It’s “Cheers” without the beer.
Since 1976, Jr’s Deli & Grille has welcomed everyone in the neighborhood — and beyond — with its good food and friendly vibe.
Founded on Riverside Avenue by Saugatuck native Junior Bieling as a hot dog stand, it grew under his nephew Jeff Arciola into a full-scale deli, plus catering and a food truck.
Owned for the last 6 years by Eric Johnson, Jr’s is legendary for its diverse crowd. CEOs and hedge fund titans share the tables and — especially — the counter with teachers, masons, plumbers and working moms.
There’s plenty of banter, on both sides of that counter. It truly is “where everyone knows your name” (and a lot more about you).
Earlier this month, Johnson was planning his next project: an outdoor patio in back, along the Saugatuck River.
He’s still working on it. When people will get to enjoy it is anyone’s guess.
Jr’s is one of hundreds of small business in Westport slammed by the coronavirus. There are millions more across the country.
Each is special. But the Jr’s experience — scary and ongoing — opens a window into all.
Heeding a statewide order, Johnson can no longer serve inside. Jr’s offers curbside pickup and delivery owner only. They’re still in business — and sanitizing like crazy.
“It’s so much quieter than usual,” Johnson says. “But the locals have been fantastic. They’re buying lots of gift certificate. Whoever had that idea, it’s great.”
More than that, regulars call to check in. They ask how he and his staff are doing. They order takeout and delivery. They promise to be back as soon as they can. Their words and deeds lift the owners and employees’ spirits.
They do other things too. Someone ordered a 6-foot sub — and asked that it be delivered to the Gillespie Center.
That’s a win-win. It helps Jr’s stay alive — and feeds some of Westport’s most vulnerable citizens.
Jr’s is giving back too. Several part-time employees are Staples High School rugby players. (Johnson is an assistant coach for the Wreckers.) He knows how hard it is for students who are quarantined.
So he’s offering 15% off all deliveries for any youngsters stuck at home.
Johnson speaks for all small business owners when he tells Westporters, “It doesn’t matter who. Pick your favorite place. Buy a gift certificate. Buy a pizza. Let them know you’re there for them.”
“As long as the community keeps helping, I think we can make it,” he says.