ARUNDEL — In the narrow kitchen of Ashley’s Restaurant, spices are lined up next to the grill. Stacks of plates and coffee cups sit washed and ready. A shelf on the wall behind the counter is lined with antique coffee pots.

Ashley’s restaurant on Route 11 in Arundel will be auctioned off Monday. “The location is just unbelievable,” says its owner Bob Sweeney, who retired last year.

But it’s been a year and a half since Bob Sweeney stood in front of his grill, frying eggs and bacon for customers who packed the hole-in-the-wall restaurant that sits along a busy stretch of Route 111. After nearly 25 years as Ashley’s and more than 100 years as a restaurant, the building will be auctioned Monday.

Sweeney, 70, who retired last year after struggling with two torn rotator cuffs and PTSD from serving in the Vietnam War, hopes whoever buys the building continues to run it as a restaurant. Last week, he stood in the 28-seat dining room and reminisced about Ashley’s as prospective buyers toured the property, which includes a cottage and studio building.

“The location is just unbelievable,” he said. “There’s quite a history with it.”

Sweeney and his business partner Margaret Jamieson, who are both from Boston, bought the restaurant 25 years ago. The business brought Sweeney, already an experienced restaurant owner, to a state he grew to love after returning from Vietnam.

Sweeney grew up in a triple-decker in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, the second oldest of five children. After his mother died when he was 10, he was sent to a boys’ home during the week while his siblings went elsewhere. They would visit their father on the weekends. A neighbor, Ashley Perry, saw the emotional goodbyes at the end of the weekends, and he and his wife stepped in to help out so Sweeney’s family could be reunited. Perry brought Sweeney camping and his wife taught him how to bake blueberry muffins.

Years later, after Sweeney left the Army and lived for two years at his camp in Aroostook County, he returned to Boston and opened three restaurants. They were all named Ashley’s. When Sweeney opened the first Ashley’s, a doughnut shop, 40 years ago, it was in a rough section of Dorchester where crime was common. He carried a gun in his sport coat and one time fired shots as he chased away a robber, he said.

Bob Sweeney sits at a booth in his restaurant on June 27. The business brought Sweeney to a state he grew to love.

After Sweeney and Jamieson bought the building in Arundel in December 1993, they couldn’t wait to make a few changes. It was bitterly cold when they painted the outside, she said. Sweeney raised a POW flag outside and often wrote patriotic messages on the sign at the edge of the driveway. Inside, they hung curtains, filled the restaurant with antiques and got to work serving customers.

Jamieson, an outgoing people person who waited tables, would turn the radio to an oldies station, crank the volume and sing along. She used the pay phone out front to call in to a local radio station and win contests by identifying songs, much to the begrudging amusement of regulars who never got the chance to win. She threw parties every Christmas that packed the dining room.

“We’d eat and sing and dance until the state troopers were circling,” she said.

Sweeney, who describes himself as “a PTSD type of person,” mostly stayed tucked away in the kitchen, flipping eggs and baking muffins for customers whose orders he knew without being told. A sign reading “good food, good friends, good times” hung over the door to his kitchen. Over the years, customers would bring him antique coffee pots similar to ones he used to brew coffee when the power was out but the restaurant stayed open.

“It was the kind of atmosphere you just can’t find nowadays,” said Barbara Mulford, Sweeney’s partner who waitressed at Ashley’s. “Customers would say to me it was the most unique restaurant they’d ever been in. It always smelled delicious and had an upbeat atmosphere.”

Many of the regulars were in their 80s and 90s and would share old stories about the building. They’d talk about the open-air stage in the parking lot where a cowboy used to play. The divots in the ceiling reminded them of the years it was used as a pool room and bar. The locals knew that the “Upper Deck” dining area was originally a cabin that was dragged down the road some 40 years ago and tacked onto the end of the restaurant.

Bob Sweeney’s business partner, Margaret Jamieson, said Ashley’s “was like a club in the morning. … I felt like I was hosting a party every day.”

Before stores popped up along Route 111, the building was the only place to stop between Biddeford and Sanford for food and supplies.

“You could get a hatchet, cigarettes and breakfast,” Jamieson said.

During Sweeney’s years operating Ashley’s, it became known as the restaurant with homemade comfort food – including home fries made with potatoes he bought directly from Aroostook County farmers. People tried for years to get Sweeney to share his recipe for homemade hash, but he wouldn’t give it up.

“It was like a club in the morning. We had a lot of crazy times here. This place would be packed with lines out the door. People would wait for hours,” Jamieson said. “I felt like I was hosting a party every day.”

There’s a little sadness about selling the restaurant, Jamieson said, but she thinks it will be freeing for Sweeney.

“That’s life,” she said. “We all have to move on.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian

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