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West Hartford Business Buzz: December 21, 2020

School of Rock will be opening at 20 Isham Rd. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

A round-up of openings, closings, and other news about West Hartford businesses.

By Ronni Newton

Unless you’re a real early bird, or you stayed up late enough to see this column when it went live right after midnight, by the time you are reading this it’s officially winter. The winter solstice arrived at 5:02 a.m. on Dec. 21, 2020.

There are some interesting astronomical happenings this year which accompany the solstice – and I’d like to think that’s a good sign. I’m taking the glass half-full approach, rather than what I’m also thinking – that it’s officially winter and really I want to hibernate until April, or at least until I can get my COVID-19 vaccine.

I reported on and photographed two COVID-19 vaccination events this past week, and I see that as cause for optimism as well. On Monday, Hartford HealthCare celebrated the first vaccinations in the state, and on Friday, the first nursing home staff and resident vaccinations were held at The Reservoir in West Hartford.

Cross country skiing at Rockledge. Photo credit: Ted Newton

I’m trying really hard to embrace winter. I have not broken into my supply of hand warmers yet (that’s despite both of those vaccination events taking place outside on very cold mornings). While my crazy husband did go out for a run on Saturday morning when it was 6ºF and still slippery (he said it was fun and that he wasn’t too cold, but I don’t believe him), I opted for an indoor HIIT workout instead. A bit later in the day we really did have a great time cross country skiing at Rockledge Golf Course.

Millie got a haircut a few weeks ago, but is still furry enough so that she has been embracing the cold weather and loving the snow, and she continues to scamper through the backyard keeping the squirrels and birds at bay and out of her territory.

Housekeeping note: We will have just two newsletters this week, as well as next week. We will not have newsletters on either Christmas Day or New Year’s Day.

Our family is continuing to support local restaurants in different parts of town, and had some great takeout this past weekend: pizza from Barb’s Pizza. Ted and Sam split the buffalo chicken pizza (left), and I made a dent in the Sciachiatta Pie.

Barb’s Pizza yumminess. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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Read last week’s tip about safely supporting local restaurants, and spotlight on Ocho Cafe here.

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: Explore all corners of West Hartford

West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square combined for one of the best town centers in the entire state. The walkability combined with a fine selection restaurants, retail, businesses, attractions, and places of worship make it a desirable place to be. Having said that, West Hartford offers so much more. Beyond the Center, we have other districts and neighborhoods with their own treasures to discover. Elmwood, on the south side of town, has a wonderful neighborly vibe. You can get your car repaired, learn karate, enjoy global cuisine, and find places for grooming yourself or your pets all within a few blocks. Heading up New Park Avenue, the Design District of West Hartford is your one-stop spot to build, refurbish, or decorate a home. Just like other parts of town, it too boasts some fine restaurants and other shopping and attractions. Along with being the home to Playhouse on Park, Park Road is home to an eclectic mix of businesses and, of course, dining. North of the Center is Bishops Corner, where at a single four-way intersection you can live, work, play … and yes, eat! While these are distinct areas, there are plenty of other places to discover in between them. Next time you are out and about, see what you can discover.

Cora Cora is located at 162 Shield St., West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Keeping it in the Community Spotlight: Cora Cora

Cora Cora opened its doors in West Hartford in 2011, transforming a former McDonald’s in the Shield Street Plaza on the southeastern edge of West Hartford into a restaurant whose authentic and vibrant Peruvian cuisine earned it a “good” review in the New York Times.

Grecia Ludena, owner and manager, said she has done everything possible to keep the restaurant in business and COVID-safe – right down to setting a good example by placing a mask over the mouth (and nose) of Cora Cora’s iconic stuffed llama.

The llama inside the dining area at Cora Cora is sporting a mask, properly placed over its nose and mouth. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Having to work at 50% capacity has impacted us a lot. Having to close at the beginning and operate for take-out only was a huge struggle since we lost 90% of sales,” Ludena said.

