RANDOLPH, NJ- The charming old house has the nostalgic look and feel of an establishment from days gone by. Sitting on Dover Chester Road, on the border of Randolph and Chester, Bill’s Luncheonette has been a fixture serving both communities, as well as others who pass through, for 65 years. They are celebrating those 65 years with an anniversary party on May 31, (rain date June 1), to honor it's longest owner, Bill Crowley. The luncheonette will close for five days before the celebration for renovations, and will reveal its makeover on the 31st.
The Crowley family has owned Bill’s Luncheonette since the 1940's. Bill Crowley passed away in 2006, at which time his son Reggie took over. A few months ago, the luncheonette was again taken over, this time by Bruce Button, son of Kathy Crowley-Sheehy, Bill’s daughter.
“History, community, and the mom and pop aspect makes this place. There’s a really strong sense of community here both from Chester and from Randolph. People just meet here and hang out. It’s a really funny environment. It’s almost like a bar but with no alcohol. People who have never met each other ever will just strike up a conversation here. You just get a different feel, a different ambience,” said Button.
Button has worked on and off at Bill’s Luncheonette since he was 12. He never thought that sixteen years later he would be running his grandfather’s restaurant.
“After my grandfather passed and my uncle took over, I came home to work here. I was working here two or three days just to help out. It was all crazy,” said Button.
When Reggie took the business over he obtained all the responsibility of running a restaurant, from the legwork to financial aspects. Button came home to help take on some of the physical labor. Button began working as a cook so that Reggie could handle the other responsibilities.
“Around that time I kind of realized that I really liked running a restaurant. I just enjoyed it a lot,” said Button.
At the time, Button contemplated which route to take his life, as there were other things he was considering doing.
Reggie Crowley was also contemplating the same thing, as he wanted to become a cop, something he did not realize until after he started running the restaurant. Crowley ended up taking a job at the Morristown Police Department which opened the door for Button.
“I tried to learn from him and all the other aspects of running a business because at the time all I knew how to do was just cook and manage the dinner,” said Button.
Button remembers his grandfather showing him tips and tricks on the grill when he was learning how to cook as a kid. Crowley taught him things like how to use the lottery machine when they sold lottery tickets.
In 1940, the Crowley family moved to the area from Kansas City, Kansas. The closest store around was a general store that was about to close down. Crowley’s father decided to buy the store so that the community could continue to have a store nearby.
The general store had a generalized line of merchandise for the public. The post office was also in the store until 1970. Crowley was the post master for about 30 years and he also ran the luncheonette.
When the store first opened it was solely a general store, but that feature of the luncheonette has long been taken out. It was not viable as there are now other convenience stores in the area. Although Button doubts he would add it back into the restaurant, he says that he would love to have pieces of a general store still attached.
“I still sell eggs and milk. I sell bread whenever someone asks for it. Our grandfather always used to say, ‘If we have it, we’ll sell it,’” said Button.
There will be some renovations done to the luncheonette with some of Bruce’s personally saved money and the earnings from years of saving.
“I’m going to be changing a little bit with some renovations but I’m hoping to keep that same feeling and ambiance. I don’t want to go too far away from that. I just want everything to be nice and new but still feel homey,” said Button.
The floors will be redone, as well as painting and shelving. There will be new tables and chairs and booths along the wall, which will add an extra table. The four tops will become two tops that also add extra seats.
The restaurant has been renovated multiple times before. “You have to keep up with the times. Over the years my dad made changes just for that,” said Sheehy.
At one point they had pizza for many years at the restaurant and then did away with the idea after a pizzeria opened across the street.
The celebration at the end of May will be a barbeque for the public to enjoy. The family invited many of the luncheonette’s former employees, one of them being Sheehy’s best friend who worked at the luncheonette for 30 years.
They also wanted to get the first employee to attend the barbeque, who currently resides in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, she will not be attending due to prior engagements. She was asked to write a letter that would explain what the luncheonette was like when she first worked there.
Sheehy is still in the process of contacting more former employees. So far there will be about 100 employees that will attend the barbeque.
Button hopes the celebration will bring in a few new faces. Sheehy would like to see people who once knew her father stop by.
“My dad was a character. They might have come in here just to talk to him and once he was gone maybe they just stopped coming in. Overall we really want the people who come here now to come together for some free burgers and ice cream and celebrate,” said Sheehy.
Bill Crowley was a hard worker that knew what he wanted in his business and how he wanted things presented.
“Like I said my dad was a character. If you walked in here with your hat on backwards he might throw you out. That’s just how he was. Some people thought it was cool. They came in just for that reason. They wanted to see, ‘Is Bill going to yell at me?’ He was just very old school.”
Button recalls being yelled at by his grandfather a few times himself. Sheehy recalled not being able to track mud into the restaurant because that was sure enough to earn a yelling. Cursing was not allowed in Bill’s Luncheonette either since it was a family establishment.
“He knew everything. People enjoyed talking so much to him because he knew everything. He knew the history of the area, what was going on in the world. He was also very street smart,” said Sheehy.
Customers have been coming back to the restaurant for years. One of the luncheonette’s longest customers, Mr. D, has a sandwich named after him on the menu. His favorite sandwich dedicated to him for being such a longtime dedicated customer. There is also a pudding that the restaurant serves called “Pop’s Pudding” that is a recipe from another longtime customers, the Flagers.
Bill Crowley built up an establishment 65 years ago that is still withstanding the test of time. The luncheonette has seen old and new faces year after year. It has become a place where towns can gather and feel united.
“I just want everybody in the community to get together and celebrate the history. Celebrate the heritage,” said Button.
“Not just our family,” said Sheehy, “but the other family that owned this, the Strikers. They owned it as a general store from 1860 until 1940. So it’s been two families. That’s it. It’s a family friendly place.”