Leeanne Griffin Connecticut Post, Bridgeport
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Leeanne Griffin reports, "Across the state, several Connecticut restaurateurs have moved ahead to launch new businesses, taking advantage of flexible rents, streamlined operations or even drastic changes in life circumstances to pursue their endeavors."
Just over a year after the pandemic wiped out most of her 2020 