Almost 16 months after a fire badly damaged the retail building that housed Sassafras restaurant, the eating establishment in Huntington Center will reopen this week.
“We have missed everyone so much,” owner Jean Poniros said last week, as she and other family members and longtime employees readied the restaurant for the reopening.
“People have continued to come by and say, ‘When are you going to open? When are you going to open?’” said Poniros, a Shelton resident.
The answer is expected to be as early as Monday, Oct. 21 at 7 a.m. for breakfast.
‘Determined to reopen
“We’ve been determined to reopen,” Poniros said. “After the fire, I said, ‘We will go on.’ If we had gone on after my husband’s death, we would go on now.”
Jean’s husband Chris, who had co-owned Sassafras with her, died 21 years ago to the day of the expected Monday reopening — on Oct. 21, 1992.
Louise Young, the restaurant’s longtime manager, is excited the business will open its doors again. Young has worked at Sassafras for 30 years.
“It was a long road, but we made it,” Young said of rebuilding after the fire on June 28, 2012.
Family friendly place with comfort food
Sassafras is known as a family friendly place that specializes in comfort food. Popular menu selections include meatloaf, chicken gyro, baked stuffed cabbage, cream of tomato soup, and bread pudding.
Ice cream, milkshakes and ice cream sodas also are big sellers, and the restaurant has added a soft-serve ice cream machine.
Jean’s son, Chris Poniros, is the chef. Sassafras makes items fresh to order and creates its own soups and desserts.
“We treat people with kindness,” Jean Poniros said.
“It’s like eating in your own home,” Young added.
Poniros and Young describe their many regular patrons as family. “We’re very close to everyone,” Poniros said. “We’ve seen so many children grow up through the years.”
“We know everyone’s name,” Young said.
“We’re a real neighborhood place,” said Poniros, noting children’s birthday parties have been held at Sassafras.
New look inside, menu changes
Changes have been made to the restaurant’s menu and its interior look has been upgraded. “But we’ve brought back our old favorites,” Poniros said.
Another change is that the eatery will be able to accommodate larger groups, with tables that seat up to a dozen people.
“Now people can all sit together,” Young said.
New bathrooms also have built in space added to the restaurant layout.
Sassafras is reopening at a time of the year that usually is busy for them — the Christmas season. People who travel to Jones Family Farms to buy Christmas trees often have made stopping at Sassafras a part of their holiday tradition.
“People will make their annual trek — usually with one more child along,” Poniros said.
Customer support after the fire
Poniros remembers well the 2012 fire that damaged the restaurant as well as two nearby businesses. She was home sleeping at 10:30 p.m. when her son called to say he had heard the building that housed Sassafras was on fire.
She quickly got in her car and drove to the restaurant, and knew as she got closer that it was a major fire because emergency crews had blocked off much of the Huntington Green.
“It was just awful,” Poniros said. “It was destroyed with all the smoke and water. Nothing could be saved.”
They remember how concerned customers were after the fire, offering their condolences and asking how they could help. “One woman got out of her car with a hammer and said, ‘I want to help,’” Poniros said.
“Our customers are so loyal,” she said. “We love them all.”
“We’re very fortunate here,” Young said, “because people are more like family and friends than customers.”
Will be open seven days a week
The new Sassafras menu describes the restaurant as “a countryside family eatery and ice cream parlor” that has been “family owned for more than 30 years.”
Sassafras is at 13 Huntington Plaza, behind the Gulf gas station and near the Bank of America branch, in the Huntington Center part of Shelton.
It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hours will be 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday to Saturday; and 7 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday.