On a drizzly Saturday morning, two middle-aged women stopped along New Hope, Pennsylvania’s North Main Street to ask how to get to Fred’s. It was their first time. They saw a family in windbreakers, the only other people in a three block-span, turn onto Main Street from a side street, and the women headed in the direction from which the group came. They headed to the end of the street, to an unmarked green building nearly obscured by a barn right next to the Delaware River. At the glass-paned door, a stranger swiped his key fob, and let the women in. If he hadn’t come along, though, one of the patrons patiently waiting inside would have opened the locked door for the newcomers. It’s a rule at Fred’s, the members-only, breakfast-only restaurant.
The membership requirement isn’t really a requirement at all. Although the door is locked during opening hours, which are from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day of the week, if you knock hard enough, or wait long enough, someone will let you in. Once inside, you can help yourself to coffee in a Fred’s branded mug, grab one of the 31 counter seats or, on Saturdays and Sundays when the place is packed, put your name down on the list and wait around until a seat becomes available. Chris Bollenbacher who owns Fred’s can’t say exactly how many active members there are now, only that he’s given out between 11 and 12,000 key fobs and is sending out more every two weeks. Although, the idea for Fred’s started with a desire to serve the locals, new members and even guests of members are welcome. After all, even the regulars were new once.
Fred’s opened in New Hope in 2008, named for Bollenbacher’s beloved dog of the same name. Bollenbacher, helped by his wife Ellen, wanted to carve out a place for locals. He was familiar with the New Hope restaurant scene—he opened nearby restaurant The Landing in 1976 at age 22—and he noticed that during the summer months, tourists would overrun restaurants, forcing out the locals who kept them going all year long. “The locals you want to support you,” he said. “If in the summertime the locals can’t get in, they start feeling like they’re unimportant.” Thus, the membership concept was born. When it came time to deciding what kind of restaurant his second venture would be, breakfast was the obvious choice. “Breakfast is kind of a local thing,” Bollenbacher said. “You’re more apt to run to another town to go find lunch or dinner or something, because you always want to try something new, but when you have breakfast you want to go down the street and get it where you always get it and sit and talk to your friends.”
Since it opened, Fred’s has established its place as a New Hope breakfast institution. The walls are covered in collages of applications for Fred’s memberships. Aspiring members have submitted artwork and poetry. One man jumped out of an airplane wearing Fred’s shirt and sent in the photos along with the $20 lifetime membership fee required of all applicants. Many of the applications were collected during Fred’s charter membership period prior to opening. These days, most membership hopefuls simply put their name on the waitlist, an actual pen-and-paper list found inside the restaurant.
Bollenbacher expects members and guests alike to adhere to all 17 of his rules at Fred’s. Most of these rules are simple reminders of common courtesy, like rule #17, which asks patrons not to linger if there is a wait for a seat, or #16 which requires that the person nearest the door open the door should someone knock. Others, are less straightforward, like #4 which reads “Fred Williamson has been my friend forever, so you have to put up with him. It’s not that difficult after you get used to it.”
Bollenbacher expected his foray into breakfast to be a part-time project that would provide an easy transition into retirement. Fred’s has been open eight years, and running it has been a full time job. Ellen passed away from cancer in 2015, leaving Bollenbacher to continue to run both his restaurants, now with no retirement plans to speak of. He’s at Fred’s every day, usually with all three of his dogs. Cindy, a Husky and Australian Shepherd mix, sings along with the guests when there’s a birthday, a quirk members at Fred’s look forward to.
People don’t really come to Fred’s for the food, though they have that, too. You can order short stacks, omelets, biscuits and gravy, waffles, pork roll, a stuffed puffed pastry they call “the thing,” or a single chocolate chip pancake if it pleases you. Bollenbacher has one regular who comes in every day and gets a half order of oatmeal. “I think his bill is like $2.60, but he’s here every day. Never misses. There’s like three or four of those guys,” he said. Bollenbacher himself doesn’t stray from a daily breakfast of three scrambled eggs, but for the adventurous, Fred’s offers Migas Mondays, donuts on Tuesdays, quiches on Thursdays, burritos on Wednesdays, and the occasional French Toast Friday.
The membership-only concept has worked for the locals of New Hope, Lambertville and surrounding towns along the Delaware River in a way that’s hard to imagine replicating in a place like New York, where “membership only” connotes exclusivity. Bollenbacher estimates that Fred’s turns out between 200 and 300 breakfasts a day and the 31 seats are usually full, but it’s the atmosphere at Fred’s that is the true marker of its success. Having breakfast at Fred’s feels a bit like dining at Luke’s in Star’s Hollow, or grabbing a drink at Cheer’s, and a bit like eating at home, if at home the coffee was always hot and immediate. Bollenbacher believes the membership concept is directly responsible for Fred’s convivial vibe. He said, “You come in and you see all these other people in town that you know. You see the guy that fixes your shoes, you see the guy you buy your gas from. All of a sudden you’re mingling with your friends, and the fact that even if you don’t know the people that are here, they have a membership so you have something in common...It’s just this kinship that they have, and they have their coffee, which is all people really want in the morning anyway, and so once they’re standing there with a cup of coffee in their hands talking to their neighbors, that’s what does it.”
On the Saturday I visited, a customer passed an origami butterfly to the patron seated at the next stool. The origami artist was actually a local metalworker, and the woman the artist gifted it to was Pamela Chamberlain, co-founder of Don’t Toss It, a store that sells works from artists and craftspeople who use recycled materials. Chamberlain didn’t get the name of the person who showed her more examples of metalwork on an iPad, but maybe they’d see each other again, their next time at Fred’s.