About Fitzgerald’s Foods
There is something good behind every good name. For today’s generation, Fitzgerald’s is the name of a local grocery store. But for older generations and generations past, the name holds years of memories and a rich history rooted in the Farmington Valley community.
After being discharged from the Army in 1946, John and James Fitzgerald began a grocery store in Hartford. Yvette Fitzgerald married her husband, Jim, while he owned that first store on New Britain Avenue. The store was quite successful and the brothers saw a need for their business in what was known as the tritown area of Avon, Canton and Simsbury. “They moved to Avon in 1957. They rented a space in Tri-Town Plaza,” Yvette explained. “At that time there was a 5 and 10 cent store, a hardware store, Western Auto and a drug store in that plaza. There was a paint store and a fruit stand, a nursery and very little else on Route 44 at that time.”
Jim and Yvette’s daughter, Laurie Regish, explained, “It was the boom time. My dad clearly came into the Valley at the onset of the development of it.” On Friday, Oct. 29, Yvette and Laurie sat at Yvette’s kitchen table with The Valley Press and pored over old newspaper clippings, tracing years of Fitzgerald’s history. One Hartford Courant article from Nov. 19, 1970 showed the opening of the second Fitzgerald’s Food Store in the Drake Hill Mall in Simsbury. As years passed, Fitzgerald’s became one of the largest employers in the Farmington Valley with over 300 employees, second only to Ensign-Bickford. Jim Fitzgerald was one of the first in the Valley to hire children with learning disabilities, and he also took to hiring elderly men. One Farmington Valley Herald article about this practice began, “Four Farmington Valley men have discovered a simple formula for staying healthy: bagging it.”
In dedication to the community, Fitzgerald’s also developed a scholarship fund for many of the high school students that worked for the store. An unidentifiable newspaper clipping from around the mid-’60s read, “Through the hiring of area high school students as employees, the Fitzgerald brothers saw a financial need for those young people who wished to continue their education beyond high school and so they established the Fitzgerald Scholarship. The scholarship awards $750 to a graduating senior from each of the Simsbury, Avon and Canton high schools.” The scholarship officially began in 1962.
Jack and Jim became known throughout the community for their dedication to the customers and recognized for the need that Fitzgerald’s Food Store filled in the area. “I can remember one woman calling on a holiday who had forgotten to pick up a ham or something she needed for the meal, and my father ran to the store to get her what she needed to feed her family. The customer always came first, but we never felt slighted by it. He did what he had to do and he was very successful at everything he did. It was an honor to be his daughter or his wife,” Regish said. She paused for a moment and added with wide eyes and a big smile, “… and he so loved my mom.” Yvette blushed for a moment and said, “Well, yes,” and continued recalling memories of the importance of her husband’s business. “During the winter time when we had storms and it wasn’t plowed, the police would come and pick him up to bring him to the store,” she said. “That’s how badly it was needed,” Regish explained.
Yvette and the couple’s four children, Laurie, Cathy, Bob and Susan, grew used to having Jim out of the house much of the time, but also developed a deep respect for their father. Everywhere the family went Jim was recognized by a customer. “I remember that no matter where we were, we ran into people. We were in Disney World on July 4 and ran into people from Simsbury that knew my dad. We were in Yellowstone Park and ran into a doctor and his family from Canton that knew him,” Regish said. “I remember feeling special.”
The business quickly became a family affair as the children grew. Regish and her older sister worked as cashiers, and Yvette worked for a few years in the store office. “John had worked in the A & P meat room before they went into the service, so he eventually ran the meat department and Jim took care of the business of the store,” Yvette explained. After 12 years in business, the Farmington Valley Herald called Jim and John the “food giants of the Farmington Valley.”
On Feb. 17, 1977, the Farmington Valley Herald recognized Fitzgerald’s for celebrating 20 years and in 1979 the brothers opened an East Granby store. Fitzgerald’s became the largest distributor in the state of Connecticut of S&H green stamps, adding to the store’s popularity. The stores had some excitement through the years as Jim had to run to it for many late night calls when the alarm went off, often because the store had been burglarized. “They came in the back door one night and took the whole safe and emptied it of the papers inside. The police finally found the safe in the Farmington River,” Yvette said.
For the family, life revolved around Jim’s store and the name Fitzgerald. “I look back on it and I remember a lot of things in terms of day to day with my dad in the store, but now, as I’m older and look back on it, I think of the other things my father did like how he used local as much as he could; the food in the store or even the plumbing. They shopped at our store and when my dad needed services, we used them,” Regish recalled. Though Jim dedicated his life to his customers and his store, he also took time for his children. Regish said, “The summer of 1963 we drove six and a half weeks across the country. We saw everything from the Hoover Dam to Salt Lake City to Disney World. It was the best gift parents could ever give their children, to devote that kind of time to their family.”
Jim became sought after for his opinions and input in town. He was on the school board of Mount St. Joseph’s School, served as president of Avon Country Club and was a founding member of Hop Meadow Country Club. “He was really a very smart man,” Regish said. “He used to stand at the register packing groceries while the girl was punching everything in and watch the numbers and total it up in his head. He was double checking the math and if you were off, he’d tell you.” “I never made that mistake again,” she added with a laugh.
Just as the brothers opened Fitzgerald’s at the right time, Yvette said that they sold at the right time as well. A 1981 clipping from the Hartford Courant reads, “After 35 years of cutting meat and selling groceries, the Fitzgerald brothers, Jim and Jack, have called it quits.” They sold the Avon and Simsbury stores first, and kept the East Granby store for four more years which Jim’s son ran. The company that purchased the first two stores felt strongly about keeping the name Fitzgerald’s, so the East Granby store became “Fitzie’s Market.” Another 1981 article on the selling of the Avon and Simsbury stores reads, “The wood beams in the basement of the former Fitzgerald’s food store in Avon are marked with hundreds of names of employees, bag boys and clerks who maintained a tradition of writing their names and the dates they worked there.” “That shows how much it meant to people,” Regish said.
For Yvette and Jim, retirement meant that they could go to Arizona for longer periods of time, where they had been vacationing, and, eventually, they moved there. Yvette, who now lives in Avon, continued to go into Fitzgerald’s to shop while the couple still lived in Simsbury. Regish said, “I have a reluctance still to going in. Maybe it’s too emotional for me.” Regish’s children worked for Warren Boyle, who bought the store in the late 1980s, while they were in high school. “I think they didn’t quite know how to feel about this being their grandfather’s store but not being his anymore. Warren knew who they were, but they didn’t really tell anyone else,” she said.
Just as a house holds memories and, one day when children are grown, is sold to a new family to make new memories, so does a family-owned store. This past July, a new family, Bryan Devoe and his wife, Sandy, and daughter, Heather Kelly, purchased the store. “The legacy of it, the name, carries on. It’s nice now that it’s still owned by a family,” Regish said. On May 9, 1988, the town of Simsbury awarded Jim Fitzgerald the Hometown Hero Award. “This program recognizes all those who have made Simsbury what it was in the past, what it is today and what it will be in the future,” the certificate reads.
Jim passed away Dec. 11, 2007 at the age of 91. Yvette, who will be 90 in March, and her children, Laurie will be 61, Cathy, 63, Bob, 59, and Susan, 52, think every day of how the patriarch of their family changed the Valley and them. “One thing that’s remarkable of our family is that all of us children are here within 10 miles of my mom,” Regish said. Yvette explained with a chuckle, “They all went to college, but they came back. People always say, “You must have been good to them.” Regish added quietly, “They were.”