A diamond anniversary

Jane Fuller, center,  owner of Jean’s Beans on Eastern Boulevard, with daughter, Heather Bowman-Bates, secretary, and son, Mark  Bowman, vice president and cook. Justin Sorensen/ NNY Business

Jane Fuller, center, owner of Jean’s Beans on Eastern Boulevard, with daughter, Heather Bowman-Bates, secretary, and son, Mark Bowman, vice president and cook. Justin Sorensen/ NNY Business

Jean’s Beans marks 60 years dishing up a north country tradition

Even though Jean’s Beans sells about 500 pounds of its famous baked beans every July 4, and about 100 pounds in an average day, that’s not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you enter the family-owned eatery in its iconic red building on Eastern Boulevard.

Rather it’s the scent of fresh-baked goods all homemade on premises, and appearing plentiful on industrial counters and cases to the right of the main counter — fresh donuts, cookies, pies, brownies, and, of course, the popular, doughy, fresh rolls that serve as essential companions to the dish Jean’s Beans is best known for — fried haddock, and lots of it.

The 259 Eastern Boulevard location is the last remaining Jean’s Beans, which was started by a French chef named Jean who sold his famous baked beans by horse and buggy on the streets of Syracuse in the early 1900s. A man named Dick Childs and his father allegedly adopted his recipe and opened the original Jean’s Beans in Syracuse in the years before the Great Depression. Mr. Childs decided to set up a promising employee, Neil J. Fuller, with a Jean’s Beans franchise in Watertown in 1953 at the location where it still operates. Since 2000, Mr. Fuller’s daughter, Jane E. Bowman, her husband Donald M. and her two grown children, Mark R. and Heather J. Bowman-Bates have run the reataurant that celebrated 60 years in business in August.

Mr. Fuller also opened stores in Elmira, which is still open but with different owners, Carthage and Ogdensburg, both of which closed in the late 1950s. In the 1940s, Mr. Childs opened a potato chip plant, Jean’s Foods, that produced Jean’s Potato Chips; although the brand was acquired by Tyrell’s Potato Chip Co., Syracuse, Jean’s Beans still sells the individual snack bags.

Jean’s Beans was originally based around baked beans and salads until Mr. Fuller saw potential to expand and added a bakery in the early 1960s, Mrs. Bowman said. Her father learned all his recipes and baking techniques from a baker at Mohican Bakery on State Street in Watertown after it closed in the early 1960s.

Today, Jean’s Beans continues to make everything from scratch, including grinding bread crumbs for fried haddock and its own mayonnaise, and doesn’t use any preservatives.

“We did that before it was cool not to use preservatives,” Mrs. Bowman said.

Jean’s Beans has been able to overcome the challenge presented by the proliferation of chain eateries in Watertown that has come with Fort Drum’s expansion by a laser focus on producing quality food and old-time favorites.

“My philosophy is that we put out a high quality food—it might be a little more expensive sometimes, but I never cut on cost because I think that most people are interested in really delicious, good quality food rather than price,” Mrs. Bowman said.

The basic principles of good food and good service, as well as a strong family worth ethic, have been key to the restaurant’s success, she added.

“It fulfills a certain portion of me to know that we can successfully run this business and give something to the community,” she said.

Jean’s Beans opened a second Watertown location at 1196 Arsenal St. in 2002, but closed it two years later even though it was successful because “we’re a family business and we were just stretched way too thin,” Mrs. Bowman said.

The restaurant’s clientele is evenly split between locals and people from Fort Drum, she said, noting that it has a large number of repeat customers, including many who remember the day it opened in 1953 when free potato chips were given out; as a tribute, Jean’s Beans also gave out free potato chips on its 60 year anniversary in August.

Ms. Bowman’s son has a “phenomenal memory” and asks about a quarter of the customers who come in if they want their regular order, Mrs. Bowman said.

“He remembers everything they get,” she said.