Many people order through third-party delivery companies because it’s easy, but while restaurant owners feel pressure to partner with those companies, if you’re looking to really support local businesses ordering directly – perhaps picking up take-out – makes a bigger difference. “People are ordering a lot through third party companies such as UberEats and DoorDash and they take 30% of sales when we’re already struggling to cover rent, but we can’t just stop using them since their reach is way bigger that ours if we offer delivery ourselves,” she said.

In addition to paying the fees to third-party delivery services, Ludena said investing in PPE has been an added expense to running the business during the pandemic. Early on it was difficult to find PPE, and Cora Cora had to rely on what they could get from major suppliers like Cintas.

Ludena said she is very grateful for the grants and loans Cora Cora received.

Procedural changes have included taking the temperature of all employees when they arrive for their shift. “We have to invest on changing the layout of our kitchen so we can keep employees 6 feet apart, but also trying to keep the same quality service we’ve always offered,” she said.

Tables inside Cora Cora are spaced far apart – exceeding the required distancing. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Tables inside Cora Cora are spaced far apart – exceeding the required distancing. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“We’re following all state guidelines for social distancing, offering hand sanitizer, limiting sitting capacity, offering take out and curbside options, offering patio [seating].” What was an outdoor seating area has now been enclosed for the winter months, and allows for capacity so tables can be even more spread out.

Cora Cora is located in an IG (General Industrial) zone, which in West Hartford means they are permitted to have a drive-thru – and the building already had one, inherited one from the former McDonald’s.

Cora Cora’s building was formerly a McDonald’s, and since the pandemic they have put the drive-thru back into operation. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Thanks to the pandemic we opened our drive thru which has been a success for us, and customers were happy since we’re limiting contact and we were able to protect our employees,” said Ludena.

Marketing has also helped keep the business afloat, as has investing in technology and seeking professional assistance.

“We used to use social media as our way to promote our business, but since the pandemic started we started doing radio commercials, paying to boost online posts, reaching out to the town of West Hartford to promote promotions we had going on,” said Ludena. “We had to offer discounts and special prices and for some items we have to reduce our price so we can compete with other restaurants. We had to invest in a different POS and a new CPA so we can understand better and have professionals on our side.”

Ludena said they feel lucky to have survived thus far amid the pandemic, and they are grateful for the support of the community.

“Cora Cora, as a minority- and family-owned business, is blessed to be able to serve our community and hope we can continue to do it,” Ludena said.

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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:

The School of Rock sign is visible in the window at the left. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

  • Just days before the pandemic upended many local businesses, we reported that School of Rock was planning to open in West Hartford. It’s taken a bit longer than originally planned, but Scott Rownin, who at the time was still living in Westport but had purchased a School of Rock franchise for the area, shared some great news last week. “We started looking for space in March, but then stopped immediately,” Rownin said. He was originally focused on Bishops Corner, and then came close to securing space in Avon rather than West Hartford. Knowing that the right place would eventually materialize, Rownin is really happy that has indeed happened. If you look at the photo above, you’ll see the School of Rock sign in the second floor window – above Prime HealthCare at 20 Isham Rd., right at the edge of Blue Back Square and West Hartford Center. The “for lease” sign (visible in the feature photo) will be coming down any day, and School of Rock will be moving into the 3,200 square foot space formerly occupied by the Fitness Continuum. The location is really ideal, Rownin said, with available parking and right near the Blue Back Square courtyard where they hope to be able to ultimately have their house band perform. The lingering pandemic is no longer going to get in the way of the opening, Rownin said. “We are literally building what we call a COVID-proof studio,” he said. Lesson rooms will be arranged in pods, so students can be in separate rooms but have the audio connected so they can all jam together. Build-out will include adding soundproofing (and the floor is already several feet thick), and the installation of an elevator, but Rownin is fairly confident that the opening will be in April. School of Rock will eventually be able to accommodate 350-400 kids, and already has about 100 pre-enrolled (about 20 have been virtual students since the pandemic began). Pre-enrollment is open via the website (westhartford.schoolofrock.com) for the various levels, including “Performance” (ages 8-18, who will train to perform in shows such as “British Invasion” or “Best of the 80s”; “Rock 101” which is the beginner class for ages 8-18; “Rookies” (ages 6-7); and “Little Wings” (ages 3-5). There are also summer camps, and songwriting classes. For more information, visit the website, call 860-973-ROCK (7625) or email [email protected]. For those unfamiliar with School of Rock, it’s not only a 2003 movie starring Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White, and Sarah Silverman, but also a well-established franchise focused on performance-based music education – different from and as a supplement to the classical music education taught in schools –with about 260 locations in 10 countries. It was founded in 2002 with the Paul Green School of Music in Philadelphia. There are currently five locations in Connecticut, but this will be the first in Central Connecticut. “The spring cannot come fast enough,” Rownin said.

Build-out continues for Toro Taberna in the former Park & Oak space, and they have applied for their liquor license. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

  • I reached out to Tony Camilleri regarding the status of Toro Taberna after reading an article that stated he was no longer involved with the business. Camilleri, chef/owner of Toro Loco in Farmington and Loco Urban Street Food, confirmed that he indeed remains one of the partners (along with Stretch Altenhein and James LaFond), he is very much involved, and Toro Taberna is getting close to opening – likely by the end of January – in the former Park & Oak space (14-16 Oakwood Ave., corner of Park Road). Loco Urban Street Food is already open for take-out and delivery business at 14-16 Oakwood Ave., and will continue to operate out of that space. The Toro Taberna menu will be a mix of Spanish and Mexican cuisines. Camilleri, who was the executive chef at Barcelona for more than three years, previously said, “We really want to make it that cool neighborhood space,” an unpretentious space where you can grab a quick bite and beer while watching football, but also come for a great meal and a nice date night. The menu will be completely gluten free, as are the menus at Toro Loco, Loco Urban Street Food, and the under-construction Toro Loco Casita in the former Petals and Paws space on Raymond Road next to Whole Foods.
  • West Hartford-based blumshapiro will become part of national professional services firm CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP) effective Jan. 1, 2021, the company announced in a news release last week. A top-100 firm nationally, blumshapiro is the largest regional business advisory firm based in New England, with 35 years of experience in the area of tax, accounting, audit, and business advisory services. CLA, which has been named one of Accounting Today’s top-10 accounting firms, is an industry-focused wealth advisory, outsourcing, audit, tax, and consulting services firm with experience across a spectrum of industries, and following the merger will have more than 7,000 people in 130-plus locations across 31 states, more than 1,100 of whom will be located in the region. “At blum, we help clients create what’s next by providing a platform to imagine the possibilities,” said Joseph Kask, blumshapiro chief executive officer. “In CLA, we’ve found a team who shared our vision for the future and embraced our values through a common culture. Together we will create opportunities for our clients, people, and communities.” CLA CEO Denny Schleper, said, “With the addition of the blum team, our ability to attract and retain talent increases exponentially. It’s a tremendous advantage for our clients, underscoring our commitment to create inspired careers with channels for growth, success, and personal satisfaction.” No impact on the number of local employees has been indicated at this time.

