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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Yankee Doodle was a dandy, but leaving town

By Randall Beach
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— After 58 years spent providing the public with a steady supply of no-frills eggs and hamburgers at the Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop, the Beckwith family tradition Tuesday morning came to a sudden end.
Rick Beckwith, third-generation owner of "The Doodle," rose as usual at 4:15 a.m. and drove from his home in West Haven to the 12-stool eatery at Elm Street opposite Yale’s Broadway.
But he wasn’t going there to open the door and fire up the grill. He had come to say goodbye to two of his most loyal customers, Nate and Walt, and to explain in person what was happening. He knew they would be waiting outside.
Beckwith said later it would be impolite to divulge those customers’ full names in the newspaper without their permission. He also thought it wouldn’t be right for them to have to read the unexpected farewell sign he posted shortly after he spoke with them.
"The Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop would like to thank all its customers, friends and family for 58 years of patronage," the sign said. "Unfortunately, due to economic times, I regretfully announce today, Jan. 29th, the Doodle is closing its doors for good."
"Once again, thank you for over a half-century of great memories," the sign continued. "You will be missed."
The message was simply signed, "The Doodle." Forever true to his modest nature, Beckwith did not put his name anywhere on the sign. After the first two loyalists heard the news, anyone trying to open the door would be left to press a head against the window and contemplate those 12 empty turquoise stools within the fabled 238 square feet, as well as the menu signs. These included: "Yankee Doodle’s famous scrambled eggs, served with buttered toast and jelly, $2.55."
Phil Cutler, long-time owner of Cutler’s Records across the street, who also succeeded his father in the family business, was shocked when he saw the sign.
"It’s almost like losing a family member," he said. "It’s another anchor on the block that kept us unique — and it’s gone."
The Yankee Doodle opened in June 1950, operated by Lewis Beckwith Sr., Rick Beckwith’s grandfather. It got its name from Lewis Beckwith Sr. recalling how his own father used to sing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" to him.
Lewis Beckwith Jr. took over the restaurant in 1972 when his dad retired. He in turn handed it over to his son in 2000. Two years later, Lewis Beckwith Jr. died after a battle with bone cancer.
Richard Beckwith, who has had his sister, Darlene Richitelli, working beside him every day (she also worked alongside her dad), said he decided not to announce the closing in advance because he recalled the many painful discussions at the counter concerning his father’s illness.
"It was very difficult for my sister and I to repeat every day, explaining what was wrong, until my father’s death," he said. "Explaining the closing also would have been tough emotionally. So I thought, ‘Let’s make it short and sweet.’"
BNevertheless, he said, "I want to thank everyone for being so supportive over the years, especially when our dad was sick. It meant a lot to the family."eckwith said the Broadway area has become much more competitive, with many new coffee shops. He said working long hours, 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. plus evening paperwork, six days a week, also took time away from being with his three kids.
Beckwith’s landlord was Michael Iannuzzi Sr., who owns Tyco, the copy supply business next door. Iannuzzi said the rental rate was not an issue in Beckwith’s decision.
Iannuzzi called Tuesday "a very difficult day" emotionally.
However, a source said Beckwith was paying "Manhattan rates," which were much more expensive than what Yale University charges its commercial tenants in the neighborhood. Beckwith declined to discuss his rent.
The end of "The Doodle" also means the end of "the Doodle Hamburger Hall of Fame." Periodically a big eater would come in and challenge the record for most burgers eaten in one sitting. Ed "Cookie" Jarvis of Nesconset, N.Y., set a new standard in October 2003 by polishing off 31 burgers in 23 minutes.
Other famous "Doodle" customers through the years included actors Henry Winkler, Sigourney Weaver, Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster, who studied drama at Yale.
Beckwith, 44, said his new career will be sales work for United Light and Power, which offers third-party electric service to businesses and residents.
But his voice grew husky with emotion as he described the 89 condolence messages that had already appeared by mid-afternoon Tuesday on his Web site (www.thedoodle.com) as word spread of the "Doodle" demise.
"This was not an easy decision to make," he said.
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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