SOUTH PORTLAND – Twenty-five years ago Nicoletta and Brian Johnson opened Simple Simon’s restaurant on the western end of U.S. Route 1 in South Portland, and through all the trials, tribulations and tough times they’ve never once regretted the decision.

Both had jobs in the corporate world before they chucked them for the freedom and joy of owning their own business. The couple decided on the location for their restaurant based on the fact that there were a number of hotels and motels nearby, but no breakfast place.

In the past 25 years, Nicoletta Johnson said the menu has changed somewhat, with people eating healthier than they used to, but the No. 1 item on the menu is still the French toast breakfast with home fries. The Johnsons have nine employees and can seat 48 people in their dining room.

The official anniversary was Nov. 15. On that day the couple threw a “huge party,” according to Nicoletta Johnson, who said 110 family, friends, customers and former employees turned out to help them celebrate.

She said the success of Simple Simon’s comes down to a couple golden rules. The Johnsons greet every customer by name and remember their preferences.

“We are very friendly, keep the restaurant very clean and are just a real neighborhood cafe?,” Nicoletta Johnson said.

The couple lives in South Portland now, but when they first came to Maine the Johnsons lived in Gorham. They have three children and two grandchildren and have no plans to retire. In fact the Johnsons haven’t taken a single vacation in the past four years.

Nicoletta Johnson said what she most enjoys about running the cafe?, where she and her husband are always on hand, is the people. She remembers being told, “you’re not going to make it” when she and Brian first announced their plans to open a restaurant.

But, Johnson said, “If you work hard and put your mind to it, you can be successful.” She said the 25th anniversary celebration was a “really emotional” day and said without the support of their loyal customers she and her husband would never have made it.

Brian Johnson said that “to survive for 25 years is a real satisfaction” and Nicoletta added, “It’s our loyal customers that give us the strength to go on. If you take care of your customers, they will take care of you.”

In addition to running the restaurant, Brian Johnson is also an accomplished musician, who plays solo gigs, as well as working with others, including a six-piece band. He mostly sings and plays guitar.

In her off hours, Nicoletta Johnson spends as much time with her grandchildren as possible. She also loves it when they come to the restaurant, which her granddaughter calls “Yaya’s place.”

Johnson was born in Greece and is originally from Kalamata. She moved to the United States because she couldn’t find a good job at home, and her sister had already emigrated to Massachusetts.

After meeting Brian and getting married the couple moved to Maine because Nicoletta said it was “a good place to bring up kids.”

The Johnsons are well known for supporting the community, and they regularly assist the police and fire departments, the local schools and churches. The couple is also very generous when someone they know is facing a hard road.

But, Nicoletta Johnson said, “We don’t talk about what we do because it would lose its meaning. We do what we do to help others, not ourselves.”

When asked how they came up with the name of Simple Simon’s, Brian Johnson said, “We had a dozen names we were toying around with and I kept stressing the point of ‘let’s keep it simple.’ We also wanted to specialize in soups, salads and sandwiches for lunch, and so we wanted the letter “S” involved.”

Overall, Brian Johnson said he knew that while there would be bumps in the road, “We never considered not making it.” And Nicoletta said, “We are most thankful for the support we’ve gotten, which gives us the opportunity to keep the doors open.”

She added, “We love our customers, and they love us back. We’ve met a lot of good people through the years and (running the restaurant) has been one of the best experiences.”

Nicoletta and Brian Johnson, owners of Simple Simon’s restaurant in South Portland, pose with a photo of the day they first opened the restaurant 25 years ago. Simple Simon’s in South Portland recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. 

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