WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — You don’t even need to take a full step inside Ye Olde English Fish & Chips to know how it’s stood the test of time — 100 years, in fact.
At first, your stomach is awakened by the delicious aromas of fresh fish and chips and chowder. Then, your eyes feast on the many pictures on the walls telling the history of Woonsocket.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to even hear the history from owner Gordon Robinson himself. 12 News spoke with him as he was in town to meet with a publisher for a book he’s writing on his memoirs of the establishment.
“My mother worked until 95 here,” Robinson pointed out on a wall of photos of his employees over the decades.
One photo showed a young man holding a baby. That man is Robinson’s son Stephen, who was in the back kitchen fileting and pounding the fish. The baby was Stephen’s son, who was also working in the restaurant.
Gordon said he also has great-grandchildren to possibly take over the business one day as well.
Before getting started on deep dive into the history of the restaurant, Gordon was greeted by an acquaintance.
“Bye Oscar. Thank you!” he said before turning to us to explain, “My nickname is, most of the people call me the mayor because I’m blessed with a memory that I can remember the names of people I haven’t seen in 40 years.”
Whether it’s a story of a veteran with PTSD soothing his soul by singing opera to customers in the dining room, or the one about the brawl that broke out over line-cutting back in the day, Robinson has seen it all. And he remembers it all.
Well into his 80s, Robinson was born into the family business and saw it grow for most of its 100 years. He remarked that so much has changed about the nature of the restaurant and the physical look of it, but one thing remains the same: the recipe.
“The recipe. The recipe. My grandfather came from Bradford, England and he brought the recipe to the fish and chip that he started in Olneyville square in 1916 in Providence. In 1922, he then came to Woonsocket and started his business,” he said.
Robinson explained that his grandfather, Harry Sowden, started off in the United States in the textile business and even bought looms. Then, when the Depression hit, Sowden got resourceful. He used his skills from working as a prep cook at a fish and chips restaurant in England, and his recipe took off in Rhode Island.
The Woonsocket location was a good fit. Robinson said with such a heavily French population in the city, they frequented Olde English on Fridays — it was their practice to eat just fish on Fridays, especially during Lent.
In the 1970s, Robinson, a young man, had started his career as an engineer, until his father announced he’d like to retire from the restaurant industry. That’s when Gordon took over, expanding the dining area and giving the joint a facelift.
He’s been expanding and innovating ever since, pointing to shovels with holes in them that he made to scoop the fries out of the frying oil in the kitchen.
The restaurant withstood the effects of the Depression, World War II, and so many economic shifts. However, Robinson said the biggest challenge was in the 1980s when new fishing regulations severely limited the supply of local fish he’d be able to get. Instead, they opted to buy fish from Alaska, getting it delivered once a week.
But, Robinson says nothing compares to the effect the pandemic and inflation have had on his business.
He said prices on everything, even shortening, are sky-high. He doesn’t have the staff size he’d like, either.
“It’s very hard to justify remaining in business. Woonsocket has been very good for us, they’ve supported us the whole 100 years, but we just feel like we can only go so high with the price of the product,” he said.
“Our potatoes have gone up some would say between 7-15%, I say it’s between 15 and 20 percent for most of our products. Our products are hunted not raised. Fish and other seafood products are hunted,” he continued.
Robinson says he doesn’t want to change the business to something that’s not reliable as a cheaper alternative. He added that his restaurant hasn’t had liquor for most of its history. One reason for that, he said, is because his great-grandfather had a drinking problem. He said he knows many restaurants get much of their profits from alcohol.
With it being Lent, the business is hopeful that Christians and others will follow the tradition of eating fish on Fridays and frequent his establishment.
“This is what you call fish cakes. Fish cakes were brought here by my grandfather from England. It’s two slices of potatoes with broke fish in between.”
Ye Olde English also sells different types of chowder, the traditional fish, and of course chips – French fries – made from scratch.
Around the restaurant and outside, you’ll see signs reminding customers that this is the 100th year of business.
The anniversary is technically in May, and Robinson said he’s working on a book — a memoir — filled with stories and history from this institution.