His crew says that David Lengyel, the owner of Willows Pizza in South Portland, rarely stands still, so while he was not actively looking for a new space for his eatery, he did have his eyes and ears open.

When he heard there was a likelihood that the SoPo Bar & Grill near Mill Creek would be closing its doors, he immediately contacted the leasing agency, saying he was interested in taking over the space. The restaurant closed suddenly last week – and Lengyel was all ready to jump on board.

The plan is to move Willows from its longtime location at Cash Corner to the former SoPo Bar & Grill site at 740 Broadway on Nov. 1, Lengyel told the Current. Work crews are already working to renovate the space to suit the family-friendly atmosphere that is a Willows Pizza trademark, he said.

Willows Pizza will be the third restaurant to seek success at that location. JP Thornton’s Cafe & Deli moved to the site in 2012 and closed less than two years later. That’s when the SoPo Bar & Grill opened and it, too, only lasted a couple years.

The SoPo Bar & Grill space is three times the size of Willows, and Lengyel plans to also expand his menu of mostly Italian fare, including pizza, pasta and subs, to include items that were popular on the menu at the SoPo Bar & Grill, including hamburgers and steak. Willows, which now serves beer and wine, will also make use of the full bar in place at its new site. Lengyel plans to expand his staff of about 18 to 30 and hopes to hire many of those who worked at SoPo Bar & Grill.

“All this happened in less than a month,” Lengyel said this week.

Lengyel owns the building that now houses Willows, which is located at 1422 Broadway, and plans to lease it out while simultaneously paying rent for the SoPo Bar & Grill space, which is 4,307 square feet in size.

Also located at the strip mall at 740 Broadway – built on a site where the long-closed Newick’s restaurant was located – are a Supercuts hair salon, an AT&T Wireless store and a Tropical Smoothie Cafe, among several other local businesses.

According to the real estate listing, the site sees a traffic count of more than 14,500 vehicles per day. It’s also directly across from Easy Day, a popular restaurant and bowling alley.

Lengyel said he’s confident that Willows won’t suffer the same fate of the previous restaurants. For one, he said, the restaurant has been a staple in South Portland for the past 27 years.

Secondly, Lengyel said, “I believe I understand why they failed.”

Although he would not elaborate, Lengyel said he didn’t think the competition from Easy Day was necessarily the overriding factor in the failure of the prior restaurants.

Lengyel lives in Cape Elizabeth and two of his four daughters work at Willows. He works about 80 hours a week now, and plans to maintain that schedule, saying he would be on site at the new restaurant some part of every day.

Willows is now open seven days a week, although it’s only open 3-9 p.m. on Sunday. Lengyel plans to keep that same schedule, but said the restaurant may stay open later the other days of the week.

On Friday, Oct. 7, when word began circulating around town that Willows was taking over the SoPo Bar & Grill site, Lengyel said, just about every customer who came in that evening was asking about his plans.

“Friday night is our busiest night and everyone who came in knew. The word traveled quickly,” he said, adding that “social media really works.” Lengyel said both his customers and crew are excited for the changes to come.

The plan is to be ready to go in the new space on Nov. 1.

“Halloween is one of the busiest days of the year,” Lengyel said. “We do a lot of takeout and will make that our last night” at Cash Corner.

Mayor Tom Blake developed a passion for the chef’s salad at Willows when he worked as a firefighter and emergency medical technician at the Cash Corner fire station years ago.

“I think this is great. I’m very pleased,” Blake said. He said Willows is one of the top restaurants in the city, particularly for takeout, and noted “the place is always swamped.”

Blake said that moving to Mill Creek was a smart move because about 75 percent of South Portland’s population lives on the east end of town.

“I also like that the mini-mall there is being maximized,” he said.

He called Willows “a great community business” and said that Lengyel is always willing to sponsor events in the city, including school fundraisers and more.

Jane Eberle, president of the South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber of Commerce, said she was pleased with the plans, as well.

“Owner Dave Lengyel and Willows have been generous, enthusiastic, steadfast supporters of the city of South Portland and the schools over all their years in business. The only drawback to visiting Willows, though it doesn’t keep customers away, is its location,” Eberle said.

“It’s not easy to get in and out, (but) the new site is perfect for them, providing ample, easy parking, a central location and allowing them to become part of the re-energizing of ‘downtown’ South Portland.”

Dave Lengyel, owner of Willows Pizza in South Portland, prepares pizza dough for later use in the kitchen of his Cash Corner restaurant.

A sign on the side of the Willows Pizza restaurant in South Portland asks whether customers have heard the news about the popular eatery’s upcoming move to Mill Creek.

Willows Pizza will move to the now vacant SoPo Bar & Grill location in early November. The new space is three times the size of the Willows restaurant now located in Cash Corner.


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