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West Hartford Business Buzz: February 8, 2021

Kung Fu Tea will be opening in the former Esquire Cleaners at 5 South Main St. in West Hartford Center. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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

By Ronni Newton

I’m writing this on Super Bowl Sunday – which means I’m writing it earlier in the day than I usually do so that I will be able to watch the game without worrying about working during or after the game.

On Super Bowl Sunday last year I was in Delary Beach, Florida, with my sister, visiting our dad. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to see him since then. He’s now living in a nursing home, which due to the pandemic was locked down with no visitors from March until November. His wife has been able to have very short visits with him – scheduled several days in advance, limited to 30 minutes at at time, and only once a week. He has had his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and will be getting his second dose any day, but until things change dramatically phone calls are going to have to remain our only form of communication.

On a completely different note, there are lots of exciting things to hear about in West Hartford this week!

Below you’ll find links to two different announcements of new restaurants that opened this week in West Hartford – Toro Taberna and Citizen Chicken & Donuts – and those are on the heels of Caribe opening just two weeks ago. Even amid the pandemic, there are some very bright spots in West Hartford’s dining scene!

I’m also personally excited that I have been nominated for a CT Entrepreneur Award in the “Community Builder” category! Judging will open on Wednesday, and I will shamelessly share the link for voting and ask for our readers’ support.

This week’s Saturday night adventure was takeout from Sweet Chilli Thai Cuisine on Park Road. Town Manager Matt Hart mentioned a week or two ago that he and his family really enjoy takeout from that restaurant, and Ted and I definitely give it a thumbs-up. I am very much looking forward to eating my leftovers, although there’s not much left!

Clockwise from top: Cashew Nut with pork, Pad Thai with chicken, and Spring Rolls from Sweet Chilli in West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Below is a request I included at the end of last week’s column, which I am going to repeat because I did have to reach out to a few people who attempted to comment during the past week.

We are continuously updating our policies at We-Ha.com, and while we don’t get too many people commenting directly on articles, I have noticed recently that many of those who do comment are not using their full names (there are multiple people who like to go by the name “concerned taxpayer” or some variation thereof), or legitimate email addresses. On the back end of the site I am able to see the email addresses, and I have often emailed people whose comments are unacceptable (typically because they include personal attacks or profanity), only to have the message returned as undeliverable in which case the comment permanently goes into the trash.

In the interest of transparency, going forward we are going to ask that those who comment please use their full names. I am also going to test out the email addresses that go with the comments, and if they are not legitimate email addresses, a comment will not be posted.

Thanks in advance for complying!

We hope you’ve been following our Keeping it in the Community feature, which is a collaboration with the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce and the town’s Economic Development Department.

Read last week’s “Keeping it in the Community” spotlight on Chick-fil-A.

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Keeping it in the Community Tip: Think Local for Service Businesses

When people think of “buy local or “shop local” initiatives, businesses such as retail and restaurants instantly come to mind. While this is a very tangible way to support your local economy, there are many more ways to do this. Service businesses make up a large percentage of our local economy and employ many people in our community. Need something printed? Yes, there is Vistaprint, but there are also many businesses in town that offer printing from business cards to outside signage, branded merchandise, and even photo printing. Many of them have onsite designers to make your vision a reality.

Other needs which can be filled by a local business include cleaning services, landscaping, oil delivery, auto repair, building trades, and decorating experts. There are also dozens of professional services such as medical, legal, and financial. Some are also fun – like music lessons, learning a new language … the list goes on. Point being, next time you need something, no matter what it is, add “near me” to your internet search. You may be surprised at what you find.

French Cleaners, 935 Farmington Ave. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Keeping it in the Community Spotlight: French Cleaners

Services businesses play a huge role in our economy, and 110-year-old French Cleaners is one of West Hartford’s most long-standing businesses. It started off as French Dye Works in 1911 and was established at its current location on Farmington Avenue in 1925 and has been there ever since, General Manager Mark Hatch said.

All of the dry cleaning, alterations, and laundry services are performed on site.

Five generations of the Gassner/Cote family have been involved with the operation of French Cleaners, and Hatch’s father-in-law, Phil Cote, is the owner. Hatch has been part of the family business since 2016.

Front counter staff separated in compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Courtesy photo

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “French has had to make multiple pivots to sustain the same high-quality service to our clients,” Hatch said. “The dry cleaning industry was deemed an essential industry in Connecticut and most states early on in the pandemic and we have been able to stay open throughout.”

