Restaurant serves up food, comfort during Lewiston manhunt

By Gabriella Borter

LEWISTON, Maine (Reuters) - At Best Thai II in coastal Maine, the phone has been ringing off the hook.

Since a gunman killed 18 people this week, shocking residents and sparking a sweeping manhunt for the suspect, an eerie silence has descended on this stretch of southeastern Maine.

Grocery stores, gas stations, hardware shops and schools have closed. Streets have often been devoid of traffic, except for patrolling police cars. Few people are out and about.

But at Best Thai II - one of the only restaurants open this week - business has been bustling since owner Pongsakorn Hanjitsuwan opened his doors hours after the shootings.

"Obviously we're scared. We're just like any other human out there," said Hanjitsuwan, whose family has owned the restaurant in the town of Bath for more than a decade. "But people have got to eat, and we've got to make a living, so we kind of have to just push through."

Hanjitsuwan opened his restaurant after weighing the risk with staff. Located next to the police station, Hanjitsuwan figured staff and customers were probably in a safe spot. Besides, he said, Bath was a 30-minute drive from the epicenter of the manhunt for Robert Card, 40, the suspect in the fatal shootings at a local bowling alley and bar.

For regulars, the restaurant has been a comfort; a place not only to find food but to mix with others sharing the shock and grief that has descended on the region.

"This place is like home to us, and I was gratified to see that they were open," said Maria, a 78-year-old Bath resident and former restaurant industry worker who declined to give her last name. She stopped in for a pad thai lunch with a friend on Friday.

Since Thursday, business has been "nonstop" between walk-in diners and calls for pick-up, Hanjitsuwan said. He and his staff worked late into the night to serve every customer - the regulars, but also travelers and news crews from all over the country who came to chronicle the latest American gun violence tragedy.

Maine authorities said they were lifting stay-at-home orders on Friday evening, although a local cellphone alert warned residents to "remain vigilant" and said businesses had the option to open or remain closed.

Some have begun to venture out.

Toni Martin, 50, waited 45 minutes in line at McDonald's in Auburn, Maine, when it opened on Friday, desperate to buy coffee and a meal after she and her husband had "picked at whatever was in the house" to eat on Thursday.

The wait at McDonald's reminded her of the pandemic, Martin said, when people rushed to stock up on food because so many stores were closing.

"It was almost like an urgency, like it was their last meal," she said.

In Auburn, the town adjacent to Lewiston, the checkout line at Roy's Foodland wrapped around the store all through Thursday. The family-owned store, opened 48 years ago, was the only option as all the big chains were shuttered.

By Friday, the shelves were nearly bare. Still, the crowds kept coming.

"My store looks like it's been ransacked," said owner Michael Roy, who was greeting customers by name.

One woman asked him if he had bread. He promised a delivery would be coming in once his bakery supplier reopened.

Roy, like his Auburn neighbors, said he was shocked and reeling from the mass shooting. He said opening Roy's Foodland on Thursday was a matter-of-fact decision.

"I could either twiddle my thumbs or I could do something to help people and open," he said. "People thanked me all day long."

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Paul Thomasch and Rod Nickel)