It’s no secret that Wes Wings is a Wesleyan institution. You might be familiar with ‘Swings because of the arduous pilgrimage you embark on to pick up a Breakfast Pail at Sunday brunch, that time you split an order of 24 wings, or even because of the restaurant’s mastery of social media. It is clear that co-owner Ed Thorndike ’89’s restaurant has left a lasting impression on the Wesleyan community.
On my own visit to Wes as a prefosh back in October 2013, my host, Eli Maskin ’17, had to make the crucial decision of where to take me to dinner. He would essentially define the first impression of Wesleyan for someone pampered by his Jewish mother’s home cooked meals. Of course, we headed to Wes Wings and split an almost unhealthy amount of wings doused in hot sauce and blue cheese. While I probably should have been more concerned with our school’s academic or social reputation, after that initial ‘Swings food orgy, Wesleyan had me sold.
When Thorndike spoke about how Wes Wings came to fruition, he reminisced on how post-grad struggles with work and relationships coincidentally, and humorously, brought him back to Wesleyan.
“When I graduated from Wesleyan in ’89 I was an English major and wanted to be a playwright,” Thorndike said. “I had an agent who was trying to market a play I had written. I moved back to Connecticut the year after I graduated because my girlfriend at the time, who had also just graduated from Wesleyan, was student teaching in the area. I moved back to be closer to her and was writing at the time. I also took a job selling cars.”
Unfortunately, Thorndike’s romance was not meant to be, and he found himself in uncharted waters.
“Within six months, I hadn’t written a word, I had broken up with my girlfriend, and looked around and said, ‘Holy shit, I’m selling cars!’”
As Thorndike experienced an existential crisis after entering the “real world,” a friend from high school took notice of his business acumen. He suggested that Thorndike capitalize on his experience at a restaurant he worked at before college by opening up his own operation.
“It was more of a whim to open up a chicken restaurant,” Thorndike said. “It was not really apart of the plan or something I ever thought I would be doing.”
As Thorndike began to search for space to open his business, he was simultaneously working with other alums to maintain the building at 156 High Street, which had previously housed his fraternity Delta Tau Delta before they became inactive.
“It was one of them [a fraternity brother] who suggested to me to use the old eating club, which wasn’t being used at the time,” Thorndike said. “When we came up to take a look at it, we had in mind that we wanted to be on a college campus, and because I had gone to Wesleyan I knew the campus and students.”
While 156 High looked nothing like the current polished ‘Swings interior, and the renovation was a complicated process, Thorndike stayed motivated and “hungry” for success throughout the building’s restoration.
“I had a lot of confidence it was going to work,” Thorndike said. “Looking back, it’s good when you’re young and dumb because if you knew what could go wrong you probably wouldn’t do it.”
After Thorndike and co-owner Karen Kaffen-Polascik spent several months dusting off the cobwebs and old food that had amassed over two years of vacancy, they opened in February of 1991. There were 30 seats, some couches, a pool table and, as Thorndike laughed, “what at the time seemed to be a big screen TV.” At first, ‘Swings was mostly for late night eating, staying open until 11 pm on weeknights and 1 am on weekends to cater to a crowd that today heads to Late Night or Whey.
It was around this time in the fall of 1993 that Wesleyan was revamping its meal plan. The University only required freshmen to access a meal plan, but it was looking to create a uniform meal plan across all grades, the likes of which we have today. As a part of easing the transition to this mandatory meal plan, Wes administrators decided to incorporate various school eating institutions such as Star & Crescent and Chic Chaque (RIP) into the dining plan, and offered Wes Wings a spot as well.
“It gave business a huge boost,” said Thorndike. “It also changed a lot of what Wes Wings was. Where at the time we were this late night hangout place, we then became much busier and just focused on lunch and dinner, without being open late at night.”
Since their major ascendance up the Wesleyan food chain, ‘Swings has seen business grow every year despite the fact that their customer base is fixed. As Thorndike examined how Wes Wings has continued to grow in popularity, he cites their latest total renovation of the space in 2007, along with a variety of ways a small business owner can innovate, as reasons for their success.
“Our weekend brunch, for example, has become a really big thing,” Thorndike said. “Back in the fall of 2006, O’Rourke’s Diner on Main Street burned to the ground. Brian [the owner] did not have fire insurance and didn’t know what he was going to do. We were looking for a new chef, and approached him about working for us during the fall while he figured things out. It was at this time that our breakfast really started to increase and he helped us do different menus and specials we had never done before. We got a lot of hype and publicity and started to realize how much more business we could handle at brunch.”
One of Thorndike’s most popular brunch creations, the Breakfast Pail, was actually sparked by student employees.
“The Pail really came out of how, during a meal, our student workers would put together a small snack while they were eating. They would take a soup cup and grab a couple poached eggs and some potatoes. They started eating this mishmash, and one day we realized it would be a great special. It was the students’s own habits that created the Breakfast Pail.”
Thorndike is content with Wes Wings’s growth over the years into one of the premiere eating options on campus, and marvels at how they are now serving students who were not alive at ‘Swings’s inception. He still is constantly motivated to increase Wes Wings’s business and their relationship with the Wesleyan community. All it takes is one bite into a steaming Breakfast Pail the morning after a night out, and it’s obvious that Wes Wings is here to stay.