The first phase of Reopen Connecticut began May 20, and many West Hartford restaurants and retailers were ready for customers to return.
By Ronni Newton. Photos by Hunter Marotto and Ronni Newton
There were plenty of smiles, even if they were hidden behind masks, as restaurants and retailers welcomed back customers on the first day of Connecticut’s first phase of reopening.
As of May 20, restaurants are able to serve customers on their premises, in outdoor seating areas, and retailers deemed “non-essential,” as well as shopping centers and malls, are once again be able to allow customers inside. All must first self-certify and receive a “Reopen CT” badge from the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
The weather – sunny and 70 degrees – was picture perfect for outdoor dining and strolling, and West Hartford Center, while far from crowded, was noticeably busier even on a Wednesday afternoon than it has been for the past few months, since the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses and left many residents quarantined in their homes, leaving only to obtain groceries and other essential items.
Many West Hartford restaurants have been offering takeout and delivery, including Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, but Operating Partner Liz Kiyak was thrilled to also welcome diners to the outdoor patio.
Fleming’s opened at lunchtime and had a steady stream of diners with reservations straight through until dinner, Kiyak said. While reservations are not required, they are preferred.
With the required physical distancing of at least 6 feet between tables (measured by the distance between seats at those tables), the Fleming’s patio accommodates four tables with seating for 12-15 people. It’s a far cry from the 240-capacity inside the restaurant, Kiyak said.
She said she is applying to the town to extend the restaurant’s outdoor dining capacity into public space in the right of way in front of the restaurant as well as to an area at the side near the movie theater, but in the meantime will utilize the available patio seating.
Fleming’s has more than 30 locations across the country, and the organization was fully-prepared to comply with required safety measures, Kiyak said. All staff are wearing masks and gloves, there are sanitation stations, a two-person maximum in the restroom, and single-use menus at the ready. Digital menus that can be viewed on a smartphone are under development.
Silverware is rolled up, and there are no bread baskets or condiments on the table.
“We want to be safe but still be open,” Kiyak said.
“It went very well for the first day,” said Dorjan Puka, CEO of DORO Restaurant Group.
Zohara’s expansive patio reopened to diners on Wednesday, as did the smaller patio at Treva, both located on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center.
“People have been calling to say how great it was,” Puka said. “We are very thankful.”
Staff has been trained and Puka said he believes they have the procedures and protocols under control and are operating safely.
DORO’s other West Hartford restaurant, Àvert, will remain closed until the town is able to implement expanded outdoor dining options, which are currently under discussion. Puka said that Àvert’s currently available outdoor space is too small to make it cost effective to open but he is looking forward to the expansion.
Scott Mintell, co-owner of Play It Again Sports, is still selling merchandise curbside. He said he has received his certification, but is still waiting for a shipment of hand sanitizer and hopes to welcome customers inside next week when it arrives.
Mintell, who will require customers to wear masks or cloth face coverings when entering the store, has some concerns about employee safety – not just from COVID-19. He hopes that customers don’t give employees a hard time, or worse, regarding the requirement to wear a mask.
West Hartford residents Sue and Matt, and their three children, were all smiles as they enjoyed oversized cups of Sweet Frog yogurt on the sidewalk. “They’re all opening up today so we wanted to see what was open. It’s the first time back [in the Center] since the pandemic,” Sue said.
Max’s Oyster Bar had several groups of diners even though it was in between traditional lunch or dinner time. Two women said they had come from Westfield, MA, for a birthday lunch.
Kristen Fritz and her husband, Mike, had planned their lunch getaway at Union Kitchen. “I was so excited that we were the first reservations today,” said Fritz, who lives in West Hartford and is one of the partners in the INGroup Creative restaurant marketing and public relations firm. She has been helping local restaurants keep their brands active during the pandemic.
Rishal and Anjali, a couple from West Hartford, said their decision to dine at Union Kitchen was more “spur of the moment.” Rishal said he works in a hospital, so he didn’t really have much concern going out to eat on the first day of the reopening.
“The phone has been ringing all day,” said Chef Billy Grant, owner of Restaurant Bricco. Grant’s staff members are sporting new cloth masks with the restaurant’s name and logo.
More information about the opening plans of restaurants and retailers throughout West Hartford can be found here.
While many restaurants already have some patio space, the Town of West Hartford has unveiled a concept plan for expanding outdoor dining and retail capacity through use of rights of way and portions of parking areas and roadways.
The plan was reviewed at a special Town Council meeting Monday night, and reviewed with more than 50 restaurant owners and retailers during a Zoom call Wednesday morning. A working group of town staff will digest the feedback, Economic Development Specialist Kristen Gorski said.
Anyone interested in sharing their ideas or concerns regarding the plan can email Gorski at [email protected].
“It’s obviously a challenge win terms of striking the balance,” she said, between retailers who want to preserve parking and restaurants that want more dining space.
The Town Council’s newly-formed Special Advisory Committee on Economic and Workforce Recovery, which is chaired by Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff, will weigh in on the plan and other issues impacting the community at its first meeting on Thursday, May 28, at 6 p.m.
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