Executive Spotlight: Joanne Longton, owner of Elm Street Luncheonette
PITTSFIELD — "Gourmet it isn't. Excellent it is. That's how I'd describe the fare at the Elm Street Luncheonette."
The late Lee Leahy wrote those words in her "Just Looking" column for The Berkshire Eagle in February 1977.
"Everything you could want in a throw back diner. Food and value were quite good."
Michael Dousette recently posted that comment about the Elm Street Luncheonette on the internet.
A lot has changed in 42 years, including the way we write reviews. But the owner of the Elm Street Luncheonette — Joanne Longton — is still the same.
She and her then-husband purchased the small eatery at 123 Elm St. in Pittsfield in 1974. On Oct. 31, Longton marked her 45th anniversary with the business.
We met with Longton recently to talk about how she came to Pittsfield from her native Italy, why she bought the restaurant, why she has continued to run it, and why she puts her customers' pictures on the walls.
Q: Why do people often refer to your place as Joanne's?
A: It's always been the Elm Street Luncheonette. But as the years went by, my customers kept saying, "Let's go to Joanne's," so, I said, "OK, I'll put it as Joanne's Elm Street Luncheonette." Legally, it's Elm Street Luncheonette. It actually started in the late '40s [as Folmsbee's Luncheonette in 1945].
Q: Why did you buy it?
A: I started out with my husband. He was the one who loved to cook. He was friends with the cook there. He told him the business was up for sale and maybe you could buy it. He thought we'd try it.
We were very young and had just had a child. We didn't have much money, but my parents were very excited and said we'll help you a little bit.
Q: What did you do before you bought the luncheonette?
A: I used to keypunch at [the former St. Luke's Hospital]. I used to work in the business office filing, you know?
Q: So, running a restaurant must have been a completely different experience.
A: We didn't know anything. ... When we bought it, there were two women there, and the woman that I bought it from stayed with us for awhile. She showed us how to do things. I watched the girls do what they were doing, and that's how I learned. One of the girls is still with me.
Q: Was it hard to learn?
A: I was petrified when I went in, because I couldn't speak English that good, and people are sitting right there at the counter and you're right behind [it]. But the people were wonderful. They took me right in. They supported me in a way that made me feel comfortable. ... My two uncles [Angelo Balardini and Dominic Sondrini] started the Highland Restaurant [in 1936], but they had passed away [before she bought the luncheonette]. I never thought I could do it, but I guess it was inside of me.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I come from the northern part [of Italy], near Switzerland. My accent is different. I came here when I was 14.
Q: How did you come to Pittsfield?
A: My mother was born in America, not in Pittsfield. But the whole family went back to Italy when she was 1 year old, then came back here one by one. She was the last one to come back here. ... I did not know one word of English [when she came here in 1961]. They put me in South Junior High [now Herberg Middle School] in the seventh grade. ... I was the only one who went to school. My mother stayed home, but my uncle had a job for everybody. ... In those days, it was still a dream to come to America. ... We had a lot of family here. That's why we came to Pittsfield.
Q: Did you have to learn English on the fly in school?
A: Yes. They didn't have [special] instructors [then]. They just [threw] me in. The only things I could do were math and French because I took French in Italy. In those days, that's what you learned.
Q: When you first bought the luncheonette, did you think you'd still be working there now?
A: No, I didn't. ... But then, I liked it so much. I enjoyed it because of the people.
Q: What's kept you in the business for 45 years?
A: The people who come in, and also the help. I've always had very good help.
Q: What is it about your customers that you like?
A: They make me feel comfortable ... just talking to me like a regular person. When [I came] from Italy, I was 14; I remember that if anyone was rich or had a suit on, they would always look down at you if you were not in their position. But here, I get doctors, lawyers, and they're just like regular people. They just have a suit on. They just made me feel comfortable.
Q: Why do you put the pictures of your customers on the wall?
A: I remembered that there was a restaurant that puts up [pictures] of movie stars. I said, "These are my movie stars."
Q: Do some of those pictures go back to when you started?
A: Not all the way, but pretty close. ... One person came up to me and said, "You know, I thought this was the first time I ever came in here, but I saw my picture with my mother and father." She didn't know that she had come in.
Q: At this point, you must be serving the grandchildren of your original customers.
A: Yes, now they have their own children. ... There's the Allegrone family. They used to come in every day, three times a day. Now, one of them, there's old Louie and middle Louie. ... This was middle Louie's daughter, and she said she had to bring in her children because she had a beautiful memory of coming in with her parents. ... I took a picture of them. They're going to be on the wall.
Q: Do you think you'll ever retire?
A: I always say, "One day at a time." One day I said, " This is it, I'm not doing it anymore." My friend was retiring. I said I could do it, too. I was telling my son ... and he goes, "Mom, what are you going to do at home?" And I said, "You're right. I better keep going."
Q: I imagine that leaving the luncheonette behind would be difficult?
A: The business has been very good to me. Maybe it's because I didn't have the big idea that I was going to be a millionaire or anything. I took care of my family. I sent my son [Donald] to college [Penn State]. He majored in restaurant management and got recruited. He's in California, and he's done well in this business.
Q: I guess you could say you've lived the American dream?
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