Legendary “Remy’s Grinders” Reappear On Super Bowl Sundays
Posted on January 26, 2015
By: Jacqueline Bennett newsandviewsjb.com
Much as the mysterious village of Brigadoon appeared once every one hundred years, “Remy’s Grinders” reappear twice yearly in Windham, Connecticut – in November and again on Super Bowl Sundays.
Back in the day in Windham “Remy’s Grinders” ruled. Customers are said to have come from far and wide to make their way down the stairway into the small, below ground grocery store, nicknamed the “dugout”, in pursuit of grinders made by J. Remy Handfield. Although “Remy’s Grinder Shop” – better known simply as “Remy’s”- no longer exists, the below ground site where it once was, remains on Main Street not far from town hall in the Willimantic section of Windham. (Windham and Willimantic were consolidated several years ago.)
Come Super Bowl Sundays, some 24 years after the “dugout” closed and more than a decade after the passing of Handfield, the legend of his grinders lives on for a good cause – Bigg Play. Marking its tenth anniversary of selling “Remy’s Grinders”, the sandwiches are so well remembered that it has helped the international goodwill games organization raise the thousands of dollars to send local youth baseball teams to compete abroad.
The idea to sell “Remy’s Grinders” came from Bigg Play board member Gary Jones, who once worked in the store.
“The place was actually a hole in the ground,” Bigg Play President Bill Shea said with a smile and raise of his eyebrows, during a recent interview where he was joined by fellow Bigg Play board member “Mooney” Haddad, at a donut shop near the old grinder store.
However, said Shea, it was known for selling the best grinders in town and beyond.
Now a sales & leasing consultant for Gates Buick GMC Nissan NV in North Windham, Jay Handfield, son of Remy Handfield, ran the store with his father for many years and then on his own. His dad had taken over the business from his in-laws, the Santa Lucia family – Italian immigrants.
“People came from everywhere for the grinders, and, for the penny candy,” Jay said by phone January 23, “Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t mention it.”
The business was started by an Italian family in the early 1900’s and was purchased in the 1930s by Jay’s grandparents who had immigrated from Tusa, Sicily – Maria and Carmelo Santa Lucia.
“They were the ones who started selling the grinders in 1941 and they became an instant hit,” he said.
A key ingredient – finely shredded sweet cabbage – was used instead of lettuce to save money because during the war years lettuce was hard to come by and expensive, Jay said. It turned out to be the best business decision his grandparents ever made. Jay’s parents, his father, and mother Lucy Santa Lucia Handfield, bought the business in 1954 and continued the grinder tradition. After attending Keene State College, Jay returned to work in the store and eventually took it over. Given the long hours, following the birth of his children Jay made a different career choice selling the store to his cousins, Francis and Joe Santa Lucia. It closed circa 1991.
Does he miss the store ? Does he ever think of reopening it ? Yes and yes. When he retires, said Jay, he plans to invest in a small cart, locate it in downtown Willimantic and sell “Remy’s Grinders.”
“It was the best job I ever had. I remember working at the store as a kid too, writing prices on the bags. It was great seeing people everyday, being part of downtown,” he said.
The rise in popularity of Remy’s grinders coincided with the heyday of “Mom & Pop” stores in downtowns across America, Jay recalled. A time when Willimantic was a thriving small city on the grow.
The grinder rolls, which were purchased in town at Mandel’s Bakery and later at Henry’s Bakery, also made a difference in the appealing taste of the sandwiches, he added.
Bigg Play buys rolls at Delia’s in Norwich. Otherwise, the grinders – a name said to be prevalent in New England – are put together in the style used by their namesake. With Jones in charge, the traditional recipe is followed to precision, according to Shea. The traditional recipe includes cooked salami, provolone cheese, tomatoes, shredded cabbage, oil, and salt and pepper on foot-long rolls.
“On grinder-making day Gary is “the man”, and oh, help anyone who places the tomatoes where the cabbage should be,” he said humorously.
So well remembered are the grinders in Windham, that in the first year alone Bigg Play sold 900. The organization was not prepared for such a huge response.
“That first year some people might have gotten grinders without the meat,” said Shea.
Each year, Bigg Play – whose board includes a member of the Santa Lucia family, relies on volunteers to show up at the Elks Lodge in Willimantic about 8 a.m. and make the grinders. Pick-up is from 12 noon to 3 p.m.
Shea and Haddad, both former Windham Little League coaches say Bigg Play owes a debt of gratitude to the Elks for assisting them in expanding the horizons of these young people who go on the trips, through its many years of allowing use of their kitchen and hall for the fundraisers. Shea described Willimantic as a “depressed area” and said his hope is that the trips inspire the local youths to continue to expand their horizons.
“Every year there are one or two kids who cannot afford to pay for the trip,” Haddad and Shea noted, adding that Bigg Play helps them with expenses.
The concept of international goodwill youth baseball games for Windham began with a former Willimantic mayor, Stan Koskoska, who helped establish Little League in Poland. He then brought a couple teams to Windham to compete in the 1980’s. When Koskoska moved on, Haddad, Shea and some other coaches felt it was such a beneficial opportunity for the young people that they vowed to pick up the torch. Since then Bigg Play, which stands for BASEBALL INTERNATIONAL GOODWILL GAMES PROMOTING LEARNING for the ADVANCEMENT of YOUTH, has brought teams to Poland, Sweden, Denmark, China, Italy and the Netherlands.
“It’s very emotional,” said Haddad.
So, exactly what does a grinder look like?
“Elsewhere they are called hoagies, subs, heroes …. but in Willimantic, Connecticut, they are called grinders. I don’t know where that came from,” noted Jay.
In a discussion titled, “Please describe the New England grinder sandwich” on threadcity.com , it was speculated that the name originated with Italian immigrants who sold these sandwiches to boat dock workers called “grinders” by the Italians.
Whatever the origin of the name it is apparent the legend of “Remy’s Grinders” has left an indelible impression in Windham, and thanks to Bigg Play has affected the world in an unexpected way.
“Remy’s Grinders” can be picked up Sunday, February 1, 2015 between noon-3 p.m. at the Elk’s Lodge, 198 Pleasant Street, Willimantic, (Windham) CT. To order call (860) 456-1978, or (860) 423-8980, or (860) 423-9887. Choices include traditional salami, or ham, or veggie grinders – oil is served on the side.
In addition to the grinder sales, Bigg Play hosts an annual golf tournament and a fair in November. Go to biggplay.org to learn more.