Flanders Fish Market celebrates 35 years in business

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East Lyme — On Dec. 23, Paul Formica took the rare action of halting the work of his fish market and restaurant staff, giving champagne to all those of legal drinking age to toast.

And then they returned to work, for such is the industry.

Asked about how Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant celebrated its 35th anniversary, Formica's daughter Olivia initially replied, "peeled 3,000 pounds of shrimp" and laughed.

When Flanders opened, it would be another eight years before Olivia was born, and now she is a Culinary Institute of America alumna who manages the back of the house at the restaurant.

Paul Formica, the Republican state senator who has represented the 20th District since 2015, opened Flanders in 1983 at 22 Chesterfield Road with his late wife, Donna Formica.

"When I first started here, there was nothing here in Flanders; everything was up in Niantic. People kept telling me, 'You're crazy,'" Formica said, adding, "The town just grew up around us."

On the day they opened, the Formicas were all ready to go when they realized they had no money in the cash register, but they managed to pull together $41.

Flanders underwent renovations in 1995, 2000 and 2016, expanding Flanders Fish from under 1,000 square feet to nearly 10,000 square feet, Formica said. The venue now has 43 employees.

The middle renovation included the addition of a banquet room that seats 130 and features a demonstration kitchen. It hosts the regular meetings of the Rotary Club of Niantic and the Niantic Lions Club, along with catered events throughout the year.

Flanders has been featured on the Food Network for its fish and chips, and on the Travel Channel for its chowder — two items on the menu since day one.

The restaurant has seen other changes over the years in its supply, though the supplier has remained the same; staff go to Boston with a refrigerated truck two or three times a week.

Fish are coming in from farther locations, though Flanders has started to get most of its scallops from Stonington in recent years, and the oyster selection has expanded.

Sitting down at the restaurant last week, Formica gestured to a plate of baked fish and vegetables a server carried past, having noted the adaptation from the original "fried, clam-shack kind of menu" to one more in line with the current health-conscious desires of customers.

But no change shook the restaurant like the death of Donna Formica in 2009. A few years later, Paul Formica used a donation from the Niantic Rotary to launch the Donna Formica Scholarship Fund.

Asked what her mother would think if she could see the restaurant celebrating 35 years in business, Olivia Formica joked that she would call from the parking lot to say there was a fingerprint on the window.

Turning serious, Olivia said, "I think she would be very proud. I hope, I hope, that she would be very proud. This place built our life for us, so I think she would be really thankful that we're keeping it going."

Olivia is the youngest of four. While Ali, Hannah and Matt have moved out of the state, Olivia said she is "trying to get myself as involved as I can in the Connecticut restaurant industry," and she sits on the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

Along with mourning a shocking loss, the family has celebrated many joyous and humorous moments at the restaurant over the years.

Ten couples have gone on to get married after meeting at Flanders. After Matt Formica was born, his parents placed an ad offering a deal on baby shrimp and other baby seafood.

Formica recalled that two cats used to live under the porch, and staff called them Fish and Chips. When a staff member had identical twins that Formica couldn't tell apart, he took to calling them Fish and Chips as well. On top of the porch, Formica and chef Tim Shelburn once made a giant fish out of snow.

The restaurant has held fundraisers for the Brian T. Dagle Memorial Foundation and Save the River-Save the Hills, co-sponsored the Rocky Neck Heart Walk and hosted annual meetings of the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation. It has participated in Niantic/East Lyme Restaurant Week, and hosted political events and discussions.

Looking ahead, Formica seeks to expand the market's line of spices and brand more items. And of course, he'll continue with the community-driven spirit of his restaurant, or as he used to call it to prospective staff in interviews, "a customer service company that sells seafood."

e.moser@theday.com

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