COVID-19 protocols have impacted every aspect of French Cleaners’ day-to-day business: the client-facing experience, employee scheduling, and cleaning procedures. The impact on the economy and the workplace has also greatly impacted the nature of their business.

Hatch said French Cleaners has stuck to guidelines established by the CDC, and sector guidelines established by the state, implementing strategies to mitigate risk to customers as well as employees.

Drop-off and pick-up was located outdoors at French Cleaners during the warmer months. Courtesy photo

“The most successful strategy to mitigate this risk is the expansion of our contactless pickup and delivery service. The service has recently been modernized with SMS and email technologies. Customers can schedule a pickup of their cleaning by text and payment is all automated with an integrated POS system. COVID-19 highlighted this contactless service method and since French was already an established delivery business we have been lucky to have the infrastructure in place to expand this service to a majority of our clients,” Hatch said.

“In store, the French Cleaners team has spread out the retail workstations, implemented scheduled alterations fittings, and practiced the standard retail COVID-19 cleaning measures. The in-store pick-up and delivery service time can be as short as 15-30 seconds so the risk to a retail customer is relatively low if they do come in store for standard dry cleaning. Where possible we have spread out our employee workstations to minimize the risk to our employees.”

French Cleaners’ delivery service has been important during the pandemic. Courtesy photo

Since the pandemic hit, there’s much less demand for dry cleaning of clothing due to special events being canceled or postponed, and fewer people dressing in professional office attire. Other aspects of the business have seen an uptick, Hatch said, including the cleaning of comforters and drapes as people are spending more time in their homes, as well as their laundry wash and fold service.

“We have had success maintaining our operation at a consistent level throughout the pandemic,” said Hatch. “Just getting through the pandemic and navigating the regulatory, financial, and personal challenges from the pandemic feels like a success. We have continued to invest in new capital including new dry cleaning technology that is eco-friendly and safer for our customers’ garments. Another big success was our outdoor service kiosk we operated throughout the summer. Customers were able to do all transactions without having to enter the building.”

One highly visible success story came began early in the pandemic, when the alterations staff turned their skills toward making masks.

St. Francis Hospital staff thank French Cleaners for the donation of masks. Courtesy photo

“Early on in the pandemic we were doing no alterations but wanted to stay productive and keep our staff on payroll. As the mask supply in the U.S. was ramping up to meet the demand, there was a huge shortage in PPE for healthcare workers and the general population. Partnering with one of our customers, Dr. John Rodis, our team made and donated over 500 masks for St. Francis Hospital with a specialized fabric to protect their healthcare staff. French also made and supplied free masks and sent them directly to our customers. The mask making continued through 2020 with promotions for WeHa Magazine, Hall/Conard, and other community-based projects,” Hatch said.

Special West Hartford masks include Conard and Hall logos. Courtesy photo

“We have been able to streamline our operation internally, and one positive from the COVID-19 period is that our staff is much more versatile due to cross-training necessary to get through a year with fluctuations in staff levels as our employees navigated school closings, quarantines, etc.,” Hatch said.

French Cleaners has worked hard since the pandemic began to keep its customer base engaged and aware of all services, including delivery, using multiple channels such as email, texting, and social media.

“A very successful tool for us has been our automated CRM interface that helps us solicit feedback from customers,” Hatch said. “We are able to document when customers have a positive experience and then if a customer has an issue we can take that critical feedback, correct the issue, and implement training or controls to prevent it in the future.”

One of the youngest members of the French Cleaners family team helps deliver masks. Courtesy photo

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Please continue to support our local businesses, and please wear your masks if you are in public places, and stay safe and healthy.

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:

  • Bubble tea continues to be a trendy and popular beverage, and the country’s largest bubble tea brand is about to open a location in West Hartford – the first location in the state. The former Esquire Cleaners at 5 South Main St. (between Bruegger’s and Ben and Jerry’s) will soon be home to Kung Fu Tea. “We’re planning to open late spring/early summer, but hopefully sooner if possible,” said Anna Le, owner of the West Hartford franchise. The space will be designed based on the franchise’s specifications. Kung Fu Tea was founded in New York in 2010, after the owners wanted to recreate the type of bubble tea they had found on a recent trip to Taiwan. A focus on “3T” is the key to the Kung Fu Tea difference, the business’ website states. They include using premium tea leaves, brewing the tea at the prime temperature, and steeping the tea for the exact right amount of time. Esquire closed last summer, and property manager Mike Mahoney said before a new tenant was secured quite a bit of updating was done to the interior of the space, in particular removing the dropped ceiling which really opened it up. He’s very excited to welcome Kung Fu Tea to the space.

