All images courtesy of Frank Purcaro
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2010
Note: The company has used both “Frankies” and “Frankie’s.” We have opted to use “Frankies,” which is how the company name appears on the company’s Web site.
If you grew up in the Greater Waterbury area, chances are you have eaten at Frankies. Or, you may be one of the countless individuals passing through Waterbury on I-84 who have found it hard to pass up the opportunity to stop in for one of their famous foot-long hot dogs.
Today, pulling your car into the Watertown Avenue location will bring you back to a time when drive-up roadside restaurants were a ubiquitous part of the American landscape. Few of these open-air stand shave survived, and even fewer have enjoyed the enduring success of Frankies. Family owned and operated since its founding in 1937, Frankies has been a fast-food institution in Waterbury for nearly three-quarters of a century.
From the beginning the Frankies menu reflected the diversity of Waterbury’s residents. Among its offerings: the Italian Frankie with peppers and onions; the Irish Frankie with bacon; and the Portuguese Frankie with mushrooms and onions. The building’s open-air, utilitarian design also reflects the Brass City’s hardworking, blue collar community. The original sign still stands next to the restaurant and displays the restaurant’s popular Depression-era slogan, “Come In And Eat Or We’ll Both Starve,” a clever pitch created by the two young entrepreneurs who risked all they owned to open the restaurant.
Francesco “Frankie” Caiazzo was born in the Brooklyn section of Waterbury in April 1915. He was one of five children raised by Rose and Peter Caiazzo, recent immigrants to America from Naples, Italy. Peter worked by day at a factory making boxes and by night was a mandolin player at the Vaudeville Theater.
In an effort to help the family, Peter’s eldest son Frankie dropped out of school at age 12 to work in a neighborhood barbershop cleaning spittoons for a nickel apiece. He learned how to cut hair and shave patrons.
By 1931, at age 16, Frankie opened a barbershop of his own. Italian and Lithuanian immigrants became regulars, and customers shared neighborhood stories. One particular tale caught Frankie’s attention. Blackie’s, a restaurant in a nearby town, was doing enough business selling hot dogs that the owner was able to spend the winter in Florida [See “Shack Attack,” Spring 2012]. The thought of living such a privileged lifestyle inspired Frankie to give a similar business a try. Using all the money he had saved, Frankie purchased a vacant house on South Main street in Waterbury for $3,000, choosing that location because South Main Street was the major throughway into Waterbury before Route 8 was built around the 1970s. He borrowed $500 from his father to buy the lumber needed to build a small hot-dog stand. Frankie and his brother Paul dismantled the vacant house and built their first restaurant.
The first few years proved difficult as the Great Depression was now settling in across the nation. Frankies survived because you could get a quality meal there at a cheap price. Hot dogs were 10 cents apiece, coffee was free, and live music played as people waited for their food.
In August 1941, Frankie married Florence Deblasio. By the end the year the country was at war, and Frankie enlisted in the Merchant Marines. He was stationed in New York as a barber, cutting the hair of new recruits. Back home, Florence and Frankie’s brother Paul kept the restaurant afloat. Paul met a man selling foot-long hotdogs at the New Haven shore. He told Frankie about the foot-long wieners, and they decided to give them a try. The novel foot-long hot dogs soon became the signature item at Frankies.
As the war ended and the country slowly pulled itself out of the Depression, Frankie returned from the service. The restaurant was gaining a steady following among residents in and around Waterbury, and the brothers decided to expand. They opened two new restaurants in the west and north ends of the city, one on Wolcott Road and the other on Watertown Avenue. They also bought and developed property near their South Main Street location, where they built an appliance store and motel, two of the earliest of these types of business to operate in Waterbury. Success seemed to be guaranteed, but the devastating 1955 flood destroyed the original restaurant, the newly built appliance store, and the motel. This was a major financial setback, and they decided to close the Wolcott Road location to focus their energy on the Watertown Avenue restaurant. Their decision proved a good one.
The Caiazzo family expanded. Frankie and Florence had five children, and Paul and Rose had three. The business was a second home to the Caiazzo children, as most started working by age 7, pouring sodas and cleaning counters.
The restaurant continued to be a hit with factory workers and families in the Brass City throughout the late 1950s and 1960s. As Frankies grew in popularity, a second location was added in 1971 in the north end of Waterbury on Lakewood Road. The business continued to flourish through the economic recession of the 1970s, and Frankie and Paul began franchising the popular eatery. Restaurants were opened in Naugatuck, West, Haven, Bristol, Middletown, Cheshire, and Hadley, Massachusetts; most recently two franchises opened in Tampa, Florida. The company has been the official concessionaire at Waterbury’s Municipal Stadium since 1996.
Today there are five family-run locations in Waterbury, three named Frankies and two, named Big Franks, with a barbeque theme. The menu has expanded to include fried seafood and steak sandwiches, although hot dogs remain the primary seller, with more than 3,000 pounds of hot dogs sold each week. The hot dogs and famous Frankies relish are available at supermarkets in the greater Waterbury area. The Watertown Avenue location draws fans from throughout New England and has been visited by a few notable figures. Barbara Bush spent the afternoon greeting customers and sampling hot dogs in August 1988 while campaigning for her husband. Former Governor John Rowland is also a frequent customer.
Paul died in 1987 and Frankie in 2007. Both brothers lived to see their small hot dog stand grow into a fast-food enterprise. Those small Caiazzo children who once were paid $1 a week to help out now own and run its day-to-day operations. The next generation of Caiazzos is dedicated to maintaining the same work ethic, good food, and quality service that Frankie and Paul Caiazzo introduced 73 years ago.
Frank Purcaro is the social studies chair at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury. He is also a practicing attorney and the grandson of Frank Caiazzo.
“Shack Attack: Classic Roadside Eateries,” Spring 2012
“Lunch Wagon to Space Age Diners,” Spring 2006
“A Hip Road Trip: The History of the Berlin Turnpike,” Winter 2009/2010
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