Saint's restaurant, a Queen Street fixture since its 1967 start as a hot dog joint, had no flag to put at half-staff when lunch counter regular Tom Ayers died several years ago.
The solution? The riderless horse tribute. Take the seat off the deceased's favorite counter stool.
"Kept it off for a week," Saint's second-generation co-owner John St. Pierre said recently, pointing to one of the 10 counter stools in the 90-seat breakfast-lunch-dinner family restaurant.
A few years ago, a longtime customer who was in hospice came in with a nurse for a last lunch in his favorite place. Restaurant staff helped plan his visit. He ordered his favorite hamburger with fried onions, feeding tube be damned. He ate what he could. He talked as best he could to friends who flocked to see him. His favorite waitress and Saint's co-owner Claudia St. Pierre sat with him.
"This place is a lot bigger than four walls," third-generation staffer Tyler St. Pierre said Tuesday, sitting with his parents John and Claudia to talk about the restaurant's half-century anniversary Oct. 22.
Saints' 50-year run is noteworthy in the restaurant business.
"There's a huge turnover in restaurants. Fifty years is unusual," Dave Barnofski, vice president of sales for West Haven-based City Line Distributors, Saint's longtime food supplier during a call here. "They have what a restaurant needs to stay. Good food. Consistency. Fair prices."
John St. Pierre said the family knows who to thank for its longevity: its customers. He said about 80 percent are returning customers, 20 percent are first timers. Some patrons who date back to the days of the hot dog stand now come in with their grandkids, he said.
"Wish we had a picture of everyone who ever came in here," John St. Pierre said. "I'd put them on a wall. Because they make this possible. We try to be people's other kitchen table. We're close being a social club without the alcohol."
Months ago, the St. Pierre family began planning two October anniversary specials. Saturday is $1 hot dog day. Hot dogs, usually $3.29, will be $1 from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m to celebrate the anniversary of the hot dog stand. Sunday is a special thank-you party for regulars who signed up to attend.
Mike Guerette, 60, of Bristol, a customer since his 20s, said he stopped in almost every Tuesday for the shepherd's pie. He proclaimed it the "best around."
"This is my second home, " Theresa Tonges of Southington said. She and her late husband moved to Southington from Milford in 1962, started eating at Saint's when it was the original hot dog stand with outside picnic tables.
Some regulars stop in for more than one meal a day. Some pop in between meals, get a water and sit at the counter talking with regulars and waitstaff.
In 1967 most of Queen Street was fields and meadow with just a few businesses. G.E. Madison department store was the big shopping draw for Queen Street. Pratt & Whitney's 1,400 worker factory off Queen Street provided many hot dog-eating customers.
Fifty years later, G.E. Madison and Pratt are decades gone. So are the meadows and fields. Saint's is near the Plainville end of Southintgton's very crowded Queen Street. There's a near- unbroken one mile of stores, plazas south and a very few homes from Saint's to Interstate 84.
"When my parents opened, there were about four places to eat from the Plainville line to the Cheshire line. Now there's about 90," John St. Pierre said.
He and Claudia bought out his parents Don and Joan in 1998.
Donald St. Pierre died in December 2009. Anyone who walks into the restaurant passes a drawing of him, smiling, spatula in hand, in full kitchen uniform. There's a halo over his head, fitting in a tribute to the founder.
"My mom burst into tears when she first walked in and saw it," John St. Pierre said.
What's constant is the staff connection with customers, said Claudia St. Pierre, who started as a teen waitress, married the owner's son, became a co-owner and still does waitress shifts when needed.
"When we spot someone we know walking in from the parking lot, the cook gets that person's order to start before the person even walks in the door." She said. "You know it's eggs over easy, with wheat toast."