Valley Bounty: Fitzwilly’s
Daily Hampshire Gazette,March 12, 2021, by Jacob Nelson
Three days from Saturday, March 16 will mark one full year since “normal life” ended abruptly for Fitzwilly’s restaurant in Northampton.
“Most years on St. Patrick’s Day,” explains owner Fred Gohr, “the Northampton St. Patrick’s Association has breakfast at the Hotel Northampton and then the whole contingent marches to Fitzwilly’s, where we have Irish music and a great party.”
“Last year we had 20 kegs of Guinness, a couple cases of Jameson’s Irish Whisky, and we were gearing up for a great celebration when BOOM — the rug got pulled out from under us.”
Massachusetts’ statewide shutdown of in-person dining was necessary to blunt the waves of COVID-19 infections. Yet the timing on the eve of Fitzwilly’s signature holiday was tough, and the year to come brought continued challenges.
Though St. Patrick’s Day will look different from usual again this year, Fitzwilly’s is keen to mark the occasion.
“We’ll do our best to make it feel festive with decorations and special dishes like corned beef and cabbage, Irish egg rolls, bangers and mash,” he says.
“I love Northampton,” Gohr says. “I came up here to work in my 20s and now here I am, 63 and still at it. It really has become my home. I’m so grateful for the support the local community has shown us this last year.”
As Gohr explains the restaurant’s storied history, it’s easy to understand his drive to keep going.
“Fitzwilly’s was opened in 1974 by a fellow named Roger Kerwood, who saw something in Northampton back then that a lot of people didn’t,” Gohr says.
“When he purchased the building all the interior brick walls were covered in plaster, but he had them exposed and gave Fitzwilly’s the character it has now,” he says.
Kerwood soon opened three more Fitzwilly’s locations inConnecticut, in New Haven, Danbury and Bridgeport. Gohr started working for Kerwood in 1979, and ended up spending time at all four restaurants before becoming general manager in Northampton in the mid-1980s.
When Kerwood decided to let go of the Northampton joint, Gohr stepped in to buy it.
“I put together a team of local investors and we closed on the property on April Fool’s Day, 1988,” he recalls.
Although the other three locations are gone, the legacy of Fitzwilly’s in Northampton continues to grow.
“We have such a great history in this town, and so many people have great memories of this place,” Gohr says. “With the five colleges here, people all over the country have spent time in Northampton, and many of them have come through Fitzwilly’s once, twice, or many times.”
Occasionally these connections show up in unusual places. As Gohr recalls, “Once I was traveling though the airport in Florida with a Fitzwilly’s T-shirt on, and someone stopped me and told me they proposed to their wife there.”
For Gohr, there have been no chance encounters at airports this year, and the restaurant business has looked very different as well.
“Last March we had to lay off our entire staff of about 70 people, and that was heartbreaking,” he recalls. “We were completely closed for a few months, then we opened first just for takeout. When summer came, I rented space in the parking lot next door, we put up a tent for outdoor dining, and brought back 65-70% of the staff during that period.”
“Now with indoor dining, it’s tough to make it work,” he says. “Technically we’re back at 100% allowable capacity, but with the distancing requirements and no one allowed at the bar, it’s really closer to 60%.”
But in his eyes, things are looking up. “My plan right now is to have the tent back up by April 1st,” he says, “so we’re not that far away from outdoor dining.”
Warmer weather also means more local food on the menu at Fitzwilly’s.
“When summer comes, I’m usually making two to three trips a week to buy ingredients from local growers like Golonka Farms, Sobieski’s River Valley Farm and PineBrook Farm,” Gohr says. “Our coffee is also roasted locally, and we do a ton of business with local breweries.”
Meanwhile, spuds from Szawlowski Potato Farms and cheeses from Thomas Farm and Dairy are year-round staples.
“These days takeout is a critical part of our business, and we’ve adjusted our menu for that,” Gohr says. His current favorite is their maple-bourbon-marinaded steak tips with wild mushroom risotto, but he notes they’re well known for traditional fare including shepherd’s pie, mac and cheese, and chicken wings.
“To keep our doors open and our staff employed, we need to have business coming in the door,” Gohr notes. “To everyone out there, please patronize your local businesses. We need it now more than ever, and we appreciate it more than we ever have, too.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). To explore more local restaurants offering takeout, delivery, and in-person dining near you, check out CISA’s searchable online guide at buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally/.