A slice of sisterhood: Joe’s Cafe owner Meg Sullivan preserves the past while reshaping the culture of a city landmark

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, does paperwork Wednesday morning before the restaurant opens that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, does paperwork Wednesday morning before the restaurant opens that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, does paperwork Wednesday morning before the restaurant opens that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, does paperwork Wednesday morning before the restaurant opens that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, does paperwork Wednesday morning before the restaurant opens that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, does paperwork Wednesday morning before the restaurant opens that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, does paperwork Wednesday morning before the restaurant opens that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After spending the morning doing paperwork, Sullivan checks on supplies in the kitchen. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Meg Sullivan, owner of Joe’s Cafe, gets the cash register ready for a busy night after doing paperwork that morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After spending the morning doing paper work Meg Sullivan, owner of Joes Spaghetti and Pizza, goes into the kitchen to make sure they have what they need for the night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sullivan talks to cook Maribel Iglesias to make sure they have what they need for the night at Joe’s Cafe. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • After spending the morning doing paperwork, Meg Sullivan talks to cook Maribel Iglesias to make sure they have what they need for the night at Joe’s. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe’s Cafe in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Meg Sullivan takes a phone order at Joe’s Café in Northampton, Feb. 26. For a story on Sullivan, the first solo owner of Joe’s, and the first woman to run the restaurant since Camella and Joe Biandi opened its doors more than 70 years ago, see Page C1. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Meg Sullivan talks to Pat Joyce at Joe’s Pizza in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Meg Sullivan carries pizza from the kitchen to the dining room at Joe’s Pizza in Northampton, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Meg Sullivan serves a couple at Joe’s Pizza in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Meg Sullivan gets a drink order at Joe’s Pizza in Northampton, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Meg Sullivan talks to bartender Chris Hoffman at Joe’s Pizza in Northampton, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 3/6/2019 6:00:51 AM

Note: This profile grew out of an assignment for a Smith College writing workshop. The class, titled “Writing Women,” was taught by journalist and author Susan Faludi.

For years, Meg Sullivan, the owner of Joe’s Cafe, has lived and worked within the same 50 yards. Her blue house sits next to the restaurant on Market Street, so close, in fact, that Joe’s signature, neon sombrero sign shines its light through her upstairs window.

Most mornings, around 8:30 a.m., Sullivan walks to Tart Baking Co. on Main Street to get coffee and a pastry. She then walks back, opens the door to Joe’s Cafe and begins her workday. She calls this her “morning commute.” A burst of cold air follows behind her as she makes her way over to the bar and sits down at one of the stools. Piles of receipts and notebooks rest on the counter in front of her. The air carries the distinct smell of lemon-scented cleaning solution.

Sullivan picks up a television remote and mutes the sounds coming from a sports channel. Above the screen hangs a long string of yellow-and-white golf tournament banners.

A figure moves through the dining room with a mop and bucket: Petra “Peggy” Delvalle, who cleans the restaurant every morning. Sullivan, Delvalle and the prep cooks will work through the morning, preparing for what likely will be a busy night.

Often, customers start showing up the moment Joe’s Cafe opens at 4 p.m. 

“It’s Northampton’s living room,” says one customer.

“Not a lot of places have this old-school feel, that hometown feel,” says Al Borowski of Easthampton, who says he comes to Joe’s Cafe every week. 

At another table, four friends proudly boast that they all have Joe’s Cafe T-shirts. 

“Sundays are for Joe’s,” says Shelley Smiarowski of Hatfield, one of the women at the table. 

Joe’s Cafe, or Joe’s Pizza and Spaghetti House, has been a city staple since 1938. The menu sports a medley of Italian and American cuisine, featuring, among other dishes, hearty oven-baked lasagna, Spanish clams or mussels, and thin-crust pizzas with toppings that range from the classic to the innovative. 

Much of the menu has stayed the same for as long as Sullivan can remember, but a chalkboard of specials — dreamed up, for the most part, by Sullivan – brings fresh concepts. 

One special dish, “Linguini Molinari,” Sullivan named after Italian golfer Francesco Molinari. After attending the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, Sullivan went to Amherst College, where she played on the golf team. Her father, Jack Sullivan, has been an avid golfer for years and introduced his daughter to the sport. 

It was while studying history at Amherst that Sullivan began working at Joe’s Cafe.

“I figured she’d be on Wall Street, not Market Street,” one customer says of her. “She doesn’t have to Google anything.” 

History preserved

“How’s it goin?’” Sullivan calls out to a couple who just came in. Sullivan’s voice has a rough sturdiness to it. She rounds the corner from the kitchen and bustles around, opening bottles, pouring beers and corralling customers. A woman spots Sullivan and turns to her husband, saying quietly that they should talk to Sullivan and see if she can get them a table any faster. 

Not only does Sullivan know everyone; she seems to be genuinely friends with them. With her blond ponytail, darting blue eyes and no-nonsense attitude, she has this restaurant wrapped around her finger.

