LOWELL - Its been more than four years since Ray Robinson stepped foot inside the downtown Lowell eatery that bears his name.
But during a recent visit, many of the regular customers got up from their tables to greet the 86-year-old Robinson, who opened Ray Robinson's Sandwich Shoppe on the corner of Central and Jackson streets in the fall of 1968. Robinson, who now calls Winston-Salem, N.C., home, was a breakfast and lunchtime fixture in downtown Lowell for more than two decades, manning the grill, pouring coffee and trying to satisfy the busy lunchtime crowd, who piled into "Ray's" as it was simply called, on a daily basis. Their motto, which still appears on the back of every menu, reads, "You'll remember the quality long after the price is forgotten."
In 1988, Ray sold the business that he founded with his wife, Doris, to his son, David, who has maintained the diner's excellent reputation for homemade dinners and soups, as well as the usual diner fare, all sprinkled with liberal amounts of friendly discussion the news of the day.
"David has actually had the restaurant longer than I did," quipped Robinson, who has been back in New England since June. Doris Robinson, who partnered with her husband and was known for all those delicious home-cooked dinners, passed away on Jan. 24 after a long and arduous battle with Alzheimer's disease. A memorial service was held in her honor on June 23 at the Grace Bible Church in Dracut, where the Robinsons attended until their move to North Carolina in 2004.
"It has been such a tremendous blessing to be back in the area," Ray reflected. "The outpouring of love and affection everywhere I go is something that I will never forget. Of course, I still wish she was here with me."
Ray and Doris Robinson would have celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary on July 12. The couple is originally from the Leominster area, where they met, married and had three children. In 1965, while Ray was working for the Cushman Baking Company, the Robinsons moved to Dracut.
Q: What made you decide to leave the Leominster area and move your family to Dracut?
A: "I was a district supervisor for Cushman's, one of the largest retail bakeries in New England. So in order to get the maximum in terms of accounts, I had to expand. I had to be situated strategically somewhere near Lowell where there was easy access to Route 3, the Lowell Connector, (Interstate) 495, Route 2 and Route 93. I found a lovely home in Dracut on the corner of Hildreth Street and Old Road. I loved it there.
"Meanwhile Cushman's was showing signs of going under and it was time to look for something else. Besides, I believe that I was working too many hours and the kids -- my youngest, Joanne, was a teenager at the time -- I believe the kids suffered somewhat because I was gone so much."
Q: What led you to buy a restaurant in the middle of a fairly large city?
A: "I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do and I saw an ad in the paper announcing the sale of Liggett's Rexall Drugstore and it had a lunch counter and I said 'Let's go for it.' Now, the owners tried to talk me into keeping it as a drug store but that meant that I had to hire a licensed pharmacist to be on hand at all times. I said there is no way I was going to do that. I just wanted open early -- around 6 a.m. -- and serve breakfast and lunch."
Q: What was the big draw that kept customers coming back, even until today?
A: "No doubt is was the homemade meals and the homemade soups that Doris would make. We had two different specials every day. A homemade special and a homemade soup. Of course we had plenty of other things too; breakfast, omelets, muffins, lunch sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, BLT sandwiches. But it was the specials. And Doris would pile it on. I'd look at the plate of food she was brining out to the customer and I'd say, 'Doris, you're going to put us in the poor house.' She'd just say, 'Raymond, they have to eat. This is why they keep coming back because they know that we don't scrimp.' And of course, she was right."
Q: How would you describe the clientele that comes into Ray's?
A: "It's a cross-section of the city. It really is. Still to this day. We've had TV news personalities, bank presidents, lawyers and judges. Sen. John Kerry loved our soups. Former Gov. Ed King has been in. Even Tricia Nixon Cox came in. She was pregnant at the time and just before she came in with some other people, the door opened and the Secret Service walked through to check the place out. All the workers from the mills behind the store would come in. And just the common person walking downtown looking for a bite to eat.
"My best customer was (the late Realtor) Kenny Harkins because he never came in alone. He always had three or four people with him and they'd come back with three or four people."
Q: Losing your wife has been extremely hard on you. What advice would you give to someone who is caring for a family member suffering from Alzheimer's disease?
A: "The best way I can answer that is to quote from the Bible. Collosians 3:19 says 'Husbands love your wives and be not bitter against them.' I was with Doris night and day until the last month when she went into hospice. A person who is living with a husband or wife with Alzheimer's has to realize that even though they might no longer remember you or know who you are, you still know them. I stayed right by her side, as tough as it was sometimes, until the Lord came and took her home. She would have done the same for me if the shoe was on the other foot, and so much more."