As the Connecticut Restaurant Association pleads with the state for relief from current COVID-19 capacity rules, some eateries are managing the changed landscape through a combination of location, independent character and a dash of luck.
“Ones that are being successful are really employing a real innovative approach,” said Jeffrey Pugliese, vice president of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce. “You see ones that were able to capitalize on outdoor dining, takeout and curbside pickup are the ones that were able to weather this crisis the best.”
Restaurant owners outside of the dining and nightlife hubs in Middletown, Hartford, New Haven and West Hartford, have found that their more out-of-the-way locations have allowed for greater room for outdoor dining, more parking spaces for curbside pickup and more flexibility to create a dining experience that’s about more than food.
“You have to make yourself much more than a storefront,” said Mark Thiede, owner of Two Wrasslin Cats Coffee House and Cafe in East Haddam. “This has been the most challenging time, but I never ever closed during the period.”
Two Wrasslin Cats, a colorfully painted, cat-themed, politically affiliated cafe in a town of less than 9,000, had a “good day” of business on Dec. 7, a day when the high temperature was in the 30s. Without any indoor dining, Thiede said business is still steady.
“I think people feel it’s also a place to feel some joy these days,” Thiede said. “You can still get the front counter experience and you can take your sandwich somewhere. I think that keeps people coming in.”
The business, unlike many others, has not shied away from taking a stand on the election and other political issues.
“It doesn’t necessarily attract everybody, and I don’t do it to attract anybody,” Thiede said. “In the last four years we’eve had everything from a weekly vigil out here to 500 people in my parking lot during the women’s march in 2017. It has a persona and I try to keep this persona.”
Thiede said he thinks people not only continue to come out to the restaurant to pick up good food, but because the place is “quirky” enough that they can’t get the experience anywhere else.
“East Haddam — we are sort of out there,” Thiede said. “We depend on a certain amount on people coming for the parks, so the local economy only covers so much. We have a lot of people coming in from around the area to support us. We have a really nice following. I am confident we will carry through it.”
Russ Zappala, co-owner and chef of Dilly Duck Shop restaurant in Norwalk said he can only imagine the struggles of a restaurant that does not have the luxury of a parking lot like his.
“If you have a restaurant that is on a main street or a street with limited parking how difficult it would be to provide curbside parking,” Zappalo said. “If you can’t park and you are blocking traffic, how do you get the food? Fortunately for us, we do have adequate parking and it has never been an issue to do curbside.”
Sarah’s on Main, a breakfast and lunch cafe in Portland, has managed to survive the economic crisis so far, despite restaurants minutes away going out of business.
“Across the bridge from us on Main Street in Middletown, there are dozens of restaurants and a few of them are sort of like our style, just breakfast and lunch,” said Dan Weeden, co-owner of Sarah’s on Main. “They weren’t able to do the volume of takeout and delivery that we were able to do because parking on that Main Street is impossible.”
On Portland’s side of the river, Main Street is a much calmer place. Where Middletown has tightly packed metered parking, Portland’s downtown area is spread apart and partially residential.
However, not all restaurants on Main Street in Portland have been as successful as Weeden’s.
“(The Portland Restaurant) closed down and the building is for sale,” Weeden said.
The relative quiet of Portland has allowed Weeden and his wife to set up six tables on the grass in front of the business. This helped to bring college students at Wesleyan over the river to experience some quaint outdoor dining — something that is often not possible in more urban areas.
Dilly Duck Shop resisted turning to indoor dining until they absolutely had to, to protect employees.
“When the weather changed and it became paramount to figure out how to serve people who want to sit down, but don’t want to do it outdoors anymore — that’s when we opened indoor dining,” Zappala said.
Pugliese said he’s hoping that some restaurants will make use of tents and space heaters to stretch outdoor dining through the winter months.
“You can utilize them in a way to provide comfort to your diners in any climate setting,” Pugliese said.
Now that the colder weather has set in, Weeden is slightly less confident about the success of his business.
“You kind of open the doors and see what happens every day,” Weeden said. “Some days it’s worth it. Some days it’s not. Hopefully those days that are worth it start to outweigh the ones that aren’t.”
Zappala said that the thing that has kept his restaurant open is his loyal customer base and continuing to provide the personal touch that so many COVID-19 restrictions have prevented.
“It’s not that the food is secondary,” Zappala said. “It’s all woven together — the experience of having someone you are familiar with there to take your order and ask about your daughter, give you scraps for your dog, or whatever is unique and special to them.”