Vermont Business Magazine For generations, diner-loving foodies have flocked to the Blue Benn in southwestern Vermont, where they can sit at the counter worn by countless patrons, sip a bottomless cup of coffee and banter with the waitresses. Even today, despite a change in ownership, the Blue Benn remains a city haunt, prized almost as much for free-flowing conversation as it is for appetizing food.
Now a lavishly illustrated new book captures the essence of this Bennington landmark. Sonny’s Blue Benn: Feeding the Soul of a Vermont Town documents the history of this legendary restaurant and the family that created it. But the book also celebrates the restaurant’s status as a community meeting place, a place that over the years has given townspeople a chance to bond with their neighbors, regardless of side of the political divide or economy where they were.
Sonny Monroe was a short-lived chef with big ambitions. A born culinary talent, he dreamed of running his own restaurant where he could create recipes that would challenge his skills and spark his imagination. In 1974 Sonny and his wife Mary Lou acquired a small restaurant known as Blue Benn. It was a ramshackle dive of a place, best known for its cheap eats, but it was also an original Silk City restaurant, one of less than 500 ever built. It wasn’t long before Sonny’s eclectic, inspired menu was winning over the crowds, making Little Hole in the Wall one of Vermont’s most famous restaurants.
The story of Blue Benn’s is told here by the people who made the restaurant an iconic Vermont institution: the family that built the business, the regulars who ate there and the staff who served them. They are cooks and truck drivers, artists and teachers, doctors and lawyers, lumberjacks and carpenters, to name a few. They serve up homemade, funny, and often poignant tales of life in Benn, and in doing so, offer a slice of small-town Vermont life.
THE HISTORY PROJECT: WHO WE ARE
The team behind Sonny’s Blue Benn is writer Caitlin Randall and photographer and book designer Peter Crabtree. Together they run The Story Project, a writing and design service that creates books of all kinds for individuals, families and institutions.
Previous works include Giovanna Buetti: A Life, a portrait of an Italian-American woman who narrowly escaped World War II on the last ship to leave Italy for the United States. Current projects include Pat Barr: Notes of a Life, a tribute to the late Vermont attorney, who was a prominent peace and breast cancer activist.
Caitlin has worked as a correspondent for Reuters and Dow Jones News Service in New York, London and Madrid and has taught journalism and documentary writing at Roehampton and Middlesex universities in London.
It was published in The Wall Street Journal, The Wilson Quarterly, Environmental Finance Magazine, Newsday, The Financial Times, The Miami Herald, Art & Antiques Magazine and Narratively.com, among other publications.
After a career as a reporter and editor in Vermont, during which he freelanced for The New York Times and other metropolitan dailies, Peter devoted himself full-time to photography. His work has been widely exhibited and appeared in literary and artistic journals, including tin house and Sculptureas well as an academic journal, Quarterly visual communications.
Q: How did you Sonny’s Blue Benn: Feeding the Soul of a Vermont Town to arrive?
A: The Story Project was approached by a long-time patron of Blue Benn who wanted to pay tribute to former owners, Sonny and Mary Lou Monroe. Shortly after Blue Benn was sold to its current owner, John Getchell, we launched the project. It was a good time to look at the history of the restaurant.
Q: Do you know of any other books like yours?
A: Most diner books tend to be investigative, briefly touching on the history of a large number of establishments. We know of no other book that delves so deeply into the history of a single restaurant. Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks by Andrew Hurley helped with historical research, The big good place by Ray Oldenburg and Studs Terkel’s Work, although not specifically about diners, they inspired the writing of the book.
Q: How did you decide who to interview? It was a process of whittling down a long list. At the top was the Monroe family and as many staff members, past and present, as possible. We chose other interviewees based on who those people remembered as devoted regulars. The interviews took place during the pandemic, which presented a range of challenges both in convincing people to participate and in setting up a safe interview space.
Q: In addition to photographs by Peter Crabtree from The Story Project, the book features a wealth of visual material. Where does all this come from?
A: Over the years, Mary Lou Monroe and her daughter Lisa have collected Blue Benn memorabilia. They gave us access to old menus, artwork and snapshots found in the book. Others, like restaurant aficionado Larry Cultrera and former journalist Rob Woolmington, have generously loaned us archival photos. And several interviewees, including client Jim Woodward, provided their own photos.
Q: From your perspective, what is the most compelling aspect of the book?
A: Certainly the photos and memories included in the book are heartwarming and evoke wonderful memories for those who know and love the Blue Benn. If the book is a tribute to a man and a family, it is also a tribute to a community. In these divided times, it is especially heartwarming to read about a place where townspeople of all types and political persuasions could come together and be neighbors, friends and fellow citizens.
The Story Project, North Bennington