AUBURN— Richard J. Lemansky remembers the early years of Ronnie’s, long before it became one of the best known eateries in the area.
“We used to play basketball between customers,” Mr. Lemansky, 62, said recently of the restaurant on about 2.8 acres at Routes 12 and 20.
“The hoop was where the ice cream store is now,” said his son, Richard J. Lemansky Jr., who now manages the business.
Ronnie’s is celebrating its 50th year this summer. It is known for its long lines, both at the seafood restaurant and at the ice cream store. It employs about 45 people and is open essentially from Good Friday until Columbus Day.
The business moved from Route 12 in Oxford in 1956. It was opened in its current location the following year as a 12-by-24-foot eatery by Mr. Lemansky’s late father and mother, Edmund J. and Florence H. Lemansky.
The restaurant remains a family business, with Mr. Lemansky’s wife, Dawn, running the ice cream shop.
Ronnie’s is named after the elder Mr. Lemansky’s older brother, Ronald, a resident of Avon, Conn. His other brother, Robert F. Lemansky, runs Ronnie’s Seafood on Center Depot Road in Charlton, which is marking its 35th anniversary this year. The two Ronnie’s are separate businesses.
Business remains good, he said, although some longtime customers say the lines aren’t as long these days. “I think we’re doing really well this year,” the elder Mr. Lemansky said, “especially when you consider we’re closed on Monday and Tuesday.”
During the early years, the store sold fish only on Friday. When the decision was made in the late 1960s to sell fish every day, Ronnie’s hit its culinary stride. The increased business put an end to the days when the Lemanskys would cut french fries and mix the batter for the fish in the kitchen sink of the house next door — a house that is still owned by the family.
Back in 1957, whole bellied clams cost $6.50 a gallon.
“Now they cost about $100 a gallon,” said Richard Lemansky Jr. The most common order consists of two orders of clams, one order of french fries, one onion rings and two small Cokes, he said.
While clams are what Ronnie’s is most known for, the younger Lemansky said scallops have increased in popularity in recent years. Perhaps one reason is that scallops, as well as lobsters and crabs, are not affected by red tide, which shut down shellfish beds in Massachusetts and Rhode Island two years ago, he said. At the time, a notice on Ronnie’s brown bulletin board proclaimed: “No Red Tide here. We use Maryland clams.”
The Lemanskys have a strong presence in the west part of Auburn. Edmund Lemansky, a parks commissioner for 35 years for whom the Lemansky Park and Recreation Area on Oxford Street was named, operated the Acme Package Store next to Ronnie’s during the early years of the take-out shack. He and his wife lived on Prospect Street less than a half-mile from where his grandson’s family now lives on the same street. The elder Mr. Lemansky lives around the corner from his son on Eddy Street. The trip to Ronnie’s takes the Lemanskys just a few minutes.
When it comes to explaining Ronnie’s success, the elder Mr. Lemansky is hard-pressed to go into detail.
Time has flown by. He started working when he was 12 years old, he said, and the next thing you know, it’s 50 years later.
“I haven’t analyzed it,” he said. “I will say we’ve always worked hard on consistency. I’ve been too busy working to really think about why we’ve been popular. I’d like to think it’s because we give our customers good food at a good price, that it’s a good value.”
He said he got some good advice years ago from somebody about success in the food business.
“I was told if you satisfy 60 (percent) to 70 percent of your customers, you’re going to have a successful business,” he said.
A lot about Routes 12 and 20 has changed since 1957, the Lemanskys acknowledge. When Ronnie’s opened, the New Yorker, the Flying Yankee and Dante’s Inferno, now the site of Periwinkle’s Pub & Restaurant, were on that strip of road. The elder Mr. Lemansky recalled how his father would sell beer while customers waited in line at Dante’s Inferno’s predecessor, Howard Johnson’s.
The family and business was hit hard earlier this year when Dawn Lemansky’s cousin and 34-year employee David Bylund died.
“He did everything,” Richard Lemansky Jr. said. “We’re still not over it.”
Ronnie’s sits on valuable land on Routes 12 and 20 and the senior Lemansky said more interest has been expressed recently from people who want to buy the land. But a sale of the land is not being actively sought, he said.
“Nothing to the point where somebody is sitting across this table,” he said recently.
Dawn Lemansky said no purchase and sales agreement has been signed with anybody. If the right offer came, she said, it would be considered, adding that everything in life is for sale at the right price.
“Except them,” she added as her two grandchildren walked in the front door. “And, besides, where would our customers go?”