A round-up of openings, closings, and other news about West Hartford businesses.
By Ronni Newton
Beware the Ides of March.
Honestly, I don’t know what else the universe can throw at us (as I write this it’s snowing like crazy …) but I think most people have been pretty much on alert for at least the past year.
We did have some beautiful weather last week, and it was wonderful to see people dining outdoors again. I saw a robin in my yard on Sunday morning, and my neighbors crocuses are in bloom. (I would take a photo of them, but I missed my chance before the arctic blast.)
I’m writing this column, as usual, on Sunday afternoon. Today is my daughter’s birthday (26), and it was my sister’s birthday a few days ago (for years we’ve done a combined celebration dinner), and those events make it easier for me to recall virtually every moment of last year in complete clarity. The fear and disbelief as everything began shutting down, wondering how we were going to make it through a two-week (!!) lockdown, the absence of toilet paper from the grocery store aisles.
On March 12, which was a Thursday last year, John Lyons and I hosted our first roundtable/Facebook Live forum. We sat down to talk about COVID-19 – in person, side-by-side, sharing a microphone – at the studio at West Hartford Community Interactive at Town Hall, and were joined by infectious disease specialist Dr. Nick Bennett, Bob McCue representing the town’s Office of Emergency Management, and Health District nurse Carol Steinke. Before that, I was typically at Town Hall several times a week, sometimes three times a day. After that day, I didn’t set foot inside the building for more than six months.
Ted usually worked at home on Fridays, and March 12, 2020 was the last time he went to his office in Springfield. I’m still hoping he didn’t leave food in his desk drawer!
On March 13, my daughter and I went out for a pre-birthday lunch celebration. Then we went to Big Y to stock up on the necessities. I held the handle of the cart with a Clorox wipe that was available at the entrance, and we laughed as we took photos of the empty toilet paper aisle and stocked up on beer. I was wearing my nice teal wool coat, which after that day I had no occasion to wear again until one day this January when I got tired of the down parka. When I reached into the pocket, I found the receipt from that Big Y shopping trip. I see that in addition to beer, we were able to buy tissues, eggs, and pasta – items that later also became scarce.
We celebrated birthdays at our house on March 14. Someone gave Katie a 12-pack of Corona Extra for her birthday. We were still laughing.
On Friday, March 12, 2021, exactly a year to the date after that roundtable, exactly 52 weeks after that last semi-normal day (which was Friday the 13th), I received my shot of hope. I made my appointment when my 55+ age group became eligible, and the place I went to happened to be administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. I am beyond thrilled to be “one and done,” to know that in two weeks I will have that extra element of confidence meeting with people, being in public spaces.
I haven’t stopped in-person reporting and photographing all along, but once I reach that effectiveness level of the vaccine I will be so relieved. Ted gets his shot (at least the first one) next week, and we hope to finally see his parents (both vaccinated), and maybe even my dad (also vaccinated) sometime in the next few months.
Since many people have asked, I will share that I did get a headache and a low-grade fever and body aches Friday night. I was kind of wiped out on Saturday. Side effects vary for everyone, and for different vaccines, but it’s a very small price to pay, and I hope all will get the vaccine as soon as they are eligible.
Just a few notes before moving onto the business …
The town manager proposed the budget for 2021-2022 on Thursday night. The presentation was delayed a few days because of the expected signing of the American Rescue Plan Act, which will provide more than $35 million of funds to West Hartford ($24.8 million to the town, and $10.3 to the schools) for use over the next several years. The nature of how those funds can be spent is not yet completely clear, and they are NOT contemplated in the proposed budget, nor are expected (but not yet received) FEMA reimbursements for the pandemic and Tropical Storm Isaias. That information is included in my budget story.
There are about 600 pages (no exaggeration) of budget documents. The Council is just beginning a review. While I spent at least eight hours looking through them, attending the entire virtual presentation Thursday night, asking questions of the town manager, and writing a detailed story, I’m quite dismayed that so many people have chosen to comment on Facebook without bothering to read the story. I can tell by the page views, and by the mention of things that people would know if they took a few minutes to read more than just a headline. Also … I don’t know anyone who *wants* to pay more in taxes for no good reason, you can’t easily compare mill rates between towns because services vary widely and in Fairfield County the value of homes is many times higher than it is in West Hartford, and you can’t just go back and easily reopen ratified collective bargaining agreements.
I’ll climb down off my soapboxes for one final important message.
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I almost forgot about dinner Saturday night … which was takeout from Zaytoon’s Bistro. Sam wanted a burger and fries, which I didn’t even realize they had on the menu. the Zaytoon’s Special Burger, which included avocado and melted cheddar, completely fulfilled his wish. Ted and I opted for offerings from the Lebanese specialties, which were delicious!
