BENNINGTON — Much has been written about Sonny’s Blue Benn Diner over the years. And why not: It’s every bit an essential part of Bennington as the battle monument that defines its skyline.
But a limited-edition book produced by Caitlin Randall and Peter Crabtree of The Story Project, now on sale at bookstores in the region, might be the definitive history of how the little diner on North Street became the beating heart of a community, and a place where all were fed and made to feel welcome.
“Sonny’s Blue Benn: Feeding The Soul of a Vermont Town” is full of personal interviews with customers, staff and family members, photographs from the Monroe family archive and customers, and new photographs by Crabtree. It’s on sale at the Bennington Bookstore, the Northshire Bookstore, and Battenkill Books in Cambridge, N.Y. It’s not available for purchase online.
“I think the two themes are how hard the family worked and what an egalitarian community meeting place it was and still is,” Crabtree said of what he and Randall discovered in researching, writing and illustrating the book.
The reaction has been positive so far, Randall and Crabtree said.
“The book was beyond anything I ever imagined. It’s truly priceless and such a gift to my husband’s legacy,” Mary Lou Monroe said of the book on The Story Project’s website.
As co-founders of The Story Project, Randall and Crabtree use their extensive journalism experience to produce books on commission, often for families to be handed down as keepsakes. “Sonny’s Blue Benn” was commissioned by a customer and friend of the Monroe family who wishes to remain anonymous, they said.
“One of the things that we really try to deal with in The Story Project is really make the books as tailor-made as possible to the client,” Randall said. “In this case, the client wanted to have as many regulars interviewed as we do, and the staff and the family.”
Whoever commissioned the book was generous. It was printed by The Studley Press of Dalton, Mass., which specializes in museum and fine art titles. The first run of 500 volumes was printed on glossy stock in full color, and its 174 pages are held together with a sewn binding.
“One thing we have heard in reaction to the book is that people are surprised and that the production values are higher than your typical local history book,” Crabtree said.
A collection of historic and current photos and anecdotes about famous patrons might have sufficed. Instead, the book profiles a cross-section of people who have worked, gathered and dined at the Blue Benn, including longtime employees and regular customers — those who grew up here and those who discovered the diner as students at Bennington College or nearby Williams College.
Randall said one of the regulars interviewed for the book was at first surprised there wasn’t more about the food. But after reading, “he realized that, wow, this is about Bennington, it’s about community,” she said.
Randall, a former reporter for Reuters and freelance writer for publications including The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and Art & Antiques, conducted the interviews, researched the Blue Benn’s history, and wrote the copy. Crabtree, who worked for the Bennington Banner and Rutland Herald as a reporter, photographer and editor, took new photographs, chose archival photos and designed the book.
Sonny and Mary Lou Monroe and their family owned and operated the Blue Benn from December of 1973 until 2021, when Mary Lou sold the business to John Getchell amid the COVID pandemic. Franklin “Sonny” Monroe, who signed a lease for the diner on Christmas Eve of 1973, worked there until 2009 and died in 2019.
In the book, customers describe the atmosphere of the Blue Benn — the jukeboxes, the friendships with regulars and waitresses, Sonny’s constant culinary innovations, and prices he kept as low as possible for residents of moderate means. The history of the venerable diner and its changes over the years is also part of the story.
Employees interviewed for the book talked about how the Monroes paid good wages, including sick time and vacation; about Sonny’s quick wit and culinary skills; and about Mary Lou’s aptitude for when to be firm and when to offer a sympathetic ear and kind advice.
“Several of [the employees] were describing going in to her with tough moments in their lives and her just being really kind of mother-like, and you know, taking them aside and talking to them about their problems or whatever,” Randall added. ” It’s an amazingly loyal staff and we’re talking about waitresses who work there 25 to 30 years. I mean, that’s just incredible. You really don’t find that many places.”
“I don’t know if it comes across in the photos. But witnessing, you know, I sat in on the interviews and photographed people as they were being interviewed, [I was] struck by the deep affection people had for the Blue Benn,” Crabtree added. “The staff talked about how family-like it was among them in the atmosphere Mary Lou and Sonny had created and the loyalty they felt.”
As for the illustrations, Mary Lou offered up two storage tubs full of photographs and archive materials, Crabtree said, while others were crowdsourced.
“Jim Woodward, who is one of the regulars interviewed, had collected photos of his own and others over time,” Crabtree said. That includes the cover photo, of cars parked in front of the diner during a snow squall, taken by Larry Cultera on Nov. 26, 1982.
The stories also show how hard the family worked — such as how they spent Christmas Eve of 1973 cleaning up the new business Sonny had just bought.
In the book, Sonny and Mary Lou’s only child, Lisa LaFlamme, acknowledges that she had a complicated relationship with the diner. She resented getting on the school bus smelling like cigarette smoke and the soup of the day, but loved working with her father and was proud of her family’s success. She went to work there after graduating from Mount Anthony Union High School, along with her husband, Bill LaFlamme, and their two sons, Matheson and Marcus.
“I have always compared the diner to a sibling, someone that I had to compete with most of my life,” she said. “Yes, I had a really wonderful life, and my parents were always there, but the diner was such a big focus. My parents worked incredibly hard and their success created a monster that ate up all their time.”
In the tradition of “Working” by Studs Terkel, Randall introduced each subject with a short blurb, and then let them do the talking.
“I let them talk a lot about themselves at first because I kind of wanted to get a sense of, in order to write those blurbs I kind of needed to get a sense of who these people were, what was important to them,” Randall said. “So they did go on a bit talking about themselves and their life and Bennington, and I found that that spilled over into talking about the Blue Benn quite easily.”
The book also profiles current owner John Getchell, who recounts how he discovered the Blue Benn as a Bennington College theater student in the 1980s, and how he heard from his friend Jim Woodward in 2020 that the diner was for sale and had offers pending. Through Woodward, he learned that key staff members would come back to work at the diner if he bought it. He offered the asking price Mary Lou sought, and closed on Dec. 23, 2020.
“My main feeling about actually taking over the Blue Benn is not that this is my diner. I’m just the steward,” Getchell said. “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.”