    Helen and Cesar, owners of Sally and Bob’s. Courtesy photo

  • I love how West Hartford businesses are so supportive of each other, and Fleet Feet (1003 Farmington Ave.) is setting a great example of paying it forward. In their weekly newsletter, Fleet Feet announced the”great gift card giveaway”: “To get through a pandemic, it takes a community. We can’t do it alone – and that is especially true for small business and restaurant owners. I am truly so very grateful for your support this year. Even when we couldn’t let you inside, you still shopped curbside and online, giving us a lifeline when we needed it most. Because of you, we will make it through. In the spirit of the holiday season, we want to give a gift that pays your kindness and support forward to help those who need our help now more than ever. When you purchase a Fleet Feet gift card of $100+, we will give you a $20 gift card to one of our favorite locally-owned restaurants. Please use that gift card to enjoy some comfort food and show some love to people like Helen and Cesar (pictured) who own Sally and Bob’s, home to one of our two favorite breakfasts in town – our other favorite being Effie’s Place where Effie’s son Johnny carries on the family tradition.” Fleet Feet also has gift cards from the Max and Doro restaurants groups, Arugula, Blue Elephant Trail, and Bricco, $20 worth of wooden “nickels” for the Gastropark on New Park, and outside of West Hartford, for Pho 501 in East Hartford.
  • West Hartford Gives is another example of West Hartford businesses giving back, and the list of participants has expanded since the program launched last week. Click here for the details.
  • We-Ha.com sometimes gets confused with weHartford – which is a guide to experiences throughout the Hartford area. (I think both companies were formed around the same time, and it’s probably more confusing that We-Ha.com’s Twitter handle is @wehartford while WeHartford’s is @wehartfordct, but I digress …) WeHartord is partnering with Chef Tyler Anderson to launching something really cool, and while it’s not in West Hartford, it’s definitely worth a mention! The unique and COVID-safe dining experience,”Yes-or-No Morgan,” will begin Jan. 8, 2021, running Thursday through Sunday throughout the winter at the Goodwin Hotel in Hartford. The following is from a news release from Melissa Melonson, founder of Lumi Hospitality and weHartford: “Select hotel rooms at The Goodwin have been transformed into private dining spaces for up to four people. Each party will enjoy a theatrical, interactive three-course dinner experience, curated by Chef Tyler Anderson, with clues, hints, and performances that unveil details and secrets about the life of the historic American businessman JP Morgan, a Hartford local and frequent visitor to The Goodwin Hotel. As we enter the winter months, restaurants have needed to think outside of the box in order to remain open while maintaining safety. ‘In every phase of the pandemic we have tried to quickly assess the strengths and weaknesses of our operations. We ignore the weaknesses and attack the strengths – this, along with an amazing team, has allowed us to pivot.’ Tyler shares on having to constantly innovate and rethink creative strategies since March. Chef Tyler’s restaurant in Simsbury, Millwright’s, has installed greenhouses so that guests can continue to dine outdoors comfortably and safely, even during the cold winter months. He has also created a new outdoor dining concept ‘Ta-que‘ which has now found a home at New Park Brewery in West Hartford.” Visit www.roomserviceatthegoodwin.com for all details and to purchase tickets.

Vinny DiNatale really crammed the van with donated toys for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters this year! Courtesy photo

  • Props to West Hartford resident Vinny DiNatale, a school bus driver for Glastonbury Public Schools, who organized a toy drive to benefit Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters. For the past 11 years, Vinny has been a Big Brother with Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters and, during that time, has mentored two boys. Since 2012, Vinny has been the heart and soul behind a holiday toy drive benefitting boys and girls who are mentees in Nutmeg’s programs. He calls his toy drive “Cram the Van.” This year “Cram the Van” really lived up to its name, bringing in more toys and games than ever before. “Because of the pandemic, kids in Nutmeg’s programs needed more holiday cheer than usual,” Vinny said. “People really stepped up to generously help out this time around. I couldn’t be more grateful.” For his performance as a Big Brother and for his support of the organization, Vinny was presented with an Outstanding Mentor Award in 2019 by Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.

    Mike Rulnick. Courtesy photo

  • Congratulations to Michael Rulnick, director of Residential Services at the West Hartford-based Bridge Family Center, who is celebrating 25 years working with the organization. Since 1995, when he started his career at the Bridge as a Program Coordinator for the Youth Shelter in West Hartford, Rulnick has impacted the lives of hundreds of children and families who have received residential care services. During his tenure as Director of Residential Services, the position he assumed in 2006, the program has realized incredible growth in the depth and breadth of services offered. Under his leadership, the Bridge opened Eleanor House, a community-based therapeutic group home serving boys 13-18 years old. The West Hartford Youth Shelter was converted to a STAR (Short Term Assessment and Respite) model, and 3 additional STAR homes were opened throughout Connecticut. In 2018, Pathfinders, a program providing emergency assistance to run away, homeless and street youth, was established. “We are so grateful for Mike’s expertise, leadership, and guidance over the past 25 years. Working with the youth in these programs is very challenging and demanding. Our kids have experienced significant trauma and unstable relationships throughout their lives. Mike has a natural ability to connect with them, building trust and fostering a caring, supportive environment,” said Margaret Hann, executive director of the Bridge. “Mike’s strong belief in the value of each person and his desire for the most positive outcomes, makes him an amazing advocate for our kids.”