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.
Keeping it in the Community Tip: You don’t have to look far to find healthy activity options
We are in that time of the year when New Year’s resolutions have dropped off for many, but nice weather is just around the corner. If you are one of those people who renewed your commitment to a more fit you back in January and may need to refocus, you need only look locally to find a partner in your journey to a healthier you.
With COVID restrictions loosening and longer, sunnier days ahead you have many options. First and foremost, West Hartford and the surrounding areas have wonderful outside spaces to put on your sneakers and explore. We also have dozens of gyms and fitness facilities of all shapes and sizes. There are traditional gyms with a variety of cardio machines, weights, and stretching apparatus. There are also facilities where you can spin, dance, or punch and kick your way to a healthier you. Focused personal training, either individually or in small groups, is available in every corner of town. One positive byproduct of the past year is the variety of ways you can connect with a fitness professional. Most are offering in-person sessions, but many have maintained some sort for of virtual or hybrid training and coaching.
Whatever your preference, you should be able to find the business that is right for you in your quest for a healthier you.
Keeping it in the Community Spotlight: Fit University Star
This week we’re back in the same neighborhood for our Business Buzz spotlight – and I just realized that I never included this photo in last week’s column.
Fit University Star, located at 635 New Park Ave., actually shares space with CT Hart Cheer. Fit University Star has been in West Hartford for almost three years, and owner Natalie Thomas was an instructor at the Jewish Community Center before opening her own business.
Like all gyms and fitness facilities, Thomas had to close her business during March, April, and part of May due to COVID-19.
“Some clients canceled their memberships and some stayed,” she said. “Clients have been nervous to come back to the gym but I do my best to put their hearts at ease by offering smaller classes. Practicing social distancing. I’ve had to adjust the schedule to accommodate smaller classes and for people who don’t want to be in the gym I run classes outside when the weather permits.”
When the gym was able to reopen, Thomas said she instituted the following policies:
- Masks are required to enter the gym – and are worn for the full workout. Outdoor mask breaks are given.
- All equipment is sanitized after each class. “Honestly, I’ve been doing that since the gym first opened three years ago,” she said.
- There is no sharing of equipment during workouts.
- Social distancing is required.
- Sanitizers are placed throughout the gym.
“COVID did bring one positive of how I operate certain parts of the gym,” Thomas said. “I had to expand to different teaching platforms, something I was not doing before. Before COVID, Fit U Star classes were not broadcast live on any social media platforms. I used Facebook and Instagram live to promote group classes at the gym. That got me out of my comfort zone,” she said.
Thomas said she has also added a few new classes, including a youth class, boxing, and yoga, and plans to offer a men’s only class starting this spring. She’s offering discounts to new members for any classes they purchase.
When asked about any silver linings brought about by COVID, Thomas said, “Realizing how important the gym is to clients during these tough times.
“It’s not just a gym to some. We are truly a family. People are motivated and inspired and it transfers over to their personal lives,” she said.
“Also, being able to reopen especially when so many businesses have closed because of the pandemic,” she added.
For more information about Fit University Star, visit their website.
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:
- Thank you to alert reader Steve Fisher who was the first of many to reach out and ask me about the new business that placed a “coming soon” sign outside the former Uncle Chow Asian Fusion restaurant at 179 Park Road! I don’t yet have many details, but have confirmed that a lease has been signed, and JAR (Just Another Restaurant) and Bar will be opening in that space. There isn’t much work to be done since there was a major investment in upgrades made by the owners of Uncle Chow (which was at first called Mr. Chow) less than two years ago when they took over the former Chengdu space. Uncle Chow closed for good in June. It looks like the “coming soon” sign was relocated during the week (the feature photo for this column is one I took on Friday, while the one just above was taken by Steve), so some work is already being done. I peeked inside, too. There were signs of redecorating underway, but no one was there. More details to follow as soon as I can get them!
- Sometimes one of the most challenging things I have to do is take photos of properties – which sounds easy because they aren’t moving. The 540 New Park development project is underway, and while construction fencing is up and I saw multiple pieces of equipment at the site, I wasn’t able to safely snap a photo while driving by and it’s hard to get the right perspective without standing in the middle of the road, which can be a bit dangerous on New Park Avenue. According to Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski, the project is indeed underway with remediation efforts to remove the contaminants from the site, and that phase is expected to take several months. The overall mixed-use development project is scheduled to be completed in May 2022.
