A round-up of openings, closings, and other news about West Hartford businesses.
By Ronni Newton
We are deep into the holiday season, and things are looking quite festive in my house now that we have put up the tree and the rest of the decorations – actually far ahead of schedule by my family’s standards.
Walking the dog through the neighborhood in the evening, or driving around town, it seems like there are more lights and cheerful decorations than ever before, and I don’t think it’s my imagination. Everyone is looking to provide some brightness and hope among the darkness that has been 2020.
There is other light at the end of the tunnel, and today should be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, as the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrive in Connecticut.
I spent hours last week absorbing as much information as I could about the vaccine. Not only did John Lyons and I host several experts during a Facebook Live forum on Wednesday, but I attended a few virtual press conferences with the teams from Hartford HealthCare and St. Francis Hospital, who are very excited about the arrival of the vaccine.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who also participated in the St. Francis press conference, said that we are “really at the cusp” and this is a moment in history that we will always remember, and I have to agree. I’m planning to photograph the administration of the first doses to health care workers on Monday.
“We know vaccines are not effective until they are in people’s arms.” It’s not vaccines – it’s vaccinations, Blumenthal said.
“This is essentially the moment that we have all been waiting for,” Dr. Patrick Troy of Hartford HealthCare said during a briefing Friday. “I’m very confident in our capacity to be able to treat patients that get COVID. … but what we didn’t have until a few weeks ago was real hope that we could turn this ark around.” Troy said he can feel the real change in the attitude at the hospital, a new sense of optimism, “that we can crush this curve downward.”
I am ready to roll up my sleeve the moment I am authorized to get the vaccine, and I am willing to stand on my soapbox, like I have regarding mask wearing, and promote getting vaccinated as the means to not only protect ourselves, but to do the right thing to save lives, the lives of our family members and our friends and neighbors – not just in West Hartford, but in the state, the region, the country – and throughout the world.
Masks and physical distancing aren’t going away anytime soon, and the next few weeks or months are still going to be tough, but I hope we will soon not only be looking at 2020 with hindsight, and with a sense of renewal for better things in 2021.
Just before I wrote this I saw the most amazing sunset (see photo above). I was on my way home and went past my street and pulled into the Rockledge Golf Club parking lot to get a good vantage point. The iPhone photo doesn’t quite do it justice, but it’s still beautiful – and I see it as a good sign.
This weekend’s dinner: take-out from BIRDCODE. It was as delicious as it looks!
Please continue to support our local businesses, and please wear your masks if you are in public places, and stay safe and healthy.
Keeping it in the Community Tip: Support Local Restaurants, Safely
Sharing a meal with family and friends is universally a way to celebrate across cultures and demographics. As many of us observed Thanksgiving in a non-traditional way this year, we now look to the remainder of the holiday season. It is no secret that West Hartford is home to some of the best restaurants in the state and you can eat your way around the globe within miles of your home. There are many ways you can involve our local restaurants in your holiday festivities.
- Gift cards are a great way to treat a friend or loved one to a culinary experience to enjoy in their own time.
- Inside dining is currently an option. Within your own comfort level, consider a small group meal.
- Take the holidays off from cooking for yourself and family. Let one of our local restaurants do the preparation and cooking, so you can enjoy time with those close to you.
- Consider donating a meal to an essential worker
- Share your experience! Take pictures of your meal and give the restaurant a shoutout on social media. You may introduce them to a whole new group of customers.
Keeping it in the Community: Ocho Cafe
Ocho Cafe opened in the summer of 2017 in the former Bertucci’s space in Bishops Corner, with the goal of being a welcoming space to the community and at the same time making people feel as if they walk inside the door into a Mexican resort town like Puerto Vallarta or Cancun.
Despite the addition of plexiglass dividers and other COVID safety measures such as removing the salsa bar, and extra spacing for seating, the vibe has remained – along with the innovative flavors of the food and great margaritas.
“COVID came as a surprise to us and many others as well,” said owner and manager Noe Ruelas. “I don’t know any restaurant owner that was expecting this. Since COVID started our dine-in has decreased significantly because of policies and safety precautions we are taking. Thankfully we have been able to build our own online ordering system Ochocafetogo.com.” The successful implementation of that system has helped keep the business sustainable.
Ruelas said that while Ocho Cafe works with online ordering platforms because some diners prefer that route, those organizations are paid a 30% fee and commissions. “We will always have different options of ordering to make sure we offer the services our clients prefer,” he said.
“We have had to change our strategy completely, and online business is the way to go for now,” said Ruelas. “Making sure all of our budgeting is efficient, changing the menu items, coming up with new solutions. Every order matters to us, we do everything with love and passion to make sure every customer leaves satisfied and with a smile. We just have to keep moving forward and innovate in whatever way we can.”
