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West Hartford Business Buzz: November 9, 2020

Playa Bowls. 51 Memorial Rd. (Blue Back Square) West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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

By Ronni Newton

The weather the past few days has been glorious – totally my kind of November weather.

Katie after her white coat ceremony at UConn in May 2019. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

It’s been a very long week, that has seemed like a month, but before I even say a word about the election, I want to give a very special congratulations to my daughter, Dr. Kathryn Newton, DPT – who was officially notified last Monday that she passed her physical therapy board exam!

This is the culmination of years and years of hard work by Katie – through high school, through the years at UConn where she made Dean’s List every single semester as an undergrad and was a New England as well as a Babbidge Scholar (unabashedly proud mom moments), was accepted to UConn’s PT school and worked her tail off in two years of classes and another year of clinical studies, while also holding down a part-time job.

COVID-19 altered her wedding plans, and when she thought her postponed wedding date was going to be in July (it’s now in July 2021, we hope), Katie pushed back taking her board exam from July until October 27, prolonging the process even further. She said now it’s all been worthwhile and she loves her job as a physical therapist with Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Center on South Main Street in West Hartford!

I’m also proud of the work my son, Sam, did over the summer and fall as an interns for the Biden campaign. This was the second presidential election for which he was eligible to vote, but the first in which he was actively involved, and like many he agonized waiting for the results and for the race to be called. I think the TV was turned on during every moment he was home over the past five days!

There was a rally in West Hartford on Sunday afternoon, with “healing and hope” as the theme. I hope the messages expressed – about compromise, listening, and healing – can be taken to heart as our country moves forward with the new administration.

Smoked salmon club (left), overstuffed pastrami sandwich with potato salad and half-sour pickle, and potato knishes from Union Kitchen’s New York deli pop-up menu. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Ted, my sister, and I checked out the New York deli pop-up menu at Union Kitchen on Saturday night, and it was a great night to be sitting out in one of the dining corrals on LaSalle Road.

We met the new manager, Josh Batista, who has returned to Connecticut after six years in New York, and enjoyed some delicious potato knishes (we’ve been waiting for these ever since the menu was announced), and pastrami sandwiches. Ted tried the smoked salmon club, which was also great.

There are a few more really warm days coming up this week – a good time to enjoy the dining corrals before they have to be taken down for the winter to accommodate snow removal.

The status of outdoor dining in West Hartford as we move into the late fall and winter has been a moving target due to changes in state guidance, and every time I sit down to write a story about it something is in the process of being updated. I think I will be able to provide a comprehensive update this week, so look for that information coming soon.

Keeping it in the Community Tip: Local Businesses Highly Value Customer Service and Flexibility 

While most businesses strive to provide a high level of customer service, your favorite local businesses have several advantages. For the most-part, they are smaller operations. This allows for customer interactions to be more personal and less transactional. This can allow for more time to be spent in selection of items. Also, depending on how regularly you shop with them, they many get to know you better as a customer. They can make you aware of new offerings, suited to your taste.

Locally owned businesses often have the freedom of flexibility. They may offer more options in the way of pick-up, delivery and holding of items to be considered.

Lastly, they are often members of the local community, your satisfaction as a customer can help them maintain and even grow their business by way of reviews and word of mouth.

Read last week’s tip and feature on New Park Brewing here.

Keeping it in the Community: Fleet Feet Sports

Fleet Feet Sports is located at 1003 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Stephanie Blozy, together with her sister, Carrie, purchased Fleet Feet Sports in West Hartford in 2008. In the past 12 years Fleet Feet has become more than just a local retailer, but the store, located at 1003 Farmington Ave., has become a gathering place for an ever-increasing community of runners as well as a supporter of a variety of healthy living initiatives and service projects throughout Greater Hartford.

The tagline, Blozy said, is: “We’re not just a store, we’re a starting line.”

In 2011 Fleet Feet expanded, Blozy said, taking over the space that had been Harry’s Pizza which moved to South Main Street. “Those were the glory days,” she said.

But like many other retailers deemed “non-essential” when the state went into shutdown mode in March, COVID-19 had an enormous impact on Fleet Feet’s business.

“We’ve all had to stay really creative,” Blozy said last week, when U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Mayor Shari Cantor visited the store to talk about how small businesses have been impacted by COVID-19.

