WALLINGFORD — Everything at Brunetti’s Luncheonette has a story — the whittled wood loon, the wood-burned mushroom etched with an elk, the Mexican leather coin purse and keychain with a real scorpion encased — all gifts from customers to owner Colline Gernert.
These handmade items reflect the same dedication and care that Gernert put into making her customers at the restaurant feel special.
“I have such wonderful customers,” she said Tuesday, resting on one of the vintage chrome and vinyl counter stools. “That's the nicest part about this work.”
The longtime breakfast spot at 619 Center St. has been closed since the pandemic began. Gernert and her husband, Frank Gernert, have decided to retire and sell the building, which has been on the market for about a month.
The mixed use building has the ground floor storefront and two one-bedroom apartments upstairs. Both apartments are occupied, with leases in place for about another year.
Colline Gernert, 75, was often a one-woman show at Brunetti’s, cooking and serving breakfast and lunch to visitors and devoted regulars — many of whom were residents of the senior apartments across the street — for more than 35 years.
Walter Brunetti opened the restaurant in 1960. The Gernerts kept the name when they took over in the 1980s.
Not only does Brunetti’s name still grace the building’s entrance, but his likeness does as well. A window painting of an Italian chef — with the letter B on his hat, serving a sandwich — remains intact from 1960, only the faded white paint showing its age.
Brunetti moved to Florida after he retired from the restaurant business, and died in 2002.
”When he came up (from Florida),” Gernert said, “he would have breakfast here … He’d usually check on us every year when he came up, to see how were doing. I guess he was quite a character.”St. Patrick’s Day
Gernert put her own stamp on the restaurant, hanging up “Quiet” signs from when she was a roving marshal at the GHO golf tournament in Cromwell, a photo depicting the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry — her customers were about half and half, she said — and a personal autograph from baseball player Luis Tiant.
Realtor Eileen Smith, of H. Pearce Real Estate, is co-managing the sale, since it involves both a residential and a commercial piece.
She remembers dining with her family at the restaurant, recalling there was only one menu that got passed around to newcomers.
Smith recalled customers would help Gernert when she was busy — going behind the counter, picking up the coffee pot and serving refills all around.
Gernert was still slinging bacon and eggs and flipping pancakes in Nov. 2018, when she lost her balance while walking and fell sideways onto a load-bearing pole in the middle of the restaurant floor.
She broke her ribs, and reduced the restaurant’s hours to part time as she made a slow recovery.
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020. Gernert had decorated for St. Patrick’s Day, and the shamrocks and knickknacks — including a souvenir piece of the Blarney Stone, another gift from a customer — are still on display on a shelf behind the counter.
“We bought this on St. Patrick's Day,” she said. “It’s strange because it was on St. Patrick's Day when the Covid closed everything. It was to the day.”
The rest of the place is similarly untouched from 16 months ago. The coffee mug collection is still stored beneath the coffee maker, which the Gernerts still fire up every day to make their coffee.
There are stacks of oval plates under the stove, which has a thermostatic griddle that distributes the heat evenly, and two four-slice toasters.
The red formica countertop is worn out in places, but the original counter stools — chrome with red vinyl seats — are still there on the black and white checkered tile floor.
There’s even a bottle of maple syrup still sitting out on the counter, dated April 2020.‘Religous cacti’
The 121-year-old building began as a grocery store with a soda fountain, according to Gernert.
The building changed hands a couple of times, she said, becoming a meat market.
Town historian Bob Beaumont said he remembered when the storefront was a convenience store in the early to mid-1950s, owned by a family named Walker.
“It was a typical little convenience store, we had them all over town,” he said. “That’s what it was when I was an eight or 10 year old … I primarily would end up buying candy or soda there.”
Brunetti converted it to a luncheonette in 1960, and it’s been a restaurant ever since.
Built in 1900, the total living space is 2,301 square feet. The restaurant area is 1,178 square feet.
The total appraised value is $172,900, according to town property records. The asking price is $339,000.
It last changed hands in 1994 when it sold for $165,000. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to $301,133 in today’s money.
Gernert said she also had to buy the businesses in addition to the building in the 1980s.
She said she plans to leave the restaurant equipment that’s bolted to the walls, including the thermostatic stove, and would consider including other things like the tables and chairs, if a prospective buyer wants them.
“I talked to a friend of mine who has Amish friends,” Gernert said. “If the people (eventual buyers) don't want the silverware, or the cups — and the cups are individual cups (that) I'm going to give back to the ones that brought them here. Other than that, I’m going to to give them to the Amish, or the church.”
In addition to her personal mementoes, Gernert is taking several flowering cactus plants that bloom not only on Christmas, but Thanksgiving and Easter as well. She calls them her “religious cacti.”
Gernert said that in retirement, she hopes to work on her house on Anna Drive, which she and Frank built from scratch almost 50 years ago, and spend time with her two adult granddaughters.