A restaurant is not an easy business to get started. It can be even more challenging when it comes to sustaining it generation to generation. But all over Connecticut, decades-old restaurants started by a single family member and passed on to younger family members — think the pizza empire of Pepe’s in New Haven or the landmark Carbone’s in Hartford — have survived recessions, picky palates, cultural and demographic changes and a host of other pitfalls. There are others around the state — ranging from high-end dining experiences to more casual mom-and-pop places — that have been passed from one generation to another and haven’t missed a beat. We take a look at a few.
670 Main St. N. (Route 6), Woodbury
When the Charcoal Chef opened in 1956, owners Robert Sanderson and his wife Vee were just looking to set up a simple diner on land the family owned on Route 6, then the main east-west thoroughfare.
The no-nonsense eatery with linoleum floors and chrome furniture focused on a menu of charcoal-grilled meats, hearty menu selections for a generation that was all about “meat and potatoes” dining, perhaps with a mellow Manhattan or highball on the side.
Today, that menu of “comfort food,” including still-charcoal-grilled meats, continues in that kitschy, knotty-pine dining room. But now it is an operation run by the second and third generations of the Sanderson family. Thankfully, not much has changed.
Sanderson’s daughter, Judy Doran, and her daughter, Mikey Wescott, now run Charcoal Chef, and while there have been some changes to the menu, the vibe in the 60-year-old restaurant is a throwback to a simpler time when fast-food chains were in their infancy, going out to a family dinner was a special night, and you always cleaned your plate because, well, food costs money!
“I never had a doubt this is what I would be doing,” says Doran, who stepped in to help her widowed mother, who ran the business for many years after the 1969 death of her husband, and then eventually took over the place after her mother’s death 11 years ago. “When my father was alive, he didn’t want us working here. He said the work was too hard. But we’d be down here as kids washing dishes, doing whatever needed to be done. My mother said the same thing; she said it was hard work and the regulations made it even harder.”
But Doran says she cannot see doing anything else.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that I would end up taking it over,” says Doran. “It was the only thing I knew how to do.”
Appreciating the quaintness of the place and, more importantly, the dedication to the founding philosophy of good food for a fair price, Doran and her daughter have changed what they feel had to be updated, and embraced what has made Charcoal Chef sustain.
“My mother and father would never bring a credit card machine into the place,” says Doran, recalling when the only forms of payment for lunch or dinner was a personal check or cash. “We just had to change that and start accepting credit cards.”
Acknowledging the change in diners’ eating habits over the decades and the trend toward less red meat, Doran also added more salads and fish dishes. A selection of craft beers and a more extensive wine list have also been added to the libation menu.
And then there are the things that haven’t changed.
“It’s actually kind of funny that the classic cocktails like Manhattans and sidecars and those kinds of drinks that were in when my mom and dad opened the place are back in style again,” says Doran, noting that many of their longtime customers swear the place makes the best classic cocktails ever.
“We are a family here and I think that makes a difference,” says Doran, whose staff includes some who have been with the place as long as 45 years.
“And it’s like that with customers,” she adds. “We’ve actually had the best couple of years we’ve had in a while,” she says about solid sales in 2015 and 2016. “We are part of our customers’ lives and they are part of ours. And that you can’t put a price on when it comes to running a successful business.”
Golden Lamb Buttery
499 Wolf Den Road, Brooklyn
As the story goes, married couple Bob and Virginia “Jimmie” Booth toyed with opening a little restaurant on the hill in Brooklyn, a shrewd move designed to accommodate buyers who had traveled hours to their textile business.
And so in 1963, a nearby barn on their 1,000-acre sheep farm was christened Golden Lamb Buttery. Fifty-four years later, the rural elegance of the renowned eatery continues under the direction of the Booths’ granddaughter, Katie Bogert.
“I went to college to study business management, but never imagined at the time that I would take over the restaurant,” says Bogert. She worked as a server at the restaurant when she was younger, but it wasn’t until she was 25 that she took on the restaurant career in earnest.
It was up to her grandfather to decide whether she was the one to succeed him.
