STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY PETER CRABTREE
The history of a beloved Bennington landmark is beautifully chronicled in Caitlin Randall and
Peter Crabtree’s incredible new book, Sonny’s Blue Benn: Feeding the Soul of a Vermont Town
Pulling back the front cover of Sonny’s Blue Benn: Feeding the Soul of a Vermont Town, one is immediately drawn into a spellbinding story that perfectly exemplifies the power of community connection. Inside, the complex and compelling tale of Bennington’s classic American-style diner, The Blue Benn, is comprehensively documented—as well as its notable impact on Southern Vermont culture.
In the months following the book’s release, the journalists behind the book, Caitlin Randall and Peter Crabtree, sat down withVERMONT Magazine to discuss the work that went into making Sonny’s Blue Benn and the past, present, and future of the diner. By applying the same spirit of uncompromising integrity that guided Franklin “Sonny” Monroe and Mary Lou Monroe’s stewardship of The Blue Benn towards their work, they have created a beautiful tribute to a ubiquitously-adored Vermont landmark that is every bit as memorable as a trip to “The Benn” itself.
The Story Begins
Sonny’s Blue Benn opens with a detailed account of the restaurant’s earliest years, as well as the events that led Sonny and Mary Lou Monroe to become the stewards of the treasured Bennington institution. The Blue Benn first opened its doors in 1948, after its original owner, Marie York, shipped an iconic Silk City dining car from New Jersey to Vermont and had it re-assembled in Bennington. 26 years later, a young and adventurous man by the name of Franklin “Sonny” Monroe purchased The Blue Benn from a subsequent owner, Betty Manning, and chartered a bold new course for the restaurant. Sonny didn’t just own The Blue Benn—he and his wife, Mary Lou Monroe, worked behind the counter for dozens of years, pouring their heart and soul into the business.
Over the following four-and-a-half decades, The Blue Benn blossomed into an egalitarian community oasis under the ownership of Sonny, Mary Lou, their daughter, Lisa LaFlamme, and their dedicated cooks and waitstaff. Native Vermonters, visiting tourists, and vacationing celebrities mingled inside of its walls, sharing meals, exchanging stories, and enjoying each other’s company. At a time when Vermont’s cultural identity was rapidly evolving, The Blue Benn stood as a symbolic equalizer that helped to hold the town of Bennington together. As The Blue Benn moves forward into its next chapter with a passionate new owner, John Getchell, Randall and Crabtree have perfectly captured the essence of its most storied era within the pages of Sonny’s Blue Benn.
A detailed history of classic American diners is gracefully woven into the opening section, providing added cultural context for the interviews with the Blue Benn’s past owners, staff members, and frequent customers, which make up the lion’s share of the rest of the book. The people interviewed for Sonny’s Blue Benn share cherished memories, speaking freely about The Blue Benn and the indelible mark that it made on their lives. Their revealing stories are framed beautifully by Randall’s clean, tasteful prose and Crabtree’s vibrant photographic portraits and book design.
Capturing an Era
Long before Randall and Crabtree began conducting research and scheduling interviews for Sonny’s Blue Benn, they sharpened their storytelling skills through decades of hard work in their respective fields of journalism. Randall worked as a staff correspondent for Reuters and Dow Jones News Service, and also wrote for The Wall Street Journal, The Miami Herald, and Art & Antiques Magazine, among others. Over the course of his career as a reporter, editor and photojournalist in Vermont, which included a lengthy stint at The Rutland Herald, Crabtree penned pieces for The New York Times and Newsday. Following his departure from print journalism, he found considerable success as a photographer. His work has been shown at renowned cultural institutions, such as the Berkshire Museum and the Albany Institute of History and Art.
After meeting in Vermont in 2017 at an art gallery opening, Randall and Crabtree began discussing potential professional collaborations. Their initial conversations resulted in the development of a unique business model, which led to them founding The Story Project together. Through their work at The Story Project, they have been able to apply their journalistic skills toward the production of custom-made books for private clients. “Telling individual stories had been of interest to me for a very long time before Peter and I founded The Story Project,” says Randall. “The work that we do at The Story Project gives me the chance to dig deep with the subjects I interview. I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of the work—especially with Sonny’s Blue Benn. Peter and I are looking forward to working with more clients in the future and bringing their stories to life.”
After producing and publishing their first full-length book under the banner of The Story Project, Giovanna Buetti: A Life, in 2020, Randall and Crabtree were approached by a client, who wishes to remain anonymous. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the client commissioned them to produce a book that fully chronicled the Monroe family’s ownership of The Blue Benn. 500 copies of the book were eventually printed and distributed, and a limited number are available for in-person sale at several local bookstores, including Bennington Bookshop, Battenkill Books in Cambridge, and Northshire Bookstore in Manchester. “We started working on the project in October 2020,” notes Randall. “At the time, the Benn had been closed down for several months, and it was difficult to schedule interviews because of the pandemic. Still, after talking with our client, we had a firm grasp on the direction that we wanted to take the book. Our aim was to tell the story of the Benn while exploring the theme of it being a central community meeting space, where people set aside their differences and came together as equals.”
