from Maine, and one of them was holding a bag under her arm.
“She said, I’m here with my husband and we’re visiting all the places we love.”
Bradbury was confused, and the woman pointed to a paper bag under her arm — “‘My husband’, she said. They both had the coronavirus, and he passed. She and her sister came up from Florida and were taking him to all their favorite places.”
Bradbury didn’t know what to say.
“I told her, I’m glad it’s one of your good memories.”
Like all pizza, it was better when you’d had a few. It was not lost on Bradbury that early morning pizza joints may be more appreciated for their utility than their taste.
“We take our hits,” he said, chuckling. “I hear people say our pizza is only for drunk food, and I’ll tell you, it hurts.” That said, he’s sure the place “sold a couple of crummy slices from a server who was having a bad day or was on their way out.”
The Holy Donut, a popular Maine doughnut chain, signed a lease this week and hopes to open in Bill’s Pizza’s location by July.
Bradbury is excited to see the place evolve, even if it is a little bittersweet.
“It’ll be tough driving by,” he said, “but we’ve had an amazing impact on intown Portland. I can promise you that intown Portland has had an incredible impact on us.”
BDN photojournalist Troy R. Bennett contributed to this report.