GROTON, Conn. — Alberto and Ashley Colmenares walked into Bennedito’s Grinders mid-day on Monday and greeted owner Rick Sager with hugs. They told him they had to come on the first day, and that the shop looks great.
Sager hadn’t taken Alberto’s order in at least 10 months, but he remembered that Alberto wanted a capicola grinder with no tomatoes.
“Best grinders around. This place is awesome,” said Alberto, who works two miles up the road at Johnson’s Hardware.
Sager, 65, opened Bennedito’s 30 years ago but was closed from early December until Monday as he went through radiation and chemotherapy for lung cancer.
He says loyal customers over the years have become like family, and they were happy to support his return. Patrons who used to frequent his shop as kids are now coming in with their own children.
Like Alberto Colmenares, longtime customer K.C. Jones said he doesn’t even has to ask for what he wants: a large combo with onions. (Sager said the combo is one of the most popular orders, along with the salami.)
“He’s a great guy to sit down and talk to for 10 minutes while you’re getting your sandwich,” Colmenares said of Sager.
The owner of the small, counter-service eatery at 233 Poquonnock Road knows he has a reputation for chatting. Sager likes to talk “politics, sports, whatever” with customers, and he said a woman might call up Bennedito’s and ask of her husband, “Is he still there?”
Sager was diagnosed with lung cancer in last fall and he began treatment at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. He closed his shop in early December.
Sager finished his radiation and chemotherapy in January, and he had surgery removing half of his left lung in March.
“Everything went great,” he said. “I had no side effects, I had no anything; I just couldn’t work.”
He said the doctors didn’t want him dealing with the public at first because of germs.
But a scan found another spot that had to be removed with radiation in August. Sager said he had to wait another six weeks for a follow-up scan, which showed up clean.
While his shop has been closed, Sager has remained busy. He got the deli case running again, and it’s empty now, but he will soon be stocking it with coleslaw, macaroni salad, potato salad and deli meats.
Sager has also installed new interior walls, which meant taking down dozens of eclectic bottles lining the walls and putting them back up. In the late 1980s or early 90s, he had a promotion where customers could bring in a bottle and get a free small grinder.
Also on the wall is a map of Groton from 1995, and Sager laments that most of the businesses on the map are now defunct.
Bennedito’s is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Sager has been living in New London for the past two years and previously lived in Groton for 38 years. He is originally from New Jersey, where a grinder is known as a hoagie.
To longtime customer Andre Fenty, the story of Sager’s reopening is an inspirational one.
“It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, and he’ll make you a good sandwich,” Fenty said.
Information from: The Day, http://www.theday.com