It is seven-thirty in the morning on a pleasant Friday in May, and Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette already has a pretty good crowd. Sunlight is in the window, fresh treats are in the pastry case, and a row of early risers sits at the vintage lunch counter, chatting and drinking coffee or tea.
Masks on the faces of staff and some customers are reminders that we are still coming out of a pandemic. If not for that, things would feel downright normal at this café — or is it a diner? — at the corner of Railroad Place and Greenwood Avenue in Hopewell Borough.
On the breakfast menu is the usual fare: eggs with home fries and toast ($8), eggs Benedict with pork roll in place of the traditional Canadian bacon ($13), pancakes ($10; $11 for buckwheat), a roasted veggie bowl with eggs ($12), vegan avocado toast ($10), croissant bread pudding ($10) and more.
Customers Bob Witkowski, Keith Gwin and Doug Dixon are seated at a table in the back. They are waiting for Sal Torre and George Hall to join them. They are there to eat breakfast together, but that is not the only reason. They are also there to see Witkowski present Chubby’s owners, Lyn Farrugia and Michelle Hamilton, with a surprise gift.
The gift is an ice cream scoop. One with a story that ties into the history of the restaurant, the building, the American Legion and indeed into the history of Hopewell Borough itself.
As Witkowski sees it, he is returning the scoop to its rightful place. Chubby’s place.
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Since 2019, Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette has been a welcome addition to the borough dining scene, serving lunch as well as breakfast.
Popular lunch items on the menu include grilled cheese ($12), the Chubby’s burger ($16), chili ($4.50 and $9) and a vegan quinoa bowl ($13). The restaurant also regularly posts specials on its Facebook page.
The building that houses Aunt Chubby’s has stood just down the street from the Hopewell train station since at least the 1890’s. It has served at various times as a candy store, toy store, grocery store, tobacco shop, soda fountain, ice cream parlor, and luncheonette. Often in its earlier years, it was all of those things, as proprietors sought to provide rail passengers and personnel with the things they needed most.
In 1979, the store in the building was known as Cliff’s Corner Store, and was owned by Clifford and Lillian Skubas. That year, they sold it to an employee, Carol “Chubby” Montello, and her business partner, Rose Sponholtz, who changed it to Rose and Chubby’s, a place for breakfast and lunch. When Sponholtz left the business in 1991, it became known simply as Chubby’s.
By the time Montello owned Chubby’s, the train station was all but out of use, and the restaurant depended largely on locals, many of whom became regulars. As the stories go, tables in the back of Chubby’s were unofficially reserved for the regulars. Newcomers sat toward the front.
Chubby loved the restaurant, but she did not always get up at the crack of dawn and in time to open the restaurant herself. So earlybird regulars got used to opening the restaurant for themselves, preparing their own coffee and sometimes even making their own breakfast. It was that kind of place.
Friends have said that Chubby was no longer doing enough business to stay open when she closed the restaurant in 2012. But she continued to live in the apartment on the second floor, and was known to sit in the closed restaurant, smoking and reading the newspaper.
Montello made international news in 2015 when, seriously ill, she requested to be taken out of the hospital and back to her restaurant so she could die there. The story was reported by the Times of Trenton and picked up by People Magazine and newspapers all over the world. Montello was 78.
In her will, she bequeathed the building and the things in it to three sisters who were very special to her: Lyn Farrugia, Michelle Hamilton and Joanne Farrugia. When the women were young, Chubby had worked as nanny for their father, Tony Farrugia, and they became like family to her.
It is they who arranged for Chubby — Aunt Chub to them — to spend her final hours in the place that she loved most. Lyn Farrugia is a practitioner of homeopathy, Hamilton is a second grade teacher at Hopewell Elementary, and Joanne Farrugia is co-owner of JaZams toy store in Princeton.
After taking possession, they were unsure what would be the best thing to do with the building. The restaurant had been closed at that point for three years. But by 2017, two of the sisters, Lyn Farrugia and Michelle Hamilton, had resolved to do whatever it took to update and reopen Chubby’s in Aunt Chub’s honor.
That was no small task. Every owner of the building since at least the 1950’s had done little to improve it, inside or out. In photos taken around the time Montello died, the wood paneling, cigarette case, candy case, cash register, chrome luncheonette stools and houndstooth-pattern flooring that were still there all looked like museum pieces.
To reopen Chubby’s, the restaurant, the apartment, the basement, even the sidewalk all had to be repaired, modernized and brought up to code, including accessibility requirements for which the building had long been grandfathered. But both Farrugia and Hamilton worked full time. Where could they find the time to supervise?
So the restoration of Chubby’s became a community project. Architect Kevin Wilkes, of Princeton Design Guild, took on a lot of the design work for the renovation, and Ruth Morpeth of Morpeth Contemporary Gallery helped with some interior design choices. But many friends and neighbors pitched in to help bring Chubby’s, not just back to life, but also into a new, 21st century phase of its life.
