by Michael Bielawski
When Effie Ballou opened the Wayside Diner in July of 1918, Horace F. Graham was governor of Vermont, the doughboys were fighting World War I in Europe, and a global pandemic of “Spanish Influenza” swept through the state, killing 1,772 Vermonters, with the most deaths occurring in Washington County. It was also the year a Red Sox pitcher named Babe Ruth pitched 29 scoreless innings in the team’s last World Series victory until 2004.
Much has changed in the Montpelier area in the 100 years since, but one cornerstone has remained constant—the Wayside Restaurant. Step inside the classic, all-American diner today, however, and it’s as if time has stood still at the booths and counter.
The current owners, Brian and Karen Zecchinelli, have run the restaurant for more than 20 years, but it’s been within Karen’s family (the Galfetti family) for more than 50. Her family purchased the restaurant in 1966, when she was just four years old, and they moved into the house on the hill behind the restaurant, which every owner has lived in so far. “Collectively, two generations of the Galfetti family have run it for over 50 years of its 100-year tenure,” Brian Zecchinelli said.
The main appeal is the home-style meals—including meatloaf, casseroles, and chicken pie—which in today’s busy society are not always easy to prepare at home. “You might be reluctant to make a tuna-and-noodle casserole at home because you’d be eating it for three or four days straight,” explains Zecchinelli. “At Wayside you can just come in and enjoy those old-fashioned favorites without being tied to it for your next three or four dinners.”
They have more than 60 employees with combined years of service amounting to over 600 years. The average stay per employee is a decade or more. “That’s the thing, that’s why we feel privileged to be operating the restaurant at this point in time,” Zecchinelli points out. “We’re trying to get the story out there of how special it is.” He noted they have six employees in the “25-year club,” and he is close to joining them with more than 20 years under his belt.
While it’s not a 24-hour diner, it didn’t always close in mid-evening. In the 1960s and 1970s it was open until midnight. Zecchinelli noted how during that time period there were evening dances at iconic locations such as Cole’s Pond near Hardwick, and hungry crowds would come in for a late-night snack. Usually, steak sandwiches were made during these hours because there weren’t always other dishes available.
While the Wayside is celebrating its past this year, it is also looking to the future. A tradition among the Zecchinelli family has been that the children must first test the waters outside the family business before returning to it. Karen Zecchinelli, for example, ran a bed and breakfast among other ventures.
Now their son is a junior at Fordham University in New York City, studying in its business school. He had been working at the restaurant since the age of five and is being encouraged to test the waters in different careers.
Whether it’s his family or someone else’s, Zecchinelli is confident the restaurant will always be in good hands. “I think the Wayside has become more than just a restaurant, it has become an important part of the fabric of Vermont, and I’m sure there would be a family out there that would welcome the opportunity to carry it on for the next 50 years or something like that.”
The Zecchinellis, however, have no intention to sell or pass the business on any time soon.
“We’re still having too much fun and enjoying being a part of the experience,” Zecchinelli said. “We really worked to get the Wayside to its 100th anniversary, and now we are laying the groundwork for its next 100 years.”
And the next big celebration will be in July, the actual month the Wayside opened in 1918. A Customer Appreciation Party starts at 6:30 pm on July 29th and goes until 9:30 pm. At sundown, all guests will be treated to a special fireworks display.