Plexiglass dividers have been installed between all booths, and to separate areas of the restaurant. All employees wear masks, at all times, Ruelas said, and there are sanitation stations located throughout the restaurant. Tables are deep cleaned between customers, he said, and all surfaces are disinfected daily before opening.
Ruelas said that making sure employees stay health and feel secure – physically as well as financially – is also a major priority. He said they would have employees do the delivery rather than laying people off.
“The priority of the Ocho Cafe team is to provide the best food and the best customer service you have ever had. #westaytogether,” Ruelas said.
In addition to the Bishops Corner location, Ocho Cafe also has a restaurant in Weymouth, MA, and Ruelas said they are soon expanding to open a third location, in Westford, MA.
If you have information about businesses changing their operations due to COVID-19, or doing something worth sharing, please provide that information in the comments or email Ronni Newton at [email protected].
Here’s this week’s Buzz:
- Yes, those are cupcakes – and NoRA Cupcake Company is back in town! The pop-up opened Saturday at 67 Memorial Rd. (formerly Pokéman) in Blue Back Square, and will be open Thursday through Saturday from noon-8 p.m. and Sunday from noon-6 p.m., for the next several months, “for your immediate sweet needs,” Blue Back Square General Manager Robyn Rifkin said. “We are excited to be able to provide more accessibility for our customer base in West Hartford by having a seasonal pop-up through February 2021,” NoRA Cupcake Company owner Carrie Carella said. While you can go into the store and order, Carella said pre-ordering online is also available through the website (noracupcake.com) with curbside pick up. “Our hope is that we are able to bring a little bit of sweetness in a predicted hibernating winter,” she said. Of course I couldn’t just photograph those cupcakes when I paid the store a visit Sunday afternoon – and they were indeed a welcome sweet treat after dinner!
- Another new business has opened in Blue Back Square! Aria Nail Spa opened Friday at 80 Memorial Rd., in the space vacated by Ooh La La (which is still open but moved to the courtyard on Isham, across from Cheesecake Factory). Owner Sue Quan, who formerly worked for a nail salon in Southington, said she is very happy to be in West Hartford, and this is actually the first nail salon to be located in Blue Back Square. Aria has all COVID precautions in place, including plexiglass shields between nail technicians and customers. It’s clean and bright, and the pedicure chairs are well spaced and located in a separate room. Quan said that Aria is offering a grand opening gel manicure/shellac special ($20) and also has a membership program. Gift cards are also available. Photos of the interior can be found at the end of this column.
- In other Blue Back Square news, the demolition of the former Skeleton Key and deadbolt space at 61 Raymond Rd. is well underway, preparing for the opening of Sola Salon Studios sometime in early 2021. Sola Salon Studios provides “beauty professionals with high-end, fully-equipped salon studios alongside the support and tools they need to launch their salon business in no time.” The business is franchise-based, and Brian Jersey is the owner of the West Hartford location. More details to come as the opening approaches.
- And one more, while we’re still in Blue Back Square … work has commenced on the build-out of The Place 2 Be, which will be bringing its cool brunch/lunch menu and great cocktails to the former Cook and The Bear space at 50 Memorial Rd. I peek in the window every time I walk by, and I was very excited to learn that the work has started and will definitely provide updates as the opening nears!
- The Max Cares Foundation, Inc. has announced the fourth Annual Roasts for the Holidays campaign to raise funds to provide quality holiday meals for several shelters and soup kitchens in the Greater Hartford area as well as in the Springfield, MA region. In addition, Max Cares Foundation will be holding a holiday meal bag distribution event to provide a complete dinner to 500 area households. Acknowledging the enormous impact the pandemic has had on our communities, The foundation has doubled its matching gift commitment to $20,000 for 2020 in the hopes of serving more families experiencing food insecurity. Diners or take-out customers at any of the Max Restaurant Group restaurants (West Hartford locations include Max’s Oyster Bar, Max Burger, and Savoy) will have the opportunity to donate to Roasts for the Holidays, through Dec. 18. People who would like to participate but are not able to visit a Max Restaurant during the two week period can make a tax-deductible donation via the foundation’s website, www.maxcaresfoundation.org. All funds raised up to $20,000 will be matched by the Max Cares Foundation who will use the money raised to provide for area shelters and soup kitchens. Last year the Roasts for the Holidays raised $30,000, and with a $10,000 matching grant from the Foundation provided “Max quality” dinners for the underserved in the Hartford and Springfield areas. Richard Rosenthal, president of the Max Cares Foundation, said, “Guests of the Max restaurants went above and beyond last year to raise funds to provide food for a holiday meal for those in need in our communities.” In addition to the West Hartford locations, participating restaurants include Max Downtown (Hartford), Max-A-Mia (Avon), Max Fish (Glastonbury), Max’s Tavern (Springfield, MA), and Max Burger in Longmeadow, MA.