That all-hands mentality didn’t go away once the restaurant finally opened in 2019, after two long years of rehab, as Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette. Even after it opened, locals continued to volunteer their time, as servers, decorators, even as cooks. In that sense, Aunt Chubby’s has maintained the connection with the borough that it had when Chubby herself owned it.
And her spirit manifests today in other ways as well. In the stories that were written after Chubby died, old regulars told of the way Chubby used to feed customers whom she knew could not afford to pay for their meals. Farrugia and Hamilton knew that that was a legacy they had to build on.
So they started a nonprofit, The Chubby’s Project. Initially, it was a program whereby the restaurant would donate gift cards to the Hopewell Borough Council of Churches, to be distributed through the churches to people in need.
When the pandemic hit, Farrugia channeled the Chubby’s Project in new ways. An outdoor food pantry was installed in the alley next to the restaurant as part of a Hopewell Valley school district program, stocked by members of the community and available 24 hours a day to anyone who needed food or household supplies. Cheryl Pothast came on board to help organize food drives and coordinate education and outreach for the project.
That pantry is still there and fully stocked today, with a second full cabinet now installed beside it. Additionally, The Chubby’s Project blossomed into a hot lunch program, providing 170 meals each week to people in the community. On Tuesdays, area restaurants donate soup that The Chubby’s Project distributes to vulnerable seniors in town.
Among these volunteers are Chubby’s Project “lunch boss” Townsend Olcott and Rev. Dennis O’Neill, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in the borough, who deliver these meals and also use them as a reason to check in on the seniors and engage in conversation with them.
“We’re weaving and knitting together a community to serve the community,” Farrugia says. “One cannot put a metric on wellness. Community connection is love between neighbors, and neighbors help each other. When we started the nonprofit, it helped the restaurant, because we could keep people employed. It wasn’t out of necessity, it was out of generosity of spirit. It came from a place of, we were going to do it because we couldn’t not do it.”
Now with Gov. Phil Murphy easing pandemic restrictions, Chubby’s is once again looking like the cozy and busy little corner café that Farrugia and Hamilton dreamed it could be. Today, staff are always there to open the restaurant (and make the food), and there are large windows where the wood paneling used to be, letting in plenty of light.
But the lunch counter is still there, right where it always was. And so are the memories.
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To explain why Bob Witkowski gave Hamilton and Farrugia an ice cream scoop, we must first go back a little further in time.
The Hopewell train station opened in 1877, providing service for passengers, mail and freight. The station spurred commercial and industrial development on Railroad Place, and indeed, throughout the borough in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Passenger traffic along the line was strong for decades, but began a serious decline in the 1960’s. Hopewell Station ceased operations in 1982, although the tracks remain in use for cargo trains. Today, Hopewell Station is owned by Hopewell Borough and serves as a community center and arts venue.
But in 1953, trains still stopped at the station, and customers still wanted candy, ice cream, cigarettes and light lunch service when they stopped into town. That’s the year that Jimmy and Marie Hall bought it from Walter Ewing and started calling it Jimmy’s Corner Store.
Jimmy Hall was a veteran and a member of American Legion Post 339, and like many Legion posts, Post 339 often hosted roast beef dinners that were open to the community. When he helped out with the dinners at the post, Hall would bring his ice cream scoop with him from the store to use to serve dessert.
Witkowski, Torre, George Hall (a distant cousin of Jimmy) and Gwin — the men who were on hand to witness the giving of the gift — are also veterans and members of the American Legion. Witkowski, who has been a barber in Hopewell since 1959, remembers both Hall and Torre using the scoop at those dinners.
After the Halls sold the store to Kip and Barbara Slobiski in 1971, they donated some items, including the ice cream scoop, to Post 339. When the post was preparing to sell its building on Van Dyke Road in 2010, it auctioned off a number of items, including the scoop, which Witkowski purchased, and not just for sentimental reasons. He says he has used it many times over the years to serve ice cream to his grandkids.
Like the others at the table, Witkowski was a customer of Chubby’s, and of Jimmy and Marie Hall’s. He can even picture the spot on the counter where the scoop used to sit. In giving the scoop back to the restaurant, he was completing a journey that it had begun more than 50 years ago.
“I had it a long time,” he told Farrugia and Hamilton. “But it belongs here at Aunt Chubby’s, and that’s for you.”
Farrugia and Hamilton say they are touched by the gesture. “It’s so heartwarming. We knew how much they loved Aunt Chub, and they just love having this place to meet. We were hoping it would continue, and we’re so glad that it has,” Hamilton said.
“That’s just a beautiful way to start any day, to see our friends come in and meet each other and have a place to be,” Farrugia said.
And after that, the men sat down to eat their breakfasts and chat. Just like they might have done years before when Chubby was around.
Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette. 1 Railroad Place, Hopewell NJ 08525. Open 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Monday.
Historical information used to write this article was provided by Douglas Dixon and the Hopewell Valley History Project.