Saturday, March 14, 2015

Shady Glen Dairy Stores - Serving Up Simply Great Food Since 1948

One might not think that words from Henry David Thoreau's Walden would apply to dining choices but sometimes they most definitely do, especially at Manchester, Connecticut's Shady Glen Dairy Stores where their motto could definitely be: "Our life is frittered away by detail ... simplify, simplify."  For those of us who enjoy a simple meal in a simple place that not only tastes great but takes us back to the simplicity of our youth then this is the place to wander to - even if the cheeseburgers are not exactly what one is accustomed to!

Shady Glen got its start when John and Bernice Rieg opened their first store on the Manchester/Bolton town lines on June 12, 1948.  Prior to opening the store with 47 stools arranged around the kitchen and soda fountain, the Riegs worked with Leonard R. Dowd, Professor of Dairy Manufacturing in the University of Connecticut's Department of Animal Industries, on their ice cream formulas using milk from their own herd of cows.

With a menu of ice cream in the summer months and burgers and sandwiches during the winter when ice cream sales tended to drop off, the dairy store was an immediate hit and it wasn't too long before John and Bernice realized that in order to keep up with the demand they were going to need more than just the milk that the herd at Shady Glen Farm could produce. In 1952, they decided to concentrate solely on the dairy store so sold their cows and the milk business and began to purchase raw milk from local farmers.  As Manchester had 54 dairy farms at the time, procuring local milk was certainly not a problem!

A stand-out moment in history for Shady Glen occureed in 1949 when Bernice Rieg developed what has become Shady Glen's signature menu item - a ground beef burger surrounded by a crown of crisp cheese and served on a grilled bun. Yep, you read that right - crisp cheese! Looking for something unusual to add to the menu, Bernice began experimenting and came up with a cheeseburger whose cheese extends out over the sides of the burger and curl up around the burger as it's cooked. The burger is made with four slices of cheese that are draped over the beef patty so that they sizzle directly on the grill; once the cheese is crisp, the grill cook coaxes the edges up with a spatula around the burger producing a crispy cheese crown - though to some it may look more like a nun's wimple! Served up with fries and cole slaw, the "Bernice Original Platter" was a big draw then and still is to this day.

"Bernice Original Platter" at Shady Glenn Dairy Store
With a definite success on their hands, in December of 1954 the Riegs expanded the dairy store installing booths, enlarging counters, and adding a special area to accommodate the sale of bulk ice cream. In 1965, they expanded on the dairy store's popularity and opened a second store at the Manchester Shopping Parkade on the west side of town. The new store had seating for 70 in a combination of booths and stools and, for the first time since Shady Glen's beginning, offered a breakfast menu. In 1978, just before its 30th anniversary, the original Shady Glen Dairy Store underwent a major renovation with a redesigned interior featuring a larger seating area and grill section.

The original Shady Glen Dairy Store on a Sunday afternoon in March.
John and Bernice continued to run the entire operation until the early 1990s when their cousin William J. Hoch, who had joined Shady Glen in 1954 and worked his way up through the ranks, took over as General Manager of Operations. John Rieg died in 2003 and following Bernice's death in 2007, William became the new owner of the popular Manchester eateries where his oldest son, Bill, Jr. helps run the company which maintains the same standards and simplicity that John and Bernice did for so many years.

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When you walk through the doors at the Shady Glen Dairy Store, you may feel like you've stepped back in time as you survey the gleaming Formica counters and booths, rows of swivel stools, and employees wearing traditional waitress uniforms.  Behind the grill, the cooks are wearing bow ties and white paper hats (aka 1950s soda jerk style) and if you think you're going to spend some time flipping through the menu, forget it - there are no menus, just the boards on the wall to tell you what your choices are.

Photo credit:  Mod Betty of  Retro Roadmap

If you time it right and don't arrive when the place is mobbed - as it frequently is - once you slide into a booth, your waitress is going to come right over with a small wax cup of water (a Shady Glen tradition) and ask if you know what you want to order. Regulars do but those of us who have never been to Shady Glen before and are too busy reminiscing about long-ago dairy bar trips with beloved grandparents and other relatives might need a few minutes to absorb the atmosphere before figuring out what to order.  That's not a bad thing!

Cousin Amy and I both opted to order a Diet Coke (gotta save a few calories where we can!) and a "Bernice Original Platter" though Amy briefly considered ordering a "Cheesefurter" which has fried cheese wings like the burgers thinking that I would probably like to have some variety for photographic purposes.  I told her that was a noble gesture on her part but if she wanted a burger, get a burger as that's what we had made the drive to Manchester for.  So she did and I did too.  And oh wow - was it tasty!

As a bit of a cheeseburger elitist (snob?) I like my cheeseburgers unadulterated with nothing on it but cheese so what you're tasting is just the beef and the cheese and fortunately for me, that's how the burgers are served at Shady Glen.  For those who like to mix it up a little bit, the waitress brings over a condiment caddy with chopped onions, relish, mustard, and ketchup. I will admit to helping myself to some ketchup for my fries but they would have been delicious on their own.  As for the cole slaw which is served with a tomato slice on top, it was probably some of the best cole slaw I have had in a very, very long time.

Definitely poor planning on our part but neither one of us had room for ice cream after our Bernice Platters though there were some flavors that sounded quite tempting listed on the board I was facing.  I guess that simply means I'll need to wander back up to Manchester one of these days and amend that oversight. Rumor has it they've got the best chocolate chip ice cream in the Northeast but I think I'd like to be the judge of that!

Even though Shady Glen is a simple dairy store with a simple menu and an atmosphere that takes its patrons back to simpler times, it isn't just a local favorite but is also a favorite of the James Beard Foundation, a national not-for-profit organization based in New York City whose mission is to "celebrate, nurture, and honor America's diverse culinary heritage through programs that educate and inspire."  In 2012, Shady Glen Dairy Store was named one of the James Beard Foundation's winners as one of "America's Classics."  The award "recognizes our nation's beloved regional restaurants which are distinguished by their timeless appeal as they serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities."   Cited for its signature "Bernice Original" cheeseburger and fresh-made ice cream; William and Annette Hoch happily attended the black-tie affair to receive their well-deserved award.

To learn more about Shady Glen Dairy Farms whose two Manchester locations are at 840 East Middle Turnpike and the Manchester Parkade at 360 West Middle Turnpike, take three minutes to watch this video from the James Beard Foundation.  If you're in the area, wander on by and simply enjoy some of Shady Glen's simple goodness on your own.  I think you'll be glad you did!

Copyright © The Distracted Wanderer/Linda Orlomoski. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from The Distracted Wanderer/Linda Orlomoski is strictly prohibited.


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