Ten years ago, Michele and Fred Bialek decided to take a chance. Both left their jobs and opened an informal restaurant specializing in soup in downtown Shelton.
There were no guarantees. They spent three months renovating the space. “We had $50 in our bank account when we opened our doors,” Michele said.
Liquid Lunch on Howe Avenue was an immediate success. “Word spread like wildfire,” Michele said. “People from the banks, hairdressers and other businesses started coming in.”
They came in for the sandwiches, unique bread, salads and most of all, Fred’s soup.
A soup artist
Michele doesn’t call her husband a chef when it comes to making soup — she calls him an artist.
“We call some of them ‘experience soups’ because when he puts them together with all the ingredients, he creates this multi-dimensional experience that takes you back to your childhood or zooms you somewhere else,” she said.
“First the taste is in your mouth and then it’s in your soul,” Michele said. “That’s his magic — and when you invoke feelings like that, you’re an artist.”
The Bialeks, who live in Shelton, later expanded the size of the downtown Liquid Lunch and opened a second restaurant in Milford. Then, at the request of Robert Scinto, a third store opened in the Scinto Corporate Park in Shelton, where they use a large commercial kitchen as their base.
The restaurants are open for breakfast and lunch, and also do catering.
Their original downtown Shelton location has been closed since early this year due to the major fire that destroyed most of a city block. It’s uncertain when they might be able to reopen there.
To celebrate its 10-year anniversary in business, Liquid Lunch offered free 8-ounce soups to customers on Sept. 6, from noon to 3 p.m. at 6 Research Drive, Suite 120 (in the rear of building). There will be live music.
As part of Customer Appreciation Day, the Bialeks also invited people to tell “their Liquid Lunch story in a video booth” to receive a certificate for a free “sammich” (as they call their sandwiches).
Two Valley kids
Both Michele and Fred grew up in the Valley. Her maiden name was Manganello, and her grandmother was Mary Schmecker, who was known for her work with children at the local Boys & Girls Club.
Michele graduated from Shelton High in 1991 and traveled around Europe and lived out West for awhile. Fred grew up in Seymour and after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, began a career as a chef.
The two met when both worked at Bertucci’s on Bridgeport Avenue, and now have six children.
Doing something creative
Fred later went on to become executive chef at Sikorsky Aircraft, but always had a yearning to do something more creative.
“He started making these soups at home, such as jalapeno tomato, using things from our garden,” Michele said. “And then a friend told us, ‘You have to do something with that soup.’”
Opening Liquid Lunch was that something. They saw a “For Rent” sign, and with help and support of landlords Ralph and Elaine Matto and a lot of hard work, the store opened on Sept. 7, 2004.
“It ended up being a cornerstone downtown,” Michele said.
Liquid Lunch became a gathering place in the community, offering live local music on Saturday afternoons.
More than 250 kinds of soup
Fred has now made more than 250 soup varieties at Liquid Lunch, with up to a dozen offered at any one time. Perhaps the most popular is roasted artichoke chicken gorgonzola.
The biggest dud? Requested by a customer, is was a beer cheese flavor. “No one liked it except that one customer,” Michele said.
The two operating Liquid Lunch restaurants employ 18 people, while the Howe Avenue store had up to 12 employees.
During their journey in business, Michele said it’s always been about giving back. “As two Valley kids, it’s been great to do something for the community,” she said.
This has included hiring many local youngsters, and playing a role in revitalizing downtown.
They started Soupstock, a food and music festival that benefits an arts charity founded to honor Michele’s grandmother.
Next up for Bialeks? They hope to begin a “retail line” selling their soups in frozen boil bags, and are putting together a business plan to attract investors.
They now package and freeze vegetables for many local farms, making the produce available to farm customers during the winter. They also try to buy from local farms as much as possible.
Another goal is to open a farm-to-food restaurant in the city, perhaps on the downtown riverfront, “so we could really highlight what this area has to offer,” Michele said.