“He was running the restaurant alone because my grandmother was in a nursing home and I knew I had big shoes to fill,” says Bogert. “But it needed to be his decision. I didn’t do it out of any allegiance; it just felt good and it worked for me.”
Still considered a premier dining destination, Bogert says she has not messed with much.
“I took on the motto that if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” she says. “I know of too many instances where a new generation takes over the family business and it doesn’t go well. I didn’t want to be one of those who ran a successful family business into the ground.”
The few changes that have been made are a mix of behind-the-scenes operational tweaks and a few that guests might notice. But still intact are the cocktails on a patio overlooking a picture-postcard scene of meadows, hills and ponds, the pre-dinner hayride around the property and the family-style and fixed-price gourmet meal.
Bogert jokes, however, that she had no trouble making a few changes when she took over the business, among them using linen napkins instead of the paper napkins and placemats that had graced tables.
“We still don’t know why my grandmother insisted on paper napkins in what is considered a four-star restaurant,” says Bogert.
Her grandparents also refused to take credit cards for meals, accepting only cash and cashier’s checks for payment. And while copies of some of those checks, many written by celebrity diners including Paul Newman and Alec Baldwin, are proudly displayed on the barn walls, Bogert says she saw too many embarrassed customers who arrived to dine with only a credit card and no cash. And so a credit card machine as well as a computer and accounting software were among her first additions to the place.
And then there is the kitchen.
Her grandmother ruled the kitchen for years, so there never was a trained chef on board.
“I really don’t cook, although I can bake pretty well,” says Bogert. But knowing her limits, she hired a trained dining chef.
And what of the bread?
“My grandmother did not allow bread on the table,” Bogert explains. But when it came time to modify the menu, one of her first changes was to offer artisanal bread made by a Woodstock baker.
Bogert also expanded the number of offered entrées from three to four and added salad as a side dish.
As the crowds continue to drive out to the rural northeast to take advantage of the one-of-a-kind Golden Lamb Buttery experience, Bogert reflects on her future and the future of the restaurant.
“I know there is no way I am going to do this until I am 80 the way my grandfather did,” says Bogert. “But I respect what they made. I’m sure they would be rolling their eyes at some of the changes I made, but at the same time, they would be very happy about the outcome and the fact that their restaurant is still so celebrated and doing so well,” she says. “I hope they would be proud of me.”
Saint’s Restaurant & Catering
1248 Queen St. (Route 10), Southington
Tyler St. Pierre grew up in a family business that was not only about serving food, but also serving tradition to generations of families in the Southington/Plainville area.
His grandmother and grandfather, Joan and the late Donald St. Pierre, started Saint’s nearly 50 years ago as a drive-up hot dog shack that over the years morphed into the family-style, comfort-food restaurant that has become a central Connecticut landmark.
As his grandparents eased out of the business, Tyler’s father and mother, John and Claudia, took over the reins, doing some remodeling, tweaking the menu and continuing the family’s restaurant lineage as Saint’s Restaurant & Catering. As their own family grew up, their then-teenagers pitched in, clearing tables, washing dishes, serving and helping out wherever necessary. It was Tyler who caught the restaurant bug.
After graduating from Cornell University, St. Pierre took his restaurant management degree and built an impressive résumé that included working at Mario Batali’s prestigious Del Posto in New York City. But the pull of the family business in Connecticut kept nagging him.
“I learned a lot from Mario Batali, and I knew there was a lot of potential in our family’s restaurant,” explains St. Pierre. “After I graduated I was exposed to a lot of different markets and it gave me a vision for what we could do with our place,” he says. “And I had learned that you have to keep things fresh, change with the times, and saw me getting back into the family business as a kind of passing the baton on to a new generation.”
As director of operations and development at Saint’s, St. Pierre admits he had to earn the trust of his parents, as his suggested changes were sometimes met with pushback.
“I wanted it to be more than a chili dog-and-milkshake kind of place,” says the 27-year-old. “The conversations about change were delicate, and I understood what the restaurant was to people, but I also wanted to retain that and move it forward.”
After some aesthetic sprucing up, St. Pierre turned his attention to the mainly comfort-food menu. While signature dishes such as the famous chili dogs, broasted chicken, macaroni and cheese and spaghetti remain on the menu, St. Pierre added a large variety of salads and specials that reflect a more sophisticated palate and nudges more creativity in the kitchen.
Among the new choices are sweet chili with barbecue sauce made from dried pineapple, mango, shredded carrots and lime vinaigrette, cranberry chicken with fresh cranberry and balsamic sauce served with fresh roasted vegetables, and an autumn pot pie with fresh roasted squash.
Still working side by side with his mother and father, St. Pierre also addressed the benefits of social media, tapping his brother to boost the restaurant’s visibility through sites including Facebook and Instagram.
“There is a lot of competition when it comes to where you eat along Route 10,” says St. Pierre. “I want us to not only continue to offer the comfort food that has brought generations to our restaurant, but also update the menu and the way we advertise so that we attract younger people and a new generation, as well.”
While his parents and grandparents have been supportive of the changes as Saint’s takes on a new taste and vibe, it is his late grandfather St. Pierre wishes were still around to see the success the business is enjoying as it approaches its 50th anniversary.
“I think my grandpa would say I was crazy introducing these changes, but I think he would be proud that I grew into this business and knew I had to be here,” says St. Pierre. “I think he would be proud that I continued his legacy. I know I am.”
1593 Farmington Ave., Farmington
Ann Howard, a culinary star, with her husband, Joe, owns and operates the Bond Ballroom in Hartford and the well-known Apricots restaurant, a picturesque eatery tucked along the banks of the Farmington River.
Once considered a “special occasion” dining destination, the place has slowly morphed as a new generation became involved, now best known for its outdoor seasonal bar and riverside dining and a bit more laid-back vibe.
Their son, Joe Howard III, is behind many of the changes, changes he knew had to be done if the business was to thrive.
“I think we were kind of coasting on our own success for a long time,” said the 60-year-old. “We had a great location, we were an upscale restaurant with a dress code, we featured a menu that was gourmet and we had a clientele between the ages of 35 to 60 who came back again and again.”
But time takes its toll.
“Now those same customers are 65 and beyond and they are older and have passed on or moved to Florida,” Howard says. “Life happens and your base gets smaller and smaller and it was time to reinvent the restaurant,” he says. “And I think we fell behind on that.”
Howard has spent the last 15 years gradually changing the aura of the restaurant and making it more appealing to a younger crowd.
“We changed pricing and product and loosened up the dress code to reflect the more casual dining experience diners want today,” says Howard. “We know our location along the river is a draw, but overgrown shrubs were blocking the view of the river and it all needed to be groomed. My father fought me tooth and nail on that. He loved those shrubs and didn’t want them removed, but I explained that one of the best things about the restaurant is the view, so why would we want it blocked?”
Micro-brew beers, boutique liquors, as well as beer-tasting and bourbon-tasting events were added to the restaurant offerings, as were wine-paired dinners. Specialty drinks were also added; however, the restaurant’s long-standing free happy hour food on the piano unceremoniously ended.
“We were getting too many people who were buying a soda and then eating the free food,” says Howard.
Happy hour has a new look with a special menu that is served inside and outside, and the tavern menu, once only available in the pub area, is now offered in all dining rooms.
Howard quickly recognized the value of the outdoor-dining option and replaced a seasonal tent with a permanent one, adding decorations, expanding the bar and repositioning the seating area so diners and the cocktail crowd could linger over the river view. And on weekends during the warm-weather season, there is acoustic music outside, another addition to attract a new crowd.
“It’s people who are just out of college, renting an apartment, no responsibilities, those are the ones you want to draw in,” says Howard. “Those are the people we also want as customers and you have to have a reason to get them accustomed to coming to your place.”
Howard, who doesn’t see his own children joining the business, says he is pretty much the decision maker now when it comes to the family business, but that he does bounce ideas off his parents.
“I think they’re proud of what I’ve done although they don’t tell me,” he says. “But I just know.”