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 down by countless customers, sip on a bottomless cup of coffee, and wisecrack with the waitresses. Even today, despite a change of ownership, the Blue Benn remains a town haunt, prized almost as much for the free-flowing conversations as the mouth-watering food.
Now a richly 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 diner and the family that created it. But the book also celebrates the diner’s status as a community hangout, a place that over the years gave townspeople a chance to forge connections with their neighbors no matter what side of the political or economic divide they found themselves.
Sonny Monroe was a short-order chef with big ambitions. A natural-born culinary talent, he dreamed of running his own restaurant where he could create recipes that challenged his skills and sparked his imagination. In 1974, Sonny and his wife Mary Lou acquired a scrappy diner known as the Blue Benn. It was a run-down dive of a place, best known for cheap eats, but it was also an original Silk City diner, one of fewer than 500 ever made. It wasn’t long before Sonny’s eclectic and inspired menu seduced the crowds, making the tiny hole-in-the-wall one of the most famous eateries in Vermont.
The Blue Benn’s story is told here by the people that made the diner an iconic Vermont institution: the family that built the business, the regulars who ate there and the staff that served them. They are cooks and road crew, artists and teachers, doctors and lawyers, loggers and woodworkers, to name a few. They serve up home-spun, funny and often poignant accounts of life at the Benn and, in doing so, offer a slice of life in small-town Vermont.
THE STORY PROJECT: WHO WE ARE
The team behind Sonny’s Blue Benn is the writer Caitlin Randall and the 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 From A Life, a tribute to the late Vermont attorney, who was a prominent peace and breast cancer activist.
Caitlin has worked as a staff correspondent for Reuters and Dow Jones News Service in New York, London and Madrid and has taught journalism and nonfiction writing at Roehampton and Middlesex Universities in London.
She has been 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 time he freelanced for The New York Times and other metropolitan dailies, Peter turned full-time to photography. His work has been exhibited widely and appeared in literary and art magazines, including Tin House and Sculpture, as well as an academic journal, Visual Communications Quarterly.
Q: How did Sonny’s Blue Benn: Feeding the Soul of a Vermont Town come about?
A: The Story Project was approached by a long-time patron of the Blue Benn who wanted to commission a tribute to the former owners, Sonny and Mary Lou Monroe. It wasn’t long after the Blue Benn was sold to its current owner, John Getchell, that we kicked off the project. It felt like a good moment to look at the diner’s history.
Q: Do you know of any other books like yours?
A: Most books about diners are typically surveys, touching briefly on the histories of a large number of establishments. We know of no other book that delves so deeply into the history of a single diner. Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks by Andrew Hurley helped with the historical research, The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg and Studs Terkel’s Working, while not specifically about diners, were inspirational in writing the book.
Q: How did you decide who to interview? That was a process of narrowing down a long list. At the top was the Monroe family and as many of the staff, past and present, as possible. We chose other interviewees on the basis of who those folks remembered as dedicated regulars. The interviews took place during the pandemic, which presented a whole slew of problems in both convincing people to participate and setting up a safe interview space.
Q: In addition to photographs by The Story Project’s Peter Crabtree, the book features a wealth of visual material. Where did it all come from?
A: Over the years, Mary Lou Monroe and her daughter Lisa have collected Blue Benn memorabilia. They gave us access to the old menus, art work and snapshots found in the book. Others, like diner aficionado Larry Cultrera and former reporter Rob Woolmington, generously lent us archival photos. And several interview subjects, including customer Jim Woodward, contributed photos of their own.
Q: From your perspective, what is the most compelling aspect of the book?
A: Certainly, the photos and memorabilia included in the book are heartwarming and bring up some wonderful memories for those who know and love the Blue Benn. While the book is a tribute to a man and a family, it’s also a tribute to a community. In these divided times, it is especially comforting to read about a place where townspeople of all types and political persuasions could get together and be neighbors, friends and fellow citizens.
The Story Project, North Bennington