Cake Gypsy will be opening soon at 1123 New Britain Ave. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

  • Cake Gypsy owner Deanna Damen has now confirmed the location of West Hartford’s new shop: 1123 New Britain Ave. in Elmwood. The space – which is actually two stories – was formerly occupied by a nail salon, and Damen is very excited to transform it into Cake Gypsy. She said the display cases will be delivered this week, and then painting and decorating will follow with an opening very soon. Cake Gypsy has quite the dedicated following and is known for having 60 different flavors of cupcakes available. They currently have locations in Avon and Granby, and are about to open a shop in Canton as well. Among the cupcake flavors are gluten free and vegan varieties, and Cake Gypsy also offers cake pops, cookies, cannolis, and party supplies like plates and candles for those special celebrations. “I’ve wanted to be in West Hartford for about 12 years,” Damen said, and that’s soon to be a reality.

From left: Property manager Mike Mahoney of RLM Co., Kimberly Mattson Moster of Kimberly Boutique, Barbara Karsky of BK& Co. and AL Marino of Foodshare at presentation of a $14,500 check from the West Hartford Center Business Association. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

  • The West Hartford Center Business Association’sWe Care Card’ initiative, held in November, was far more successful than anyone would have anticipated it would be in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday, a check for $14,500 was presented to representatives from Foodshare, the recipient of the fundraising effort for the fourth year in a row. “We’re honored that you guys did this for us,” said Al Marino, corporate and community giving manager for Foodshare, who was on hand at Kimberly Boutique for the check presentation. Kimberly Mattson Moster, owner of Kimberly Boutique and an officer with the West Hartford Center Business Association, said there were challenges to running the fundraiser during the pandemic. “Typically, when you run an event like this, you want to have crowds in the store,” she said, but for health and safety that wasn’t the case this year. “Our customers in the Center are so loyal, some just bought the card,” she said. “Everyone knows food insecurity is even more prevalent due to the pandemic, and knows that Foodshare really helps people,” she said. “Also, people were really feeling the ‘shop local’ effort, and that also got people coming out. It was a win-win-win,” Moster said.

Do’s and Dye’s will be opening at 222 Whiting Lane. Photo credit; Ronni Newton

  • The hair salon Do’s and Dye’s (I love that name!) will soon open at 222 Whiting Lane, right behind the car wash on the south side of Park Road. The space was formerly the office of an event planner. More information to come!
  • Connecticut Wealth Management, LLC (CTWM), which is based in Farmington, announced 11 team members – including three West Hartford residents – have received the 2020 Five Star Wealth Manager Award from Five Star Professional. The Five Star Wealth Manager Award program is a collaboration between Five Star Professional and Connecticut Magazine. The award is presented to wealth managers in over 45 markets in the U.S. and Canada, recognizing service professionals who provide quality client services. The West Hartford resident, pictured below, include partners Jarrett F. Solomon, CFP, CIMA and Kathleen M. Christensen, CPA/PFS, CDFA, as well as managing advisor Elizabeth A. DeBassio, CPA/PFS. Both Kevin C. Leahy, partner and president (of Durham, CT) and Denis M. Horrigan of Simsbury, partner and co-founder of CTWM, have been recognized with the prestigious award numerous times. A total of 3,048 Connecticut-area wealth managers were considered for the award, and only 285 were selected as recipients, 9% of qualified candidates. A candidate evaluation is based on advisor credentials, regulatory, disciplinary and compliance history, client acceptance and retention, education and professional designations, and consumer feedback, CTWM said in a news release.

Jarrett F. Solomon. Courtesy photo

Kathleen M. Christensen. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth A. DeBassio. Courtesy photo

  • ICYMI, West Hartford’s newest restaurant is Citizen Chicken & Donuts, which opened Saturday on New Park Avenue. Click here for the completely story!
  • Also new to West Hartford’s dining scene, Toro Taberna opened on Tuesday on Oakwood Avenue and Park Road. Read that full story here.
  • West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor will present the “State of the Town” on Thursday, Feb. 11, from noon-1:30 p.m. The event, which will be held virtually this year, is hosted by the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce. Click here for details and to register.
  • The New Park Avenue corridor is ready for another new investment, with the announcement this week that the construction of 540 New Park will soon begin. The complete story can be found here.
  • Gov. Ned Lamont extended the curfew for restaurants from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. last week. Details can be found 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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