West Hartford restaurant owners have concerns about how they will survive as the cold, dark winter looms amid the spiking COVID-19 cases.
By Kristina Vakhman
Warm weather and outdoor dining gave Connecticut restaurants the boost they needed after the brutal months at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Now winter is coming, and West Hartford restaurateurs are worried all over again.
“We have a negative mix of things piling up so that business is decreasing,” said Vinted managing executive chef/partner Michael Voight. “But I think that’s to be expected with that type of precaution that we’re required to follow.”
Restaurants across the state have undoubtedly had it rough. Between a 10 p.m. curfew and limited indoor capacity, business is down. On top of that, West Hartford packed away outdoor dining corrals in November, taking with them a big chunk of revenue.
Over 600 restaurants have permanently closed in eight months in the state, according to the Connecticut Restaurant Association, with more to come. West Hartford has already lost staples like Prospect Café and Park & Oak Restaurant because of the pandemic and safety restrictions.
Vinted isn’t in danger of closing, but Voight said there’s the upsetting possibility that the state will revert to Phase 1 as cases rise. He’s already seeing fewer in-person diners, and he just recently had to ask 20 people to leave the restaurant because of the curfew.
“Even though [the government says] we’re not going to shut down, I think we’re all worried about decreased business in that aspect,” Voight said.
That’s a concern at Frida Mexican Restaurant as well, where co-owner Sandy Sanchez-Salazar said she’s fretting about her employees going unpaid in the event of Gov. Ned Lamont ordering another shut-down. They’re already on reduced payroll and rotating shifts.
“I have a lot of people behind me supporting kids and families and I feel so bad [for them],” Sanchez-Salazar said.
Restaurants that specialized in take-out prior to COVID-19 have fared better so far. Sonny Chen of Black Bamboo – which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in December – said that aside from some revenue loss due to no catering, the restaurant hasn’t had to lay anyone off or make big changes because it’s primarily take-out.
“We’re super lucky because we’re kind of built for this,” Chen said, adding that he’s glad customers still trust the restaurant during such tumultuous times. “Hopefully they continue supporting not just me, but all the local restaurants in West Hartford and Greater Hartford.”
Kevin Plaut of Harry’s Bishop’s Corner said that, similar to Black Bamboo, the pizza place is fortunate that it has always been geared for take-out. It lost its catering side and orders from local businesses like insurance companies, but added pick-up and delivery.
“We really just had to add curbside service, which we’ve been able to do pretty successfully,” Plaut said. “We’re down a little bit, but we’re on track to pay our bills and our [full] staff.”
With the approaching cold weather, take-out continues to be restaurants’ most reliable source of income. During the first coronavirus wave in the spring, digital orders increased by 63% and delivery went up by 67% nationwide.
Not surprisingly, West Hartford restaurants are ramping up take-out in preparation for the winter.
“We’re counting on a lot of increased take-out because we’re not going to have our tables,” Helen Brower, co-owner of Sally and Bob’s said. “During the first wave, we never closed down or anything. The take-out was keeping us going.”
Brower said that she hopes the community can support restaurants through the chilly weather, especially with take-out orders.
“With the rising numbers, it’s put a lot of fear in people, so I don’t think a lot of people are going to be going out this winter. I’m a little nervous, even with take-out,” she said.
Arugula’s Christiane Gehami is of the same sentiment. When the pandemic first hit, she immediately made the switch to take-out and hasn’t slowed it down since.
“It’s crazy to open a dining room and have no one come in,” said Gehami. “I have never been a take-out restaurant, but the virus has taught me that people want it.”
Gehami said she is worried now that West Hartford no longer has its dining corrals. Arugula is a small restaurant with no outdoor dining space outside of what the corral provided over the summer and fall, and Gehami is seeing very few patrons when it comes to indoor dining even if she has barriers and distanced tables.
Even restaurants with outdoor dining are struggling. Union Kitchen’s patio is still open, but owner Zachary Shuman said that he sometimes sees only one person dining outside during the week and maybe six on the weekend.
“We’re definitely watching our pennies for sure. We’re not in the position to close tomorrow, but we’re in the position of watching everything and making aggressive cuts,” Shuman said.
Shuman’s biggest fear is the state going back to Phase 1. He’s already had to cut how many days the restaurant is open and it’s impossible for him to bring his pre-COVID staff back. Phase 1 would also mean a limited menu and letting all the staff go except for Shuman, his sous chef, and his general manager.
“We’re just going to take it day-by-day,” Shuman said.
That’s what most restaurants are doing: preparing for an unknown, but still preparing. As diners move inside, Vinted, Frida, Arugula, and other places have installed barriers like plexiglass.
In addition to bolstering take-out, some restaurants are being innovative with what they offer to keep up enthusiasm. Union Kitchen brought back its to-go kits – for Hannukah’s to-go kit, the restaurant is collaborating with Donut Crazy. Union Kitchen is also doing monthly pop-ups, again teaming up with other local businesses.
Vinted introduced a brand-new online grocery section during the pandemic where customers can order fresh pasta and popular sauces made in-house, and even toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
“We’re hoping that stretching ourselves out to be your restaurant for multiple nights with different reasons [help us stay afloat,]” Voight said.
But even with the preparation, back at Arugula, Gehami believes that the government needs to step in and help.
“If we continue to stay open, you continue to have the virus. If you shut down everything for a month, but you pay everyone, then the band-aid’s off and we move forward,” Gehami said. “I just wish something happens.”
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