- I try to avoid information about sales or special offers in this column (other than when it pertains to a grand opening), but this one is the exception. AAA is offering special memberships for teachers as well as first responders, that many are giving as holiday gifts, Amy Parmenter, manager of public and government affairs for AAA of Greater Hartford said. “This is the season of giving, and some people are giving of themselves above and beyond,” she said, and AAA membership provides security that can be so important for those who are out and about at all times of day or night. The teacher information is above, and the details about the “local heroes” program are found in the PDF below. For information on gifting a membership to a teacher or first responder, simply stop by the AAA store on Farmington Avenue, call 844-317-0063, or contact the store manager, Lisa Badgley, [email protected].
- Speaking of local heroes, the West Hartford Police Department is giving back to others, and will be holding one last “Stuff a Cruiser” this season, collect gifts for West Hartford families in need on Dec. 15, from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., in front of the Bishops Corner Target store. “We are still in desperate need of science kits, Legos, kids bedding sheet and/or comforter sets (Minecraft, Frozen, & Mermaids), clothing gift cards, and middle school age toys/clothing. You can also call Community Relations to set up drop offs at 860-570-8820, but must do so prior to Dec. 15,” the department said in a Facebook post.
- The West Hartford Fire Department has been giving back as well, and held a “Stuff a Truck” event in front of Toy Chest in the Center last week, to benefit Toys for Tots. If you missed it and want to donate, new and unwrapped toys can be dropped off at any fire station through Dec. 16.
- The West Hartford Center Business Association is working to purchase new pole banners, and has launched a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $3,750 through Sustainable CT’s Community Match Fund. In a press release, the West Hartford Center Business Association said the hope is that the new banners will not only beautify the Center but also remind people to support the local businesses so that the Center and Blue Back Square can remain a vibrant shopping and dining district for decades to come. “The Center is such an amazing place, it should have attractive and impactful pole banners,” said Kimberly Moster of the WHCBA. “If all of the local businesses chip in, even small amounts, we can easily achieve our goal.” The new banner graphics will bring a fresh new look and be a visual reminder to people how lucky we are to have such a wonderful place to “SHOP, DINE, & STROLL,” and will also include the Association’s social media handles so visitors can become followers and be “in the know” on happenings. The banners will hang on the light poles throughout the Center and Blue Back Square. “We are excited to have a fresh and unifying look throughout,” the release states. If the campaign reaches its $3,570 goal by its fundraising deadline of Jan. 20, the project will receive a matching grant of $3,570 from Sustainable CT’s Community Match Fund, which is an innovative funding resource for public, community-led sustainability projects. For project details and to donate, please the Patroncity crowdfunding site.
- Look for more information coming this week about a program being launched by West Hartford restaurants in support of Hartford HealthCare workers. The program is set to begin Tuesday and run through the end of the year, and will include a donation when a gift card at a participating restaurant is purchased.
- West Hartford Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski wants to be sure that the community is aware that the Capital Workforce Partners (CWP) CARES Act Workforce Training Innovation Fund program is providing training and job placement services to individuals impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic through Dec. 31, 2020. The program employs innovative strategies to rapidly train participants and assist them to secure employment. “The intent of the Employer Incentive Program is to motivate employers to select CARES Act program participants to fill open positions during the period that CARES Act funding is available to CWP, and to maximize employment and earnings outcomes for CARES Act participants,” Gorski said. For the period ending Dec. 31, 2020, CWP will provide an incentive payment of $1,000 to employers for each CARES Act program participant hired for a minimum of 20 hours per week. For more information, contact Kristen Gorski, Economic Development Coordinator at [email protected]
- Gorski also wants businesses to be aware that they can sign up to receive email notifications from the Economic Development Division by visiting the website: https://www.westhartfordct.
gov/town-departments/economic- development. Information offered includes grant and loan programs, virtual meetings with state and federal officials, and other business support information, she said.
- I should have included this when I was writing about Blue Back Square, but I prefer to put the bad news at the end. A few readers had asked me about Cinepolis being closed a few weeks ago and I wasn’t able to find out much other than to confirm that they were closed. Over the weekend I saw the above note on the door, which explains that the closure is due to the inability to offer food and beverages along with movie viewing once the state rolled back to Phase 2.1.
- Webster Bank announced last week that it would be closing 27 branches in the spring of 2021. The Hartford Business Journal has reported that one of those locations is in West Hartford, at 75 Park Rd.
- ICYMI, AAA has installed an Amazon Hub in the Farmington Avenue office, offering a good option to avoid the risk of porch pirates. Click here for details.
Remember, if you have any business news to share, add it in the comments section below or email Ronni Newton at [email protected].
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