It started as little more than a wood hut off Main Street, then a dirt road, in Bridgeport’s North End.
The year was 1942, and the owner of the newly-opened Merritt Canteen, Lorraine Koehm, hoped to attract hungry travelers looking to take a break as they drove from New York to Boston on the nearby Merritt Parkway.
Offering hot dogs for a mere 20 cents, soda for 10 cents, grinders 40 cents and ice cream, the little restaurant was a hit right away.
Dozens of restaurants have come and gone in Bridgeport in the last 70 years, but the Merritt Canteen still operates at the same location, at 4335 Main St., at the corner of Main and Vincelette streets.
Despite the presence of diners and fast-food outlets that weren’t around in the 1940s and offer a lot of competition for the consumer dollar these days, the Canteen still gets a steady stream of customers, lining up at all hours for hot dogs, burgers, fries, clam rolls, soup and a variety of other items.
“We have good prices, quality food, strong service, convenience and a good location,” said Jay Rodriguez, the proud owner of the Merritt Canteen.
Rodriguez and his 35 employees recently celebrated the Merritt Canteen’s 70th anniversary with a gala. Some 150 members of the Trumbull High School band belted out tunes as they marched down Vincelette Street while a Bridgeport Little League team gathered at the restaurant. Mayor Bill Finch rode in on a hook and ladder fire truck, and later a DJ played music off a flat-bed truck.
“We sold hot dogs and french fries for 70 cents to mark the occasion,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, 42, has run the Merritt Canteen for the past 11 years, taking over the eatery from his father, Jehu “Yawho” Rodriguez and Ray McPadden. Rodriguez Sr. and McPadden had bought the eatery from Koehm in 1983.
Rodriguez has made a number of changes and upgrades, but stopped short of a complete overhaul.
He’s added a second kitchen to serve more customers, expanded the menu, and extended the hours on the weekend to 4 a.m., which has helped the Canteen pick up the late crowd, particularly students from nearby Sacred Heart University.
The menu at the Merritt Canteen today is more health-oriented than it used to be, said Rodriguez, who stresses fitness. You can get different salads, veggie burgers or a “bison burger” at the Merritt Canteen. That burger, topped with “our homemade buffalo sauce,” Rodriguez said, “is low fat and high protein.”
The menu at the Canteen has also been adjusted to reflect the more diverse population of Bridgeport. A recent special, for instance, listed lamb burgers, which Rodriguez said may appeal to people from Mediterranean countries who prefer lamb over pork and beef.
But a big part of the business is still traditional American-style hot dogs and hamburgers. On a busy day, Rodriguez said, the Canteen sells about 1,000 hot dogs and a similar number of burgers.
“We’ve made changes, but I wanted our loyal customers to keep coming, so we haven’t changed too much,” Rodriguez said.
And the Merritt Canteen does have loyal customers. They keep coming back, from the suburbs or even from out of state. Sometimes they come with their kids or grandkids.
A number of customers wrote in to the national TV show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” on the Food Network, and asked the producers to feature the Merritt Canteen in Bridgeport. They agreed and a show on the Park City eatery appeared in March of 2011.
Dan Blaze, 53, of Easton, has been coming to the Canteen since he was 18. “I’ve never had a bad meal here,” he said. “I love all the workers. They’ve got such a good attitude.”
Jim and Cristina Giannatasio, of Bridgeport, are also frequent patrons. On a recent day Jim was enjoying a chili cheese hot dog, while Cristina had a clam roll with onion rings.
Jim was brought to the Canteen more than 40 years ago by his parents. “One of the things I really like here is you place the order, and then you can watch the food being cooked. The kitchen is open, nothing is hidden,” said Jim, 46.
He also commented, “When you come in here, you see a lot of the people you grew up with. It’s almost like a neighborhood church.”