Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in downtown Lewiston is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON – As people woke up to the dangers of a fast-spreading virus last month, Simones’ Hot Dog Stand tried to figure out a way to keep its doors open.

The owners of the famed little Chestnut Street restaurant, Jimmy and Linda Simone, scrambled to offer a takeout menu they hoped would allow them to operate as their traditional business evaporated.

It didn’t work out.

Now the yellow counters are empty, chairs sit atop little tables and nobody peers at the dozens of photographs and mementos on the walls of the 110-year-old institution.

Little handwritten signs on the windows and doors let everyone know the famed hot dog stand won’t reopen for a while — not until after emergency measures aimed at combating COVID-19 cease.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that they are closed and having to go through this difficult time as business owners,” said congressional hopeful Adrienne Bennett of Bangor, one of three Republicans vying for her party’s nomination in a June 9 primary, when she stopped by recently to see the place for herself.

For U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who has campaigned in the restaurant many times over the years, there appears to be something uniquely compelling about what’s happened to it.

Speaking in a teleconference to the National Federation of Independent Business this week, Collins said she’s been telling people about Simones’ often as she pushes to provide federal aid to small business.

Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in downtown Lewiston is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

She said she spoke with the owners after they closed the business.

Linda Simones, who married into the family-run business in 1977, was in tears, the senator said, as she talked about how they had never before had to lay anyone off or faced unemployment themselves.

“For the first time ever, they have had to close their doors,” she said, which is not quite correct. Funerals and holidays have on rare occasions shuttered the hot dog stand briefly.

But there’s never before been a prolonged, enforced closure in well over a century.

“They are so eager to get back to normal,” Collins said, adding that they typified the small business owners she’s spoken with in recent weeks.

Collins’ comments nearly matched the ones she made on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 23, just four days after Simones’ shut down.

On that day, as senators squabbled about a proposed $2 trillion aid package that ultimately passed last week, Collins insisted Congress had to act to “prevent the economic devastation that is being caused by this virus. We don’t have another day. We don’t have another hour. We don’t have another minute to delay acting.”

Then she said she’s talked to businesses “all over my state, small mom and pop businesses like a diner, a third-generation diner operated by the Simones family in Lewiston, Maine.”

“For the first time ever, they have had to close their doors,” Collins told her Senate colleagues. “As Linda Simones told me through tears yesterday, this is the first time ever we have been unemployed. Our son is unemployed. Our friends who have worked with us at this diner for years are unemployed.”

The Simones’ could not be reached this week, but before they closed they said they hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. They hoped they could be back in business by April 6 – the date on the signs in the windows – but under the state’s emergency order, it will be at least another month.

That’s a long time, even for a restaurant with a deep history.

In recent years, it’s received many awards and much acclaim for its hot dogs — though its menu goes well beyond its famed red hots – including People magazine’s 2018 declaration that it is the best hot dog stand in Maine.

It wasn’t always that way, though.

Its origins are a tad murky, but in some way or another, it began operation not long after Greek immigrant James Simones arrived in Lewiston about 1908.

He worked as a spool maker in the Bates Mill, the city’s largest employer for generations, but in the evening he opened a little hot dog stand constructed from wooden soda crates to make some extra cash.

It quickly became a family business, with a little counter inside that had just four stools.

After James Simone died in 1960 at age 75, his sons John and George took over the Chestnut Street stand.

In those midcentury years, the place bustled day and night, with factory workers and late-night partiers stopping by a takeout window until 2 a.m.

The old hot dog stand vanished in 1966 when the restaurant moved next door into a red brick building that could handle twice as many patrons. A parking lot took the place of the old quarters.

George Simone also made it a welcoming spot for politicians looking for a friendly place to glad hand and gather. Their party affiliation didn’t matter.

“He created an institution,” former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe said after George’s death in 2004 at the age of 85. “Everybody who runs for local, county or state offices goes to Simones.”

Jimmy and Linda Simone have been running the place ever since, hanging on to tradition while nudging the menu to keep up its appeal to a changing city.

There’s one thing that’s certain in this uncertain time: when Simones’ can reopen fully, its owners said, it will.

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