    Carla Zahner. Courtesy photo

  • Congratulations to West Hartford resident Carla Zahner, who has been elected as partner at Hartford-based family law firm Louden, Katz & McGrath LLC, effective Jan. 1, 2021. “Carla has played a vital role in the growth of Louden, Katz & McGrath, demonstrating unmatched dedication to client service, and bringing an entrepreneurial approach to the firm,” said Robert Katz, Partner. “Her work ethic has been evident as an attorney, growing her practice and a long list of satisfied clients, and we are confident she will continue to build capacity now as a partner.” Zahner, a graduate of Trinity College and the University of Connecticut School of Law is a member of the Connecticut Bar Association, the CBA Family Law Section, and treasurer of the Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group. In addition, she was appointed as a Connecticut Judicial Family Matters Special Master. In this role, she facilitates settlement conferences between parties in specific types of family law matters. She was admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 2004 and is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish. “It is a privilege to work with our clients as they navigate difficult situations and start a happier chapter of their lives,” said Zahner. “Attorneys Louden, Katz, and McGrath share the same values I do and they’ve exceeded my hopes for a firm I could grow with and contribute to. With their excellent client service, deep legal bench, and an environment our clients and legal team are proud to be a part of, I am honored to work with them as mentors and colleagues and look forward to the future growth of the firm.”
  • West Hartford resident Jessica Wei, M.D. has released her new book, “Physician, Care for Thyself: A Doctor’s Journey Out of the Darkness of Depression and Burnout” on Dec. 15. In a news release, Morgan James Publishing said the following: “Today, physicians are working harder than ever to care for their patients under conditions that do not support their own health and wellness. Now, amid a worldwide pandemic, doctors everywhere face severe burnout from unprecedented and unimaginably challenging circumstances of caring for very sick patients. In ​’Physician, Care for Thyself: A Doctor’s Journey Out of the Darkness of Depression and Burnout,’ ​Dr. Wei shares her personal story of the immense stress of working as an Ob/Gyn. She worked extremely long hours, raised two young children, and fell more and more deeply into the overwhelming world of depression and burnout. Ever-seeking better answers to how to feel better, Dr. Wei completed a fellowship in integrative medicine and became certified in functional medicine. After realizing that her job’s ongoing pressures contributed to her symptoms despite conventional medical treatment, she took the leap to leave her career as an Ob/Gyn. She created her own women’s functional medicine practice to help women feel better through a holistic approach. As she observed herself finding her inner peace and joy again, she knew that she wanted to help other caregivers find the same for themselves. In her book, Dr. Wei provides gentle guidance to feeling better physically, mentally, and emotionally through a functional medicine approach. After gaining better energy and mental clarity, a physician may begin to consider whether staying in their current job is the right decision for living a healthy and whole life. Step-by-step, she accompanies her reader on the journey of reconnecting with the original purpose and intention of pursuing a medical career. After a physician has decided that they may want to quit their job, Dr. Wei offers gentle advice on how to gather the courage to leave after spending so many years training and working. Through frank and honest storytelling in ​’Physician, Care for Thyself,​’ Dr. Wei provides much-needed hope for those suffering from burnout. In this book, she provides support and guidance for anyone making the brave decision to leave their job to take the best care of themselves and those they love.”
  • ICYMI, Stroll Your Own Way is ongoing, and includes a selfie and window decorating contest. Click here for details.
  • There are a few more days left to share your Christmas wishes with Santa Claus, who is visiting with children at Westfarms in a COVID-safe environment. Full details are available here.

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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