Longtime owner Jim Williams is putting Wild Willy's Burgers, a landmark York restaurant, up for sale. Since opening 17 years ago, three other Wild Willy's Burgers have opened in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Credit: Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Jim Williams said he has truly enjoyed holding forth to residents and visitors alike at his popular Route 1 eatery Wild Willy’s Burgers. But after 17 years, he’s decided to hang up his spatula and enjoy his retirement.

And if he thought for one moment that decision would go unnoticed by his loyal customers awaiting the typical March opening, that certainly wasn’t the case.

“I can’t tell you how amazing it has been. I’ve gotten probably 200 texts and phone calls. It’s just the coolest, most heartwarming thing,” said Williams. “I always wanted to create a local business, owned locally, hire locally, and it’s been a really fun ride.”

Williams said last year he and his wife Meredith — also a fixture at the restaurant — “decided we aren’t getting any younger. We’re both in our mid-70s. Our son wanted to move on. So we thought, ‘Let’s sell at the peak, not at the bottom.’”

But it crystallized for him this spring when the couple had to make a decision about whether to open for one last season. That’s when his wife developed significant medical issues and the decision in many ways was made for them.

“We normally open on March 1. My son said, ’Dad, you have to do something. People are wondering whether you’re dead,” he said with a laugh.

He looks back very fondly on his years in York, saying he’s truly enjoyed all of his customers. “I always stood at the end of the counter. I can’t remember a name for 28 seconds, but I know a face from 20 years ago. People would come in and say, ‘You’re still standing!’ I loved being in that business.”

Over the years, he gave other restaurateurs the right to use the name Wild Willy’s Burgers, and there are now other independently owned eateries in Rochester, New Hampshire and Watertown and Worcester, Massachusetts. But it all began in York, in a building that, before he took over, had never made a success lasting more than a year or two.

Not only was the restaurant known for its hand-patted burgers and hand-cut fries, it had a distinctive décor as well. The Alaskan wall murals were painted by local artist Scott Thomas for a former owner and Williams hired Thomas to expand them and keep them in pristine condition.

Williams said he’s selling the building and land himself, and is not using a broker. But he’s not too worried about finding a buyer. “By the amount of interest I’m getting, it should sell. I walk in there and it looks like it’s ready to open tomorrow. Whoever buys it can do whatever they want with it. But the intrinsic value is in Wild Willy’s.”

He said one thing he can say for certain: “I’m not selling to an absentee owner. I want people who are going to be there.”

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