Shannon Allen remembers well how she felt when her son, Walker, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 17 months old.
"It was like the rug was pulled out from underneath us. Everything we thought was real, was right, was normal for us, changed."
Allen and her husband, UConn basketball legend and NBA champion Ray Allen, became Walker's health care advocates and got involved with such organizations as the Joslin Diabetes Center and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
That paralyzing feeling surfaced again one night when Allen was out running errands. Walker, sitting in the back seat, had low blood sugar and Allen needed to feed him quickly. Her options on the road were limited.
"In that moment, what I realized is, everything being offered at a drive-through is processed food," she says. "I'm doing everything I can to keep this little boy alive and healthy and when I'm at home, I can control all that ... I knew in that moment that if I felt this frustrated and powerless, there have to be other people who felt the same way."
Allen called her husband and told him she wanted to reinvent fast food, providing quick, convenient meals with healthful, nutritious ingredients — the kind of meal Walker needed at that moment. Nine years later, the couple's restaurant brand, Grown, is a reality, offering a 100 percent organic menu of nutrient-dense fare. Its motto is "Real food, cooked slow for fast people."
The Allens opened their first Grown restaurants in Miami and Orlando, and in May, they opened a location at the new Wesleyan R.J. Julia bookstore on Main Street in Middletown, Shannon's hometown. She graduated from Mercy High School and the bookstore is just steps from the site of her very first job, at Amato's Toy & Hobby. When she heard the store would be interviewing candidates to run an in-store restaurant, she moved to get Grown into consideration.
At the Florida locations, Allen had planned to target busy parents seeking healthy, convenient meals amid hectic schedules. She quickly saw the opportunity for the brand to reach a savvy group of young diners in a college campus setting.
"I think college students and millennials are way smarter than people of my generation about how they eat," she says. "These students are vegan, gluten-free, paleo, they don't eat any artificial products, they're passionate about the environment and greenhouse gases."
In Middletown, Grown offers breakfast, lunch and dinner options ($6 to $12), with morning meal items like smoothies, fresh-pressed juices, fruit bowls with yogurt and granola, avocado toast, omelets and gluten-free pancakes. An all-day menu starting at 11 a.m. offers salads, sandwiches or wraps with choice of "vibe" — flavors like the Capri with mozzarella, tomato, romaine and kale; Havana with corn and black bean salsa, avocado and white cheddar; and Mediterranean with baby spinach, hummus, quinoa tabbouleh and feta. Proteins include free-range rotisserie chicken, seared portobello mushrooms, grilled salmon and housemade tuna salad. All-day items are $11, with protein add-ons priced at $4 to $8.
The "personal portion" menu ($15 to $18) offers simpler preparations, with choice of protein, two sides (with selections like Mexican corn, seasonal vegetables and mashed sweet potatoes) and sauce. These are also available in family-style servings for $43 to $51.
A kids' menu offers $5 breakfast options, like scrambled eggs and gluten-free mini pancakes, and $7 all-day items like soup, sandwiches, chicken tenders crusted with panko and gluten-free pasta with sides of steamed broccoli, simple salad, rice and beans or organic yogurt.
A "student menu" (available to all guests) has five selections for $9.99 apiece. There's a So Fresca entree with rice, Cuban-style black beans, organic free-range shredded chicken, pico de gallo and cilantro lime vinaigrette; The Forager, with grilled portobello mushrooms, sauteed broccoli, sweet potato mash and chimichurri; and Fresh Catch, with sauteed honey-glazed wild caught shrimp and seasonal vegetables over quinoa. Guests can also enjoy a chicken quesadilla on a crispy corn tortilla and a classic tuna melt, with a side of fresh fruit.
"We wanted to find some smaller portion items that are maybe a little less expensive and maybe will speak better to a college student's budget," Allen says. "They're still organic, still delicious, still made fresh every day."
The restaurant's dishes can be prepared according to specific dietary restrictions, with many options for vegetarian, vegan, paleo or gluten-free diets.
At the moment, Grown has six locations, including one inside a Walmart in Orlando and another at Hard Rock Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins. Allen wants to see Grown continue to expand, particularly in her home state.
"I would love to have a few standalone locations with drive-throughs in central Connecticut, for sure," she says. "I would love to be at Bradley International Airport, I'd love to be at a few more of these university campuses ... I do not believe that access to delicious, freshly prepared food should be a luxury. I believe that it should be accessible to every family."
Allen spent the summer working in the Middletown store, and encountered a mother and her two young boys during one shift when she stepped into the seating area to clean tables. She asked them how they had enjoyed their meal, and the boys, grinning, told her it was "amazing."
The mother told Allen that one of her sons had been diagnosed with a rare form of celiac disease 10 years ago and that they hadn't eaten in a restaurant since because she didn't trust that her son's food would be safe from allergens. This was their "first day back."
"She thanked me, and I had to turn the corner, I just sat down and I cried," Allen says. "I just thought, 'This is why I started.' You can never forget why you started."
Grown is in the Wesleyan University R.J. Julia Bookstore at 413 Main St., Middletown. It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 860-346-GROW, grown.org.