Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Alas, grounds for closing: Coffee House Plus ending 44 years on East Main Street

TORRINGTON - Joe Lamanna helped build the brick building that sits on the corner of East Main and East Elm streets when he worked for a company called LaBruno Building in 1965.
The building housed Bess Eaton, the first of the Ponte family coffee and doughnut shops to spring up in the town. Back then, an iced coffee sold for 15 cents.
"I've been coming here ever since," said Lamanna, 81, of Torrington.
After 44 years in operation, the shop now known as Coffee House Plus will serve its last coffee at the East Main Street location Friday. Lamanna and the many friends he has made among the regulars over the years will have to find a new hangout.
Time has aged the building, but Lamanna said the shop is "basically the same as it used to be." It's a simple place. Newspaper clippings featuring Torrington High School athletes clutter one wall. Plain white menu boards display the prices of doughnuts, bagels, muffins and coffee in a variety of flavors.
None of that fancy stuff for Lamanna, who sticks to a small regular coffee with cream and sugar.
Chris Crespo, 57, of Torrington, reminisced about her memories as a Coffee House Plus employee as she prepared herself for what will be her last day after eight years. She has forged a close relationship with many of her customers. She greets most by name and has many orders memorized and already made as customers walk through the door.
Sandy Beatrice, 47, of Torrington, has been working at the coffee shop for 29 years — since she was 18. "Customers became family," she said.
After all, it's a family business.
Tony Ponte, 51, of Torrington, owns the shop, as well as another on South Main Street. He is consolidating the two because he couldn't afford to renew his lease at the East Main address.
The business has been in decline since his brother John Ponte, with whom he ran the shops, died in August 2004 and the family decided to put the shops on the market.
"At that point it wasn't fun for me without John. He was my best friend, my buddy, as well as my brother," Ponte said. "It was probably one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, being that it was the starting point of my parents' legacy," Ponte said.
Before this, the Ponte family had a long history of owning coffee and doughnut shops. Tony Ponte's uncle, Angelo Gencarelli, founded the original Bess Eaton in Westerly, R.I. in 1951, the same year Dunkin' Donuts was founded.
Gencarelli wanted to keep the franchises among several of his brothers and brothers-in-law instead of going national, so Antonio Ponte Sr. and his wife Angeline opened the first Bess Eaton west of Hartford at East Main and East Elm.
The Ponte sons later bought the business from their father after his health prohibited him from running the operation and their mother had died of lung cancer in 1986. After the sons grew the business from five stores to 12, Kenny Ponte proposed to buyout all the shops from his brothers.
The buyout failed, leaving seven abandoned stores and the company bankrupt.
In 1994, Maria and Rose Ponte, the wives of Tony and John Ponte, formed a new entity and reopened the seven abandoned stores under Jammer Inc., doing business as Coffee House Plus. Since then, the remaining stores have been closed or sold, leaving only the original shop and another on South Main Street.
"The reason we've even been able to stay (this long) is because our loyal customer base has allowed us to compete against the major chains," Ponte said. "We've always been a family oriented business in a time when large businesses seem to dominate the business scene and local mom-and-pops don't really have a chance."
He hopes his regulars, as well as any other customers Coffee House Plus has served in the past will continue to support his business at the South Main Street location. After about three or four years operating at only one location, Ponte said he hopes he will be able to market and sell the business, but "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

This article appeared July 1, 2009 on pages B1 and B3 in the Republican-American newspaper, Waterbury, CT©

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