When a prospective student from Toronto left an earring at Neon Deli, owner Fran Galle called admissions and was able to track the student down and return the missing jewelry to her.
“She’ll remember Wesleyan now,” he said. “Which college do you think she will choose?”
The Galles have made Neon Deli more than just a convenient stop—it is an integral part of the University and Middletown communities. The owners easily strike up conversations and get to know customers on a personal basis, and have served as an important connection for University students to the Middletown community and the “real world.”
Galle bought the deli in 1990, after working for many years as Food Services Director for Wah-Wah food markets, where he oversaw its Connecticut expansion. He decided to open his own business on a college campus and initially looked at Yale, Central Connecticut State University, and a location near the University of Connecticut. A friend who had studied at Olin Library directed him to Wesleyan. Galle had heard of the University while taking out books through an interlibrary loan when he was studying for his MBA.
Galle, whose father owned a deli in New Jersey, visited Middletown and scouted the local offerings.
“All the sandwiches in town were terrible,” Galle said. “I just walked into North College and asked people where they ate, and saw the need [for a good deli].”
On August 31, 1990, Galle walked in and purchased what was then Cross Street Market. His wife, Cynthia, originally thought the campus needed a school store—Weshop had not yet been built—and talked to the administration about making Neon officially part of the University. Instead, Neon is now a popular alternative to Weshop.
Three days after purchasing the deli, Galle hired his first employee—Bill Wolfenden ’91, a University football player. Galle offered Wolfenden a bonus for each employee he recruited. Since then, the deli has continued to support Wesleyan athletics by hiring student athletes, writing good luck wishes on the blackboard outside and donating to the University’s athletics program.
“He recruited six more football players, and then they found some girls,” Galle said. “Things just blossomed.”
The deli remodeled in 1992 moving from a grocery to more of a cooking operation, and has since developed a significant following for its creative sandwiches.
“My favorite thing about Neon are the sandwiches and the weird combinations,” said Kelsey Vela ’12. “I had heard about them even before I came to Wesleyan.”
The most popular sandwich is the Philly cheese steak, which Galle is proud to say was deemed the best by a Philadelphia native.
Some Neon regulars include economics professors, such as Gil Skillman, who likes to order the ever-popular “Gil’s Don’t Mess with Success,” a garden burger with guacamole. He also sends Neon a postcard whenever he travels. Professor of Economics Jon Bonin calls the deli every day to order a sandwich, which employees have taken to marking as “JB.” Galle also exchanges emails every day with retired professors William Firshein (microbiology) and Bill Barber (economics).
“The owners, Fran and Cynthia, are friendly, hardworking, and care about Wesleyan and the Middletown community,” Skillman said. “[At Neon], there’s a lot of interesting food choices, and they’re happy to customize orders. What’s not to like?”
Over the years, the Galles have formed many other lasting friendships with their customers.
“There are kids who are like our children, people we’ve seen for years that are family,” Galle said. “Cynthia and I work different shifts, so we each have our own following. Cynthia knows the plumbers, I’m a charmer for the women.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of “In the Heights,” was a Neon regular—one of Cynthia’s, according to Fran. The bodega in show was inspired by the deli’s community atmosphere.
Galle’s affable personality has also made him a potential career contact for students interested in everything from architecture to law. For example, when a student told Galle he was interested in architecture, Galle introduced him to an alumnus in the field and the student later received an internship with the alumnus.
“It’s more than networking, it’s friendship,” he said. “That’s the edge we give people.”
Neon Deli also raises $5000 to $7000 a year for Middletown causes, often for women and children, through the donation cup at the counter.
The deli hold two major fundraising drives, one around Christmas, which typically raises $300 to 500 a month. Last year, $1500 went to a children’s foundation, but Neon has also worked with the American Red Cross, the Community Foundation, and the Middlesex Coalition for Kids.
Galle doesn’t just hand over money—he is always eager to give food or other forms of help. When Professor Barry Chernoff organized the “Of All the People in the World” rice display, he came to Galle looking for somewhere to donate the rice. Galle found a New Haven food bank that accepted the 3000 pounds of rice.
The donation cup and fundraising efforts have been very successful, and Galle praises the community for its continued support.
“All this is possible because of the student population,” Galle said. “The principal givers are students. It’s common to make $25 to$ 40 on a weekend night. The attitude of people at Wesleyan keeps everyone young.”