Most members of the University community know WesWings, the second-oldest eatery on campus after the Star & Crescent Eating Club, as a beloved institution with creative meal options and a comfortable atmosphere in which patrons, primarily students, can relax from their hectic lives. Many even know that WesWings, affectionately known as ’Swings, was founded in 1991 by Ed Thorndike ’89 and Karen Kaffen-Polascik. Few, however, have been around to see the eatery evolve from its roots as a small, late-night hangout to the pail-dispensing brunch hotspot that it is today. In celebration of its 25th anniversary (look out for a birthday cake during brunch this Saturday), Thorndike, Kaffen-Polascik, and current ’Swings employees offered a look into the development, charm, and future of the campus staple.
For those unfamiliar with how ’Swings came to be, here’s something important to know: Shortly after graduating from the University in 1989, Thorndike was living in Connecticut and unsure of his next move. He made the decision to go into the restaurant game at the urging of his friend. Finding that the space at 156 High Street, which had formerly housed fraternity Delta Tau Delta and its eating club, was unoccupied, he and Kaffen-Polascik spent months revitalizing the run-down space into a cozy venue geared toward a late-night clientele. From there, ’Swings underwent two expansions, becoming an increasingly popular choice for lunch and dinner. Over the past 25 years, the restaurant has remained as central to the co-owners’ lives as it has to that of the University.
“And any major historical event, we were always here,” Kaffen-Polascik said. “Whether it was 9/11, whether it was the [Oklahoma City] bombing, whether it was the OJ [Simpson] trial, we were in this room for every one of those things. All of it. So that’s kind of cool, that we’ve been in the same spot for all of it…standing and watching the OJ trial when they were coming out with the verdict, standing right there and looking at the TV that was actually (points) over there.”
In addition to feeding thousands of students over the years, the ’Swings co-owners have also hired hundreds, maintaining close bonds with many of them decades later.
“Over 25 years, we’ve employed hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of students, as well as just [knowing] thousands and thousands of alums and [staying] in pretty good touch with a lot of people,” Thorndike said.
They noted that while they were initially like friends and older siblings to their student employees and customers, their relationship has shifted over time.
“In some ways, we’re kept in a time capsule, because our customers and who we’re with never age, but we forget that during that whole time, we have been aging all along, and it sort of is weird that we are not viewed as someone’s older sibling, but [now students say] ‘You’re like my dad, you’re like my mom,’ ” Thorndike said.
Though campus has changed around them, Thorndike and Kaffen-Polascik have noticed a lot of continuity within the student body across generations.
“I think, in terms of the students, the students are very much the same,” Kaffen-Polascik said. “Ed and I will often say a group of kids will remind me of these three or four people from 20 years ago. It’s like the music changes, but the kids kind of stay the same, in terms of who likes working here and what we attract in an employee; that really hasn’t changed too much.”
One thing that has changed, however, is the ’Swings aesthetic. The restaurant has undergone two major renovations, one three years into its existence and another major remodeling in 2007. In each version of ’Swings, the eponymous blue sign has hung in the window above the main doorway. Kaffen-Polascik likes this iteration best of them all, where the booths, counters, ceiling, and lighting were all upgraded to its current, cozy state.
“I think the lighting was a big improvement,” she said. “It’s not so harsh in here, it’s not fluorescent lighting, it’s much better than it used to be.”
Though they’ve had a website since the Dark Ages of the Internet (the late 1990s, that is), their social media presence has more recently extended to Facebook, Twitter, and most explosively, Snapchat. Using Twitter, ’Swings can communicate with students and alumni alike, including a certain “Hamilton” broadway show creator. Likewise, with the Snapchat handle “wes-wings,” students can see specials, Thorndike, and even themselves on the restaurant’s stories.
Though mostly consistent in its pub-food staple, the ’Swings menu has evolved in accordance with student tastes. Recently, the menu has expanded to include a wider variety of specials as well as regular vegetarian and gluten-free options.
“A lot of the things we do really is from student input,” Thorndike said. “The nice thing is that we’re small, so it doesn’t take long to do something [requested by students]. We can do it the next day.”
One of its more recent culinary developments, the breakfast (and occasional themed-dinner) pail, has taken brunch by storm. Introduced just five years ago, the pail is derived from the snacks that student workers would prepare for themselves while serving meals.
“Our staff, while they’re serving brunch, make themselves a snack and they would just take a soup cup and they might grab a little bit of potatoes and a little bit of eggs, sometimes they were putting some cheese or some hollandaise sauce and that was just sort of their snack that they would eat,” Thorndike said.
Eating on the job is both permitted and common, so long as it’s done neatly. The brunch combinations, though, inspired Thorndike to begin serving a similar item out of a Chinese food container five years ago.
At first, they sold modestly. However, word caught on, and sales have exploded since. Today, a typical Saturday or Sunday will see nearly 300 pails sold, essentially serving them to 10 percent of the University’s student population. On Thanksgiving, they plan on preparing double the amount of food for their dinner pails due to overwhelming demand and popularity.
After speaking with current WesWings employees, it is easy to see why Thorndike and Kaffen-Polascik have established such an active alumni networks. Peter Dunphy ’18, a ’Swings veteran, cites the family atmosphere as being crucial to his college experience.
“I think WesWings has introduced me to a lot of really cool people who I value a lot in my life now,” Dunphy said. “I think the people who work at WesWings are some of the coolest people at Wesleyan. We roll through like a squad.”
“I’ll just say this,” he added. “I worked a WesWings shift thirty minutes after Jeremih came on at Spring Fling. So you can interpret that as you want.”
Tricia Merlino ’18, another ’Swings employee, agreed with Dunphy’s assessment, that one of the best aspects of working at WesWings is meeting a new community of people.
“Flirting with all the customers is a perk of the job (laughs),” she said. “In actuality, it’s a really fun work environment and it’s been a great experience interacting with people I wouldn’t necessarily get to hang out with.”
So, where will ’Swings go from here? Thorndike and Kaffen-Polascik see many more years of food, friends, and fun ahead.
“We like what we’re doing, we’re not doing anything else, and we hope we have another 25 years here,” Kaffen-Polascik said. “We’re not looking to do anything else.”