A Community Partnership in Success: The Legend that is Friends & Company
by RONA MANN/photos by Stephanie Sittnick
Brian Gondek and Greg Benson, the owners of Friends & Company, Madison’s signature restaurant for nearly 32 years, aren’t talking about food today. They aren’t discussing menus. They aren’t even promoting special events.
Uh-uh. Not today.
Today, when they meet to talk about the unqualified success of their popular eatery, they just can’t stop talking about people.
“We are lucky to be supported by such a wonderful community,” Chef/Owner Gondek begins. “We have a great clientele here. When we were closed last year after the hurricane damage, our clientele came back with a vengeance to support us the day we reopened. We have customers who’ve been coming here for nearly all of our 32 years.”
“And now the children of the original customers are coming in and bringing their families,” added his partner, Greg Benson.
Indeed, Friends & Company is the epitome of the word “venerable.” It is an institution on the shoreline because it has never veered from what one waitress called “the old school of restaurant hospitality: consistently fresh and well prepared food, value for the customer’s dollar, and service from a waitstaff that isn’t plastic or forced. It’s real, because the whole waitstaff, from the front to the back of the house, and extending to the lounge where bar manager, Kyle Ruberg holds court, loves what they’re doing, and for whom they’re doing it.”
Heady praise indeed, but well justified. Friends & Company stands head and shoulders above all other restaurants in the area because they take no shortcuts, they never compromise on quality, and they never forget the people who made them what they are and continue to put their trust in them. “It’s a trick to keep it as honest as you can with no shortcuts,” Brian admits, “But we do it because we love to do it.”
“It’s easy for new restaurants to come in with a bang, but we like to strike the balance of attracting new faces while still keeping our old customers happy,” Benson said. How exactly does Friends & Company do that?
“Hard work,” echoes Gondek. And lots of it. One of us is always here, 7 days a week. We have a terrific staff with virtually no turnover…they are exceptional people who love doing what they do. And everything…absolutely everything…is fresh every day.”
Alot of restaurants make that claim. Friends & Company stakes their reputation on it. Chef Gondek affirms, “I’m talking about organic bread baked from scratch with honey and molasses; a daily, changing variety of soups, all made completely from scratch. Every vegetable we serve is fresh and local…nothing frozen ever. When we have Sunday brunch which people flock to, there are no muffin mixes or pancake mixes used. It is completely fresh and cooked to order.”
“We say we’re the best value on the shoreline, and it’s true,”Gondek continues.”With every entree, customers always have a choice of 4 big salads to complement their meal or 3 homemade soups.”
“Our prices are very fair,” Benson adds. “We have Early Bird specials nearly every day of the week, and we give a great lunch for the money.”
If you haven’t figured out yet that Friends & Company and these two owners are different in their approach than the average restaurateurs, here’s more ammunition. Brian Gondek is not a graduate of a culinary school. He seems almost ashamed to relate that fact; and yet when he tells you he learned everything he knows about cooking from his grandmother and mother, you begin to understand why everything has to be fresh, from scratch, and prepared the old fashioned way. His training was all about love of food; not about microwaves, quick preparations, nor shortcuts. Greg literally started from the bottom up, washing dishes at an East Haven eatery while in high school, then quickly graduating to “doing it all.” Both of them were employees at Friends & Company before becoming owners, so they know their business inside out and from everyone’s perspective, most importantly, the customer’s.
Both partners agree that with the popularity of television cooking shows and new cuisines, people have become more and more interested in food. “Our clientele is very food savvy, so we have a responsibility to live up to our reputation and give them their money’s worth,” Gondek says. “People are confident spending their money here,” They know what to expect, and we give it to them every time. We’re extremely consistent. If they have special requests, we’ll do it. If someone wants their meat charred, or a sauce on the side, or a special preparation, we are happy to accommodate them.”
It is not enough for the men of Friends & Company to just love their clientele and respect their staff; they feel invested in their community. In addition to hosting events for local businesses and organizations including the weekly luncheon of the Madison Rotary Club, the restaurant also promotes and supports local artists by showcasing their work in the restaurant and making it available to the general public for purchase. Their breads, soups, and relishes are marketed at the popular Guilford farm market, Bishops Orchards, and an “honor jar” full of money sits just inside the front door of the restaurant surrounded by the loaves of homemade bread and “monster” cookies the customers covet. It’s an old-fashioned, honest approach still being practiced in what at times is a dishonest, unfeeling world, but Greg and Brian just don’t think in those terms. Their old-fashioned way of doing business and treating customers works, so why not?
It’s summer, and Friends & Company enjoys taking their fresh approach to food to the street. Two food carts have been placed outside the restaurant by the river, selling Hummel hot dogs with special Brian-created relishes to dress them, pulled pork sandwiches, succulent lobster rolls, fresh squeezed lemonade, homemade brownies, those giant cookies that are perfect for sharing, and more. What better could say “summer” than a quick stop at the Friends & Company food carts, choosing something wonderful, and giving yourself time to enjoy it at a picnic table overlooking the river?
Would it be safe to say that Brian and Greg are operating Friends & Company outside the box? No. A box is too confining. It has sides, corners, and limitations. Better to say that with these two, their philosophy, their commitment to fine old fashioned preparation, and their superior waitstaff, there is no box at all. And that’s exactly how it should be when you’ve been serving a community for nearly 32 years, getting to know its people so well that your partnership is not just a legal one forged between two owners, but one formed as a partnership in success with your clientele. It’s just one big reason why Greg, Brian, and Company love coming to work every single day. But that really should surprise no one…after all, the first word in their name is “friends.”