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D’Elia's makes up for lost time as Norwich grinder haven

Customers are thankful D’Elia’s Bakery & Grinder Shop at 272 Franklin St. in Norwich is open again. After closing during the pandemic in May 2020 when an oven part broke and reopening in April this year, the line stretched to the Caribbean Market down the street, which equated to a two-hour wait.

“I’ve seen the lines. I’m surprised,” said baker Richard Heft, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Roseanna, bookkeeper for the family business. “It makes me feel wanted anyway.”

“I don’t know if I would wait two hours,” said Richard’s son, Anthony, who makes the grinders with his wife, Wendy. “It’s really nice to see everybody come out.”

While Ray Alberts of These Guys Brewing Company on Franklin Street waits his turn to order a grinder at D’Elia’s, he said, “We always come here and get grinders. They’ve got the best sandwiches around by far” and the freshest bread.

Armin Harris of Norwich agreed, adding he is used to waiting and that it’s worth it. “The food tastes really good. Everything seems fresh. They make it right in front of you, so you know they’re not messing with your food. Nothing is ever wrong when you go here. They always get it right the first time.

“They’re friendly too,” he added. “They’re nice (and have) good attitudes. They make the place nice and lively, happy, joyful.”

Hearing these comments, Richard said, “Well, we try like anything. We spend all the time we can just worrying about that.”

He pointed out their long list of grinder choices include baloney and egg salad, “which you won’t find anywhere else.”

“It’s the bread that makes the grinder,” Richard said matter-of-factly. “That is a slogan. I don’t know who started it, but we’ve had it up on this sign forever.”

He added that their ingredients are also “top of the line.”

Part of D’Elia’s secret is the “different quantities of the ingredients” that go into the dough, he said. Another major factor of why the grinder rolls are “so nice and light” is that he waits two hours to “proof” each batch, so the bread has a chance to rise.

After the dough is mixed, Richard said he has a machine that cuts it into pieces. “And then it goes through another machine, which is called an intermediate proofer. They come out of there and they just drop onto a belt and one by one go into what they call a molding machine, which flattens it out and then rolls it up into the sticks you use for the grinders. Then you stand at the end of that and stretch like crazy to keep up. You put them on pans after they come off the end of the machine,” and then onto racks, which go into the proof box.

Richard said the 14-by-14-foot proof box is basically a room with a carousel and 36 pans on each of six shelves that circulate with a lot of humidity and arevheated up to 100 degrees.

“I use live steam,” Richard said.

Eighty-two-year-old Bill Donovan of Norwich remembered during a telephone interview that when he was 5 or 6 years old D’Elia’s sold only salami grinders with good hard-crusted bread, provolone, shredded lettuce, tomato and olive oil.

“And that was all that was in a grinder. It was the only store around. Nobody else had grinders.”

Later, D’Elia’s added meatball and Genoa grinders to their offerings, said Donovan, who is convinced that the popular term “grinder” originated at D’Elia’s.

Richard said he has no way of knowing if that is a fact.

By 1971, D’Elia’s list grew to 12 choices. As their soft rolls became more popular in the mid 1970s, Richard made hard and soft rolls until about 1980 when they discontinued the hardcrusted grinder rolls. However, you can still buy round, hard-crusted Italian bread for dinner, Anthony said.

Donovan also remembers Saturday and Sunday nights were “big nights” at D’Elia’s and that the line was all the way down Franklin Street to the bottom of Boswell Avenue. He and his sister, Barbara, and brother, Ed, would pick up grinders “down city” with his mother, aunt or grandparents every weekend.

During World War II, many sailors lived in Norwich and they would buy a grinder for about 50 cents, Donovan said. “It was extremely popular.”

Describing Franklin Street as a “booming place” during the war, he said, “The closer you were to the city, the better off you were, because everything was downtown. That’s where Woolworth’s was. There were only small grocery stores in the suburbs, and D’Elia’s was close to the city.”

The shop was founded in 1929, according to Wendy, and moved to its current location in 1936.

The D’Elia family sold the business to a non-family member in 1955, but Richard Heft’s father-in-law, Frank D’Elia, bought it back in 1961; he also delivered rolls to businesses in vans.

In 1983, Richard said he bought two box trucks. Reflecting back to their peak in 1985 when they had a seven-member baking crew and four trucks, he said they delivered their rolls “through Worcester, Mass. over to the Rhode Island border,” as well as New London, Mystic, Colchester, Salem, and Storrs and “out as far as Manchester and Glastonbury.”

D’Elia’s no longer delivers, so businesses – including Uncle D’s Blazin’ BBQ and Getty Marts in Salem and Montville — have to pick up their rolls.

Richard first started to come in to purchase grinders in 1971 when he was in the Navy and lived on Division Street in Norwich. Later that same year, he started working nights as a baker to earn extra money.

“I was the whole reason they put in the sign that said, ‘No shirts, no service. No shoes, no service.’ I was 20. It was summer. It was hot out. I wasn’t the only one.”

At the time, Roseanna, made the grinders with her mother, Laura, and other paid helpers, while Frank drove one of the delivery trucks.

Richard described his mother-in-law as a “good-hearted person” and “second mother,” but not a good business person. Every day she would cook for her family.

“She didn’t know what two people or four people was when she cooked. It was always for like 400.”

She would give leftover food for free to “anybody that came in at nighttime.”

He surmised people ate their purchased grinder for lunch the next day.

“She loved her customers, boy I’ll tell ya. If nothing else, she instilled that in us. We like all the people (who) come here. I mean the customers come first. And you have to do that in a business like this. I mean, the people come back for the experience just as much as they do for the grinders.”

Now the next generation makes the grinders. Wendy said she enjoys working next to her husband all day.

“He’s my best friend. We’ve been together for 23 years.”

Asked if he hopes their 17-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son take over the business someday, Anthony said they did a great job helping out when they reopened. As for the future, he said, “We’ll see. That’s up to them, but hopefully.

“We’re not going anywhere. Oh yeah, this is my life. I’ve been here since I was a young teenager. We run it for my family, so it’s a family business. Somebody’s got to keep it going, right?”

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