Once the scope of the project was established, Randall and Crabtree reached out to Mary Lou Monroe. Although Mary Lou was initially reticent to speak on record, she graciously offered to connect them with members of her family, as well as the former staff members and customers of The Blue Benn. “Mary Lou ended up being the last person that we interviewed,” says Crabtree. “It actually ended up working somewhat in our favor, because we got to apply the knowledge that we had gained from the other interviews towards our interview with her. The interview with Mary Lou tied everything together very nicely.” Crabtree says that earning Mary Lou’s trust was one of the most fulfilling aspects of the entire process. “She really took a leap of faith in opening herself up to us, and she was so grateful with the book that we came back with. That was what was most meaningful and moving for me.”
Following their conversation with Mary Lou, Randall and Crabtree interviewed a diverse group of Blue Benn staff members and customers. “We wanted a certain number of lawyers, doctors, artists, and blue-collar workers,” says Randall. “The idea was to find a mix that we thought accurately represented the diverse range of people that came to the Benn, and I think we ended up finding a good balance.”
Crabtree recalls that from the moment that he and Randall first began conducting interviews, they were taken aback by the depth of the emotional attachment and reverence that the staff and patrons had for the Monroe family and The Blue Benn. “In the first interview that Caitlin did, I was there taking photos over her shoulder of one of The Blue Benn’s waitresses, Brenda Eggsware. She ended the interview by saying that working at The Benn made her a better person, which I thought was truly an extraordinary thing to say.”
Although Randall and Crabtree approached the project with an overarching theme of community togetherness in mind, Crabtree nevertheless remained flexible in his photographic approach. “I didn’t go into it with an established notion of what the finished product was going to look like. I wanted to let my portraits reveal the truth of the subjects. My aim was to use the archival material in ways that worked well with the contemporary photos and to have the visuals serve the text that Caitlin had written.”
Memories and Musings
The interviews contained within Sonny’s Blue Benn wonderfully illustrate the pivotal role that the Benn played in the lives of many of its servers and customers. Longtime server Heidi Tilley recalled a storybook evening when two long-time customers came into the Blue Benn to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Heidi turned down the lights to set the mood, and the customers lit some candles and started slow-dancing in the aisles. In a later subsection of the book devoted to customer interviews, “The Romantics,” William Fisk & Cinda Morse recounted the same story: “When we sat down, they turned the overhead lights down. We had the whole diner to ourselves. And they were great. It was so fun!”
Other interviews within the book share various recollections from staff members about the work culture at The Blue Benn. Bill Walsh, who cooked alongside Sonny Monroe in the diner’s kitchen for decades, described the way that Sonny fluidly waltzed through the kitchen while preparing meals as “mythical.” Sharon Gavin, a seasoned Blue Benn server, says that working at the Benn was like being part of a big family. “We were like brothers and sisters. I always looked forward to coming to work…it was like a second home.” Sonny’s sister, Pat Shepard, another established Blue Benn waitress, says that while her brother made working at The Blue Benn easy and enjoyable, the customers were the best part.
From an objective standpoint, the most consistent group of customers that dined at the Benn is certainly “The Breakfast Club.” According to Randall and Crabtree, The Breakfast Club is an eclectic group of Bennington residents that meet at The Blue Benn on a daily basis. One member of The Breakfast Club, Norman LeBlanc, is a retired military officer. To celebrate his return to active duty, the servers at The Blue Benn opened up the diner at 2AM. “We pulled into The Blue Benn and that place was wall-to-wall people,” he says.
Artist Willard Boepple is an anchor of the Bennington creative scene—and he is also a proud member of The Breakfast Club. In the book, Boepple is quoted as saying that two of the greatest things about Sonny’s Blue Benn were the laid-back atmosphere and the unpretentious nature of the service. He is also grateful that The Benn provided a place where he could enjoy a meal with people who shared differing personal and political views without heated contention.
The “Neighbors” subsection in Sonny’s Blue Benn features interviews from two owners of neighboring businesses: Lynn Frost, the former owner of The Tuscan Sunflower, and Donny Wassick, owner of Wassick Tire. Both frequented The Benn and formed deep connections with Sonny and Mary Lou. Donny Wassick says that he would run into someone he knew every time that he went into the Benn. “I’d walk in there…and have a quick conversation with all kinds of people before I even sat down. Everybody seemed to be on the same page…For a lot of us, going there was an experience, not just going to the diner.”