Stephanie Blozy (left) chats with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Mayor Shari Cantor last week about how small retailers have been coping with COVID-19. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

They never fully closed, Blozy said, but instead kept going by beefing up the website and offering delivery (she did it herself, all over Connecticut) or curbside pick-up as well as other services to customers outside.

“We brought carpets and chairs outside, and we were fitting people in shoes in the snow and the cold, in March and April.” They were lucky if they sold 15-20 pairs of shoes a day, Blozy said, but it was enough to keep managers on staff.

While the number of people of all ages running and walking has blossomed since the pandemic hit, Fleet Feet has not reaped the reward of the extra demand for running shoes.

“People more than ever need to run, to do physical stuff,” Blumenthal said. But Blozy said that hasn’t turned into more customers.

“There’s never been more walkers and runners outside, but it hasn’t correlated with a bump in business for us,” she said, unlike some of the large sporting goods stores and clothing retailers.

Blozy said that although people of all ages took up running when gyms closed in the spring, the average age of her store’s customers has increased greatly, with about 60-70% of customers now ages 40-75 or even 80. She believes it’s because the younger runners are more likely to purchase shoes and apparel online.

“We also lost 90% of our high school business because there wasn’t a real cross country season,” she said.

There is a major difference purchasing running or walking shoes from Fleet Feet, Blozy said, but the same model of shoes cost the same. “We don’t mark up, we sell at the price the vendor asks us to commit to. Just because we have customer service doesn’t mean we are more expensive,” Blozy said.

That customer service includes the use of technology to help find the right shoe. The process is described on the Fleet Feet website: “We use 3D scanning technology as part of the fit id experience to take precise measurements of your feet. The state-of-the-art scanner captures 12 data points – like length, width and arch height – to give you personalized shoe and insole recommendations. Outfitters can then assess your unique stride and step using Dynamic Pressure Mapping. The pressure plate records your foot’s path of motion and weight distribution as you walk to show you exactly how you move.”

Blozy told Blumenthal that she had to furlough most of her staff in early April, but she obtained a second-round PPP loan of just under $150,000 that came through in late April and she was able to bring almost everyone back.

While staff has always been helpful, now they are tasked with ensuring the capacity of the store is not exceeded, physical distancing is maintained, and everything is as safe as possible. A staff member meets customers at the door, asks about their needs, and directs them to the proper location in the store. A different door is used to exit.

“We now only allow one person per bench,” said Blozy, unless they are part of the same family, and those benches are wiped down after each use. The play area for children has been removed. A major task is sanitizing the shoes, which are placed in their own quarantine area after they have been tried on.

Fleet Feet Sports is located at 1003 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Apparel has to be sanitized after it’s tried on as well, Blozy said. The clothing sales have been even harder hit.

They’ve beefed up their website, Blozy said, but there has had to be a give and take with funds, a decision to spend on salaries vs. technology.

Despite the challenges, Fleet Feet has continued its role as a community builder, and has recently reinstated some of its events such as Wednesday night and Saturday morning group runs, albeit with distancing in place. They charted a course for the Hartford Marathon races to be run safely in small groups, and a 4.748-mile event in West Hartford is in the works for the Sunday before Thanksgiving, for those who have registered for this year’s virtual Manchester Road Race. The store’s website or Facebook page will have all event details posted.

“Considering all the circumstances I’m pretty proud of what we have been able to do and thankful for the grants and the loans,” Blozy said.

“We need more focus on local business. You are really appreciated,” Blumenthal said.

“Keeping it in the news and keeping it a hot topic is very appreciated,” Blozy said. Cantor said it’s a conscious effort to go out now, and the message needs to continue to be shared that the local businesses need help.

Fleet Feet owners and staff with Mayor Shari Cantor (far left) and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (third from left). Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Fleet Feet Sports is located at 1003 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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:

Playa Bowls. 51 Memorial Rd. (Blue Back Square) West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