Mark Bowman agreed that much of the restaurant’s success is based around tradition, with three to four generations of families patronizing the eatery.

“People enjoy the nostalgia factor,” he said from his place by the fryer on a recent late morning, surrounded by huge slabs of breaded fish ready to be cooked. Mr. Bowman earned a degree in economics from St. Lawrence University, but chose to return to the family business full-time 13 years ago.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said when asked about his future plans, though he just as easily might have been talking about leaving the fryer, where he remained during an interview, shouting answers over the popping and sizzling din, a group of early lunch customers eagerly looking on. Mrs. Bowman recently cut back to part-time, but has no immediate plans to retire and says her children absolutely plan to continue its operation.

Though the fried haddock is still the restaurant’s “bread and butter,” Mr. Bowman said, it makes up only about a third of the restaurant’s business, the rest being salads and baked goods.

While the restaurant has made some changes to the menu over the years — adding coconut shrimp, hamburgers and Hoffman hot dogs, chicken wings, various hot lunch specials, fudge and more — it still relies on the tried-and-true family recipes for its traditional favorites.

“We maintain the favorites all the time,” Mrs. Bowman said. “We’ll always keep our mac and cheese — we’d have a real riot if we stopped our mac and cheese.”

Jean’s Beans also tries to buy from the same local suppliers that Mr. Fuller originally used and sells various locally made products such as maple syrup, cheese and baloney.

“People who want our foods also want the traditional north country foods,” Mrs. Bowman said.

In addition to new menu items, Mrs. Bowman said Jean’s Beans works to increase business in some way each year. About three years ago, the restaurant built a long indoor lunch counter along one wall with bar stools for customers to dine inside. Even though it has added an outdoor, walk-in freezer to expand its cooking area, it’s starting to outgrow the building because business has increased so much, she said. Jean’s Beans also started city deliveries a year ago, which Mrs. Bowman said have been “very popular.”

The spirit of a family business — Mrs. Bowman’s older brother and mother, who is 84, both help out — also extends to employees. Five employees have been at the business since Mrs. Bowman took the helm in 2000, a notably high retention rate in the restaurant business, she said.

Employee Ashley A. Kaler helped set up a Facebook page for the business last month that in three days had already acquired more than 500 “likes.”

“Our employees think of [the business] as partly theirs,” Mrs. Bowman said.

Ms. Kaler worked as an intern at Jean’s Beans during her junior year of high school through BOCES’s culinary arts program. While she said she learned much of the basics of cooking at BOCES, she cites Jean’s Beans’ chef George J. Stevens, an employee since 1999, as a vital mentor.

“I really learned everything here,” she said.

Ms. Kaler has now been working at Jean’s Beans full-time since June and said she likes its “really homey” atmosphere. She also has fond memories attached to it as a result of growing up across the street.

“I have nostalgia from coming here as a kid,” she said. “We were here every Friday.”

Mr. Stevens, whose wife, Vanessa A., is also employed as a manager at Jean’s Beans, said he loves that the job is a challenge every day, in large part because of the quantity of food the restaurant churns out. Jean’s Beans frequently caters weddings in the region and functions on Fort Drum, and does at least one “huge” order, which can mean up to 300 people, per week. Two years ago, Jean’s Beans catered an event on Fort Drum for 5,000 people that included 500 pounds of chicken and 1,000 pounds of salads.

“There’s no other place in town that can put out the quantity of food we do,” Mr. Stevens said.

Back when her father ran it, Jean’s Beans used to deliver fish to all of the schools in the city on Fridays, Mrs. Bowman said; her mother was originally hired because the restaurant needed a driver.

“Every Friday people were lined out into the parking lot,” Mrs. Bowman recalled. Business still spikes during Lent and Fridays remain the restaurant’s busiest day.

“But we try not to let the line get out to the parking lot,” she said.

Leah Buletti is a staff writer for NNY Magazines. Reach her at 661-2381 or lbuletti@wdt.net.