Throughout the course of Sonny’s tenure at The Blue Benn, numerous noteworthy celebrities came to dine there, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Marisa Tomei, Rob Lowe, Ben Affleck, and James Gandolfini, among many others. Although apocryphal tales surrounding the behavior of celebrities at The Blue Benn has spawned a number of persistent local legends, recurrent customers insist that The Blue Benn’s service staff always greeted everyone with equal respect—regardless of their level of fame. To that end, Maggi Randall, a talented artist and frequent Blue Benn customer, says that The Benn was “a beautiful snapshot of what egalitarianism should be. I loved the way they treated celebrities the same as all their other customers.”
The Family Afterward
While interviewing with Mary Lou Monroe and her daughter, Lisa LaFlamme, Randall and Crabtree were humbled by the amount of dedication that the Monroe dynasty applied to their work. In the earliest days after the acquisition, Mary Lou balanced her outside work as a bookkeeper with her duties at the Benn. She worked nights at the diner, managing the financial aspects of the business and scrubbing the kitchen after Sonny closed down the restaurant. Eventually, she transitioned into full-time work at the Benn, and she and Sonny brought Lisa along with them for the ride. In the book, Lisa is quoted as saying the following: “Dad was the creative mind behind the diner…My mother was the force that made it happen.”
Growing up, Lisa would routinely wake up at 4:00 AM, drive with her parents to the Benn, and fall asleep in a small bed that they set up for her in the basement of the restaurant. She would later emerge from her slumber, walk upstairs to the diner, and eat breakfast before heading off to school. “You could smell the smoke, and you could smell the bacon,” she recalls in the book. “She came to see The Blue Benn as a rival sibling in a way,” adds Randall. “She respected her parents and their tireless work ethic, but it was a love-hate relationship with the diner, because her parents’ work was all-consuming.”
Over the course of Lisa’s childhood, she often did her homework at the counter. After she graduated from high school, she began working at the diner full-time. When Sonny retired in 2009, Mary Lou took over the ownership role. In the years that followed, Sonny’s health began to decline, and Mary Lou eventually turned the managerial duties over to Lisa.
When Sonny passed away in 2019, it signaled the end of an era. Less than a year later, The Blue Benn closed its doors, and was eventually sold to its new owner, John Getchell. “On one hand, it was thrilling for Lisa to take it over,” says Randall. “On the other hand, she didn’t feel like she was necessarily the right fit for the job, and she found it hard to treat servers who had worked there since she was a child with any authority.” In the book, Lisa says that although it was difficult to step away from the family business, she looks back on much of the time she spent there with happiness and gratitude. “There were just a lot of really nice people that love the place. These are people I wouldn’t have ever met, if not for the diner. But my happiest times were when dad was there.”
Lisa and her husband, Bill LaFlamme, also witnessed their two children, Matheson and Marcus, come of age in the diner. Bill is quoted as saying that it deepened his emotional connection to the business. “Watching our kids grow up through that diner, from here to where they are now—you know, working in the kitchen, playing the jukebox, bringing their girlfriends and their friends…it was fun to be a part of that.” While Matheson and Marcus were thankful to be able to spend time at The Blue Benn with their grandfather, Sonny —Matheson in the kitchen, and Marcus in the front of the house—they both knew at an early age that they were not destined to take over the Benn. “Nobody in the family ever suggested my brother or I take over the diner,” says Matheson. “People outside of the family did, a lot.” Despite the input of various community members, Marcus and Matheson were able to make their own way without feeling any pressure from their parents or other family members. At the time of the book’s publication, Matheson was training for a sales job at a large brokerage firm in Manhattan, and Marcus was working towards becoming a real estate agent. When reflecting on the sale of the business, Marcus considered it a “relief” that his family made the decision. Still, he says, he is “sad to see it go.”
The Next Chapter
After the Monroe clan made the difficult decision to step away from The Blue Benn, a Bennington College alumnus and loyal customer, John Getchell, stepped up and purchased the business in December 2020. While Getchell has made several notable changes to the Benn, including a new sign, staffing changes, and the addition of credit card machines, he has kept many things as they were before. He remembers coming to the Blue Benn for the first time during his college years, and recalls finding happiness and comfort in one of their signature “Sir Benn”
omelets. In the book, he is quoted as saying, “There was just sort of a buzz, a hum to the place that was extraordinary.” Getchell is open about the fact that he has sunk a considerable portion of his life savings into his acquisition of the Benn. “I knew that if I was going to dedicate myself to something like this and really throw all my eggs in that one basket, this was a no-brainer for me.” Looking towards the future, Getchell is hopeful for the next chapter in the saga of The Blue Benn, and sees himself as someone who is lucky to preside over the legendary Bennington diner. A quote towards the end of his interview in Sonny’s Blue Benn reads as follows: “My main feeling about actually taking over The Blue Benn is not that this is my diner. I’m just the steward. For the foreseeable future, I’m the custodian of The Blue Benn diner. And my mission is to keep it the same and to honor Sonny’s legacy.”
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