Around her, patrons wait for tables, eager to order their $5.50 plates of spaghetti and meatballs. Katie Lyons, another waitress at Joe’s and one of Meg’s close friends, winds through the dining room with steaming heaps of pasta. Customers admire the restaurant’s original details: signed dollar bills in frames, dozens of colorful college pennants, a UMass football helmet from the 1996 national championship, a Silver City jukebox, and, in one corner, a painted sign that reads “JU 4-3229,” which old-timers say was the number patrons used to call for a taxi.

Murals line the nicotine-browned walls: sprawling paintings of Argentine gauchos whose faded mouths almost seem to chatter along with the room. Joe’s Cafe is famous for them — they were painted in the 1950s by James Waldron, whose work can be seen in numerous restaurants around Northampton. Sullivan says they get two to three questions about the murals every night. A few times a year, customers will come in expecting to get a menu with burritos and tacos on it, she says. Sullivan isn’t entirely sure why the gauchos were painted in the first place, but people have their theories. 

“It’s kinda fun having [them] on the wall for an Italian place. I guess it plays into the Northampton melting pot because I’m Irish and Polish running an Italian place,” Sullivan says.

“Me and my friend Katie,” she adds, “after a couple of drinks at the end of the night, we make up these scenarios about the gauchos … kind of like ‘Night at the Museum.’ Like if the characters came alive, maybe they could all say what they saw that night.”

The murals and eclectic decor aren’t the only reminders of the past. Sullivan and many others at the restaurant love to tell stories about Mrs. Biandi, one of the original owners of the restaurant.

Mrs. Biandi used to stir the spaghetti sauce in the front window, or so the legend goes. 

Many believe that her ghost still haunts the restaurant in subtle ways, like when the jukebox begins to play songs without being touched, or when someone sent to the basement to grab a keg hears an unidentifiable clatter. 

“In my younger years, when I was a skittish 20-year-old working here,” says Sullivan, “the older waitresses would say ‘Oh, Meaghan, don’t go down in the basement alone! Mrs. Biandi fell down those stairs. The basement is haunted!’”

When Joe’s Cafe first opened in 1938, the restaurant was little more than Camella and Joe Biandi cooking spaghetti for their neighbors. Eventually, the original duo moved on, replaced by brothers Tony and Joe Caruso. Then came Gerry Rainville and Jack Sullivan, business partners who bought Joe’s in 1974. When Gerry decided to retire in 2011, Jack offered the restaurant to his only child: a daughter, Meg Sullivan.

While she was in college, Sullivan didn’t want to own a business. But the idea grew on her. When Sullivan finally came around, she became the first solo owner of Joe’s Cafe, and the first woman to run the restaurant since Camella and Joe Biandi opened its doors more than 70 years ago.

Sullivan, who has lived next door to Joe’s since graduating college, was raised in Northampton. “Just down the road,” she says.

Painted blue with red trim, Sullivan’s house follows in a family tradition of blue houses. Her parents, who live a couple miles away in Northampton, also have a blue house. Every year on Christmas Eve, the family gathers there for Wigilia: a traditional Polish celebration characterized by fasting and then feasting. Sullivan is close with her parents, and her father, Jack, frequently comes by the restaurant at night. Sullivan’s mother, Ann, was a middle school art teacher while Meg was growing up, and her father coached youth basketball and softball when he wasn’t at the restaurant.

Sullivan points to a bar stool. With a laugh, she says, “I grew up there.” 

‘Like family’

There’s plenty of personal history wrapped up in the restaurant for Sullivan, who makes it a point to preserve Joe’s old-school character. Over the years, she has diligently maintained original features, including having the murals restored and even going so far as to hand-dye new lampshades with black tea when the old ones, browned by years of cigarette smoke, needed to be replaced.

Above one of the doorways hangs a photo of Rose Mumblow, who used to be a waitress at Joe’s. In the photo, which was taken in the 1970s, a young Rose stands behind the bar, hands firmly on the counter, her blond hair curling around her smiling face. 

“There were no rules when Rose worked,” according to waitress Katie Lyons. 

As Lyons tells it, Mumblow was an exuberant Polish woman who kept her money in her mattress and used to be the heart of Joe’s, embodying old-school Northampton. “Tough as nails, heart of gold,” says Lyons.

Every year around Christmas, Mumblow kept herself busy by making a present for every single member of Joe’s staff. In each bag, she included a six-pack of beer, a lighter, some flower bulbs and a handmade ornament. One year, she doused a bunch of pine-wood pieces in chemicals so they’d glow different colors once burned, then threw the pieces of wood into the gift bags, too.

Mumblow’s spirit still remains in the way Sullivan runs the restaurant. For the currently all-female waitstaff at Joe’s, Sullivan regularly makes adjustments to work schedules in order to accommodate many of the waitresses who have children. She never schedules them on Halloween, says Lyons, so they can go trick-or-treating with their kids. 

This undercurrent of female leadership and compassion has helped kept Joe’s afloat over the decades. “It’s really like family, you know,” says Lyons, adding that Sullivan helps make it feel that way. “I’m surprised she doesn’t have a degree as a social worker because she’s so good to everybody.” 

As the night winds down, Sullivan sits on top of one of the red-and-white gingham plastic tabletops, her legs dangling off the edge, a pint of beer in her hand. 

“I think I’d always kinda secretly been interested in taking the business over,” she says with a smile.




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