- Also on New Park Avenue, work started in February on the expansion/updates at Aldi, changes to the Special Development District that were approved by the Town Council last fall. Aldi was back before the Town Council last week for one more change – which was approved unanimously and will allow them to sell their own branded beer in the store. When the Special Development District for the entire parcel, which includes Home Depot and BJs, was approved in 1994 – after many, many hours of public hearings which are chronicled in 60 pages of notes in the Town Council archives – the sale of any alcoholic beverages was prohibited. Aldi will now be able to sell beer, as well as any other alcoholic beverages (like hard cider and spiked seltzer) that other grocery stores sell. Once their renovation work on the property is complete you’ll find their beer for sale.
- The West Hartford Chamber of Commerce and the Town of West Hartford are collaborating to offer a free informational webinar for business owners on Wednesday at noon about Connecticut Paid Leave. The details are in the photo above, and I have also attached it as a PDF below so you can click directly on the link to register. You can also register by clicking here.
- Place 2 Be is getting close to opening in Blue Back Square – and there are now branches around the new signage outside the building. I snapped the above photo while stopped at the light at the corner of Memorial and Raymond (shh …), and I’ll try to get some more details this coming week.
- Congratulations to Melissa Thom, the library media specialist at Bristow Middle School, who has been named the 2021 Outstanding Professional by the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education Alumni Board. Thom was recognized on March 13 at the Neag School’s 23rd Annual Alumni Awards Celebration, held virtually. Thom earned her Master of Science in educational psychology, talent development, and gifted and talent education in 2015 from UConn’s Neag School. In her current role, she is known for her passion for enriching the educational lives of students and teachers. She has been recognized with multiple teacher of the year awards, including a National Council for Geographic Education Distinguished K-12 Teacher Award. “Melissa’s energy, enthusiasm, and leadership talent are evident in all the work she does,” nominator Catherine Little, professor of educational psychology at the Neag School said in a news release. “She is an excellent teacher and is highly involved in service activities at her school and across the state. Melissa actively reaches out to authors to invite them to talk about their work, using multiple online tools to engage and communicate, thus providing inspiring connections for students.” Thom’s leadership efforts include serving as vice president of the Connecticut Association of School Librarians (CASL). With CASL, she recently organized a virtual conference with 150 authors and 500 attendees. During the pandemic, she has used her extensive social media presence, including her nearly 4,000 followers, to support and engage with other educators. “Melissa is an accomplished presenter,” nominator Ruth Lyons, head of Lee Academy and a Neag School alumna, said in the release. “She has presented to local, national, and international audiences. She has the natural ability to connect with others and engage educators to find the excitement in the content being covered. Melissa has a way of delivering content in such a useful and teacher-friendly manner.” Little added that “Melissa is a strong and dedicated presence among the community of school librarians in Connecticut, and she is recognized for her enthusiastic commitment to her own learning and opportunities for others to grow as well. She is known as the ‘book lady,’ and it is her mission to inspire young students to read and also to learn to love reading.” This award annually honors a graduate of UConn’s Neag School of Education who demonstrates excellence and has made significant contributions to their profession. Learn more about the Neag School at education.uconn.edu.
- Statewide there are 92 Connecticut restaurants that are receiving a $5,000 grant from DoorDash’s Main Street Strong effort, administered through the Connecticut Restaurant Relief Fund. According to the Hartford Courant, in West Hartford, Blue Plate Kitchen and Beachland Tavern are among the restaurants that have been awarded the grant. More than 500 applied for what started out as a $500,000 donation, a sum that was added to through fundraising efforts of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
- Chef/owner Christiane Gehami of Arugula Bistro (953 Farmington Avenue) is very hopeful about receiving the federal funds through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which is part of the American Rescue Plan Act, and being able to bring back the rest of her staff. “I don’t get excited anymore. I wait until my accountant calls me and tells me ‘Chris, you can go out for coffee,’” she told a Hartford Courant reporter last week. “I’ve learned over the years to not be optimistic until it’s time. I don’t want to buy the wedding dress and have no groom waiting for me,” she said. Arugula has been closed since January when Gehami decided it would be a good time to replace the floor in the kitchen. One thing led to another, and then she replaced some plumbing, and more flooring needed replacement, and then she decided to repaint. Gehami told me Sunday that she’s hoping to reopen for takeout the last week of March, indoor dining in early April, and outdoor dining as soon as the dining corrals return and she can open her patio.
- The Restaurant Revitalization Fund looks to be a godsend to many West Hartford restaurants, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined Connecticut Restaurant Association Executive Director Scott Dolch and Mayor Shari Cantor at Zohara Friday to share more information about the program and answer questions. 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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