  • I’m starting this week’s column with a one-year anniversary, because honestly for a business that specializes in frozen treats to open during the winter and thrive during a pandemic, it’s a significant achievement that should be celebrated, and we say congratulations to Playa Bowls! “It’s incredible that we have been open for a year now,” co-owner Mitch Jackson said. “I think the most amazing part is the way the community has embraced us and how supportive and appreciative our customers have been over the past 12 months. We have definitely faced our fair share of challenges, especially operating during a pandemic. It has allowed us to pivot and think in an agile way to best prepare for new mandates and regulations, delivery methods, and cost control. Having a great staff of hardworking employees, a business-minded partner, and fantastic and loyal customers is definitely a recipe for continued success. So, thank you to everyone who has been a part of our journey, and hopefully we’ll be making more bowls for years to come.” Co-owner Mike Bogdan also said it feels incredible to make it the first anniversary. “When we opened in the middle of the winter last year, serving a menu of mostly frozen things, we knew it would take some time for people to discover us and learn about some of the more exotic fruits and choices on our menu. We had our strongest week right before restaurants were shut down in March, and we really had no idea what the future was going to bring. Yet our staff was never fazed by what was happening. They stuck it out with us, and we were able to pivot to a takeout only operation while keeping everyone safe. Since the shutdown, we’ve been able to donate dozens of bowls and smoothies to hospitals and first responders, didn’t close for a single day, and even extended our hours throughout the summer. West Hartford and the surrounding communities have accepted Playa Bowls with enthusiasm and wide-open arms, and we just couldn’t be more thankful to our staff and the community for allowing us to succeed here. We look forward to many more years to come in Blue Back and West Hartford.” The official anniversary is next Monday, Nov. 16, and Playa Bowls will be giving out a free bowl or smoothie every hour on the hour in the store that day. They will also give away one month’s worth of bowls to two winners online, and those details will be announced on Instagram (@playabowlsweha). “We also plan to give out random swag items throughout the day as well. Our focus is to get people excited and have as much fun as possible, while also maintaining safety guidelines,” Jackson said. Playa Bowls is located at 51 Memorial Rd. in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, and is open daily from 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

    The Ta-QUE truck is going to be stationed at New Park Brewing in West Hartford. Courtesy photo

  • The Ta-QUE taco truck, which features Tyler Anderson’s version of tacos (smoked meat street tacos that hearken to his California roots, he says) will be relocating from its summer and early fall home at Millwright’s in Simsbury to New Park Brewing in West Hartford as of this Thursday, Nov. 12. Anderson said the weather will soon be getting cold for the outdoor picnic table setup in the Millwright’s parking lot. New Park Brewing has indoor seating, and is convenient for take-out as well. The details – time of operation as well as the menu – will be available this week. Visit the Ta-QUE website or Facebook page for more information.
  • LobsterCraft, which is planning to open on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center in 2021, will be providing a taste of its award-winning lobster rolls when their food truck visits GastroPark (West Hartford’s new food truck park at 637 New Park Ave.) on Thursday, Nov. 12 (correction of date). The best place to find the details about the timing of the food truck visit is either on the GastroPark website or their Facebook page. For more about LobsterCraft, click here for the story I wrote a few weeks ago.
  • West Hartford’s Donut Crazy is participating in Pancreatic Awareness Month and is raising money for the Ron Foley Foundation. Throughout the month of November, 100% of the proceeds from each purple-frosted doughnut purchased will be donated to the Ron Foley Foundation.

100% of the purchase of these special items at Donut Crazy will be donated to the Ron Foley Foundation. Courtesy photo

  • Back in July this column featured plans for The Place 2 Be to open a cool and unique brunch spot in the former Cook and The Bear space in Blue Back Square. The Cook and The Bear signs have now been removed from the outside of the building, and Blue Back Square General Manager Robyn Rifkin confirmed that the lease is now signed, and the  build out should be getting underway very soon. We will definitely stay up-to-date on the plans!

The Cook and The Bear signs are gone, and work will begin soon for The Place 2 Be. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

  • Michal Lowenstein. Courtesy photo

    Some news from ITNCentralCT: Michal Lowenstein has been hired as Ride Coordinator, to support the organization’s commitment to community through mobility services for seniors. In a news release, ITNCentralCT Executive Director Kevin Farmer said, “We are thrilled to add Michal to our team. She brings energy, enthusiasm and a dedication to our mission. Our riders are happy with her friendly, helpful demeanor.” Lowenstein, a native of Brooklyn, NY, moved to the area eight years ago and volunteers with several agencies raising money to feed the homeless and seniors. She is an avid reader and enjoys her children and grandchildren. The Independent Transportation Network, a nonprofit providing affordable rides, has served central Connecticut for 11 years. ITNCentralCT’s mission is to provide sustainable, community-based transportation services for seniors and adults with visual impairment, thereby preserving and promoting independence. ITNCentralCT’s volunteer drivers provide safe, reliable rides any time, for any reason. ITNCentralCT is operating under COVID-19 safety protocols, including face coverings for driver and rider, disinfection of the rider’s seating area before and after rides, and a concerted effort to physically distance. ITNCentralCT is headquartered in Room 216 in West Hartford Town Hall, and enjoys financial and volunteer support throughout its fifteen-town service area, from Middletown in the south, to West Hartford in the north. The Ride Coordinator is a paid, part-time position, supported in part by the generosity of the Stanley D. and Hinda N. Fisher Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Additional support has been provided by several thoughtful individual donors. “We have engaged and committed volunteers and supporters, as well as satisfied riders and families. Please consider us as you hear of neighbors and friends interested in volunteering to drive,” Lowenstein said. Learn more about ITNCentralCT online at www.itncentralct.org.

  • From the CT Data Cooperative: “On November 9 and 10, people across Connecticut with an interest in how data is used in government, business and the private sector will convene online for the Connecticut Data Collaborative’s 2020 Conference, Data for Everybody: Ethical Practices, Equitable Solutions. The conference will open on Monday, November 9 with remarks by Michelle Riordan-Nold, Executive Director of CTData, and Bishop John Selders, Director of Moral Monday CT and Assistant Dean of Students at Trinity College. The Tuesday, November 10 conference sessions will open with a morning keynote panel discussing Systemic Inequities Revealed by COVID, featuring two state Commissioners: Beth Bye of the Office of Early Childhood and Vanessa Dorantes of the Department of Children and Families. There is no charge to attend the conference, which begins both days at 11 a.m. More information, including a list of speakers, can be found online.
  • I heard several days ago that Abbydabby in Bishops Corner had closed, but thought perhaps it was just a seasonal closure. Sadly, that’s not the case. I reached out to owner Jason Congdon and he provided the following information in an email: “Abbydabby closed its doors on Oct 31 after 10 wonderful years. It was a direct result of very poor business conditions relating to the pandemic. Our sales were down over 60% from when we reopened June 1 through Sept 30, and it became clear that I could not sign another lease under these same conditions. I can relate to the public’s reluctance to patron non essential businesses with the pandemic still at large. I am one of those people myself. I would like to thank the Bishops Corner community for all their support. It means so much to me to know how much folks enjoyed Abbydabby. I always wanted to make a strong connection with the neighborhood and I believe we did that. It goes without saying how much I will miss seeing everyone on a regular basis at the store.”

    Abbydabby in Bishops Corner has closed for good. Photo courtesy of Deena Samberg-Shefsky

  • Some changes are taking place at Beachland Tavern on New Britain Avenue. Beachland Group owner Chip Kohn posted the following message on Facebook on Tuesday: “Due to Governor Lamont’s recent decision to move back to phase 2, the rising COVID numbers and the arrival of colder weather, we will be altering the dining service at Beachland Tavern. We will be closed for the next two to three weeks to rework the restaurant so we can offer family style and individual grab and go meals. We will also offer a limited version of our regular menu, cocktails and beer for take-out. If you prefer a sit down dining experience, Rockledge Grille will remain open and has plenty of space to socially distance and patio seating with heaters. Beachland Smoke will also be open for dine-in and take-out. Beachland Tavern will remain a take-out and grab and go location until we move to phase 3 or 4 and the COVID numbers decline. We feel this change will allow a different experience at each location for the winter months. Thank you to all of you for 9 great years! We hope to be back to normal and celebrating our 10th anniversary with you next year.”
  • Shake Shack is also closed – but that closure is also just temporary. The fast casual restaurant indicates on their website that they are “temporarily closed” with a message that refers to COVID, and WFSB reported Sunday that they received confirmation that a Shake Shack team member received a positive COVID-19 test, and the restaurant will be completely sanitized and re-open in the next two weeks.
  • This closing is permanent: Pet Valu announced last week that it will be permanently closing all 358 U.S. stores and its warehouse. The liquidation sale is scheduled to begin shortly according to news reports. Pet Valu is located at 1493 New Britain Ave. (Corbin’s Corner) in West Hartford. They previously had a location in Bishops Corner as well but it closed.
  • An important note for small businesses: the application form for the CT CARES Small Business Grant program  is supposed to go live on the Department of Economic and Community Development’s website the week of Nov. 9, and the Click here for details and to access the application once it’s available.
  • ICYMI, here are the details about the state’s move to Phase 2.1, which began on Friday.

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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