South Portland pizzeria takes chance on cross-town move

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SOUTH PORTLAND — His crew says that David Lengyel, the owner of Willows Pizza on Broadway, rarely stands still.

Which probably explains why, while Lengyel was not actively looking for a new spot for his restaurant, 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 contacted the leasing agency to say he was interested in taking over the space.

The restaurant closed suddenly last week – and Lengyel was ready to jump in.

The plan is to move Willows east from its longtime location at Cash Corner to 740 Broadway on Nov. 1, Lengyel said. Workers are already renovating the space to suit the family-friendly atmosphere that is a Willows Pizza trademark, he said.

Willows will be the third restaurant to seek success at the location. JP Thornton’s Cafe & Deli moved there 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 at its new location.

Lengyel said he plans to expand his staff of about 18 to 30, and hopes to hire many of those who worked at SoPo Bar & Grill.

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

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 wouldn’t elaborate.

Lengyel lives in Cape Elizabeth and two of his four daughters work at Willows. He works about 80 hours a week now, and said he plans to maintain that schedule.

On 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 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 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 of Cape Elizabeth, 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.

Willows Pizza will move to the former SoPo Bar & Grill space in early November.