BANGOR – The man who made every customer feel like family was celebrated Sunday night.
And everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about how Bill Zoidis and his Pilots Grill figured into some of life’s special moments.
Zoidis and the restaurant his family opened near the runway of Bangor Airfield in 1940 is set to close its doors Dec. 31.
Nearly 500 people came to the Bangor Civic Center on Sunday night to share those stories.
The guest list for the event, spearheaded by Bangor businessman Larry Mahaney, included business and civic leaders, elected officials and other dignitaries, family members and, of course, lots of friends.
The event also marked the start of the William P. Zoidis Scholarship, being established at the University of Maine in his honor.
“For a restaurant owner to stand in front of 500 paying guests is paradise,” Zoidis quipped after listening to a long line of speakers during an evening best described as part roast, part tribute.
A Mainer of Albanian descent, Zoidis turned 72 on Saturday. He said he was pleased to see so many of the people he has come to know during his nearly 50 years with the restaurant.
“I knew every person in this room – It was scary,” he said. “That’s what’s nice about the city of Bangor. You’re not only my customers, you’re my friends.”
In addition to his immediate family, Zoidis said, credit for the success of the restaurant needs to be shared with another family: his employees, among them six who have been with Pilots for more than 30 years. “You can’t win a game without good players, and we’ve had good players for 62 years,” he said.
George Gonyar, past president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, presented Zoidis with a full-color Paul Bunyan statue.
“This Chamber presentation tonight is huge for two reasons,” Gonyar said, adding that the Bunyan award was “reserved for huge accomplishments by great people.”
“The huge secret of the Pilots Grill’s success lies at the feet of Bill Zoidis,” he said, “and the secret of success [at] Pilots Grill can be summarized in one word – service.”
Dick Grotton of the Maine Restaurant Association brought congratulations from that organization and its national counterpart. As an indication of its esteem for Zoidis, the state association, which presented Zoidis its Lifetime Achievement Award for 2000, voted in November to name its highest honor after Zoidis, Grotton said.
Political heavy hitters who paid tribute to Zoidis included a future governor, two senators and a congressman-elect. A former governor also was on hand.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe attended the recognition night with her husband, former Gov. John McKernan, and other members of the McKernan family.
“Bangor has been a home away from home for me,” Snowe said, recalling some of the many happy moments she’d had at the restaurant in her husband’s hometown.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins noted that Bangor Daily News columnist Joni Averill said it best when she wrote: “Bangor just won’t be the same when Pilots Grill is no more.”
“You’ve truly made a difference,” Collins said. “Just like it’s hard to think about Bangor without Pilots Grill, it’s impossible to think of Bangor without Bill Zoidis,” she said.
Gov.-elect John Baldacci, who comes from another prominent Bangor restaurant family, recalled some of the visits the Baldacci clan made to Pilots.
“You always made people feel they were a part of the family. … I just really appreciate what you’ve done and [for providing] a foundation for the community.”
Other elected officials who paid tribute were U.S. Rep.-elect Mike Michaud and state Rep. Joseph Perry of Bangor, who presented Zoidis an official expression of legislative sentiment signed by several area elected officials. Bangor Mayor Nichi Farnham presented Zoidis a proclamation in his honor.