Cole Farms Restaurant in Gray is closing next month after 68 years in business. John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Cole Farms, the Gray restaurant where friends and neighbors have gathered for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie for the past 68 years, is closing.

Calling it “a tough an emotional decision,” owner Brad Pollard said in a press release that the restaurant’s last day serving customers will be Jan. 13.

The sprawling roadside restaurant at 64 Lewiston Road was founded in 1952 by two brothers. Originally a hamburger and ice cream stand, the 24-by-30-foot building that sprang up in a rocky pasture expanded to seat as many as 300 diners and employed thousands of locals over the years. More recently, Cole Farms underwent extensive renovations as it tried to downsize a bit and change with the times. It now serves brick-oven pizza alongside the classic comfort foods that helped build its reputation – open-faced chicken sandwich, liver and onions and baked haddock – and includes a bakery and pub.

Wil Beriau, a retired chef who taught culinary arts at Southern Maine Community College for 26 years, said Monday he was “shocked” by news of the closing.

“That truly was an institution in Gray,” he said. “To see it go by, it’s just a little nostalgic.”

Cole Farms was the place that locals relied on over the years for inexpensive American food served in generous portions, but it was also an important community gathering place. High school students dropped by for a bite after basketball games. It was a regular stop for police and state troopers.

“Since its opening, Cole Farms has served millions of meals to customers just like you,” Pollard, who declined to be interviewed, wrote in a press release. “You’ve come to Cole Farms to celebrate with family, discuss business with colleagues, and refuel after basketball games, Little League or dances.  …We’ve been part of your ups and downs, that’s what has made this place so special. We’ve also had the privilege of supporting school sports and civic activities, lending help when needed, not only in Gray, but in several neighboring towns. We’re honored that in return you’ve offered your patronage of Cole Farms for more than seven decades.”

But the restaurant and the community it served also struggled through a dark period three decades ago, when one of its co-founders, Warren Cole, was exposed as a child molester. Cole, who was 75 at the time, pleaded guilty in 1992 to two counts of child sexual abuse for molesting a boy in 1987 and was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison. He eventually admitted to abusing more than 20 children. Cole cut all ties to the restaurant, and died in 2004 at age 84.

The restaurant passed into the hands of other family members and soldiered on. One Maine Sunday Telegram reviewer described Cole Farms as a place you could count on, a place that “blended hominess with efficiency.” It followed farm-to-table principles before it was popular, using local eggs and serving only fresh chicken and seafood. Over the years, the restaurant made its own soups, chowders, clam cakes and pies.

From a 2012 restaurant review: “The menu is all about Maine standards, with many nods to the older crowd. Thursday is boiled dinner night, chicken pot pie on Wednesday, and meatloaf and American chop suey are available every night. Add Indian pudding and white rolls with cold butter pats in a basket, and the menu reads like an index of postwar Maine comfort food.”

Pollard noted in his announcement Monday that it’s become “increasingly more difficult” to sustain that recipe for success. When Pollard announced in January that the restaurant was closing for eight weeks to undergo extensive renovations, he told the Lakes Region Weekly that the restaurant’s customer base was changing as elderly patrons die or retire south.

“Kids today don’t gravitate to a place like this like they did years ago,” Pollard said. “Times have changed. If there’s a time to reinvent ourselves, this is it.”

Beriau agreed that Cole Farms, which has 70 employees, is fighting against a generational shift in the restaurant industry, adding that it’s also facing competition from the explosion of restaurants in the region.

“I believe the restaurant industry now is very bold and exciting, and it’s for people in their 20s and 30s and even 40s,” he said. “They want new and exciting flavors. They want boutique restaurants that are very exciting and very avant garde.”

Beriau ate dinner at Cole’s “very nice bar and cocktail lounge” just two weeks ago, when he and his wife went there to watch the New England Patriots battle the Buffalo Bills. He tried the broiled scallops, and said they were good, but noted that the pub-style atmosphere with big-screen TVs could also be found at one of the many craft breweries that have appeared in the Portland area in the past few years. That’s where younger people are hanging out, he said.

“We are nationally acclaimed now, and there are so many fine chefs and cooks in Portland,” Beriau said. “That is part of the reason, I think, that the old traditional restaurants, one by one, are having hard time.”

For his part, Pollard – who worked at his family’s restaurant himself for almost 50 years – still sounds hopeful about the future.

“Cole Farms is a great property with a lot of potential,” he said in his written statement. “Perhaps someone with vision and fresh ideas can transform it into something new that can serve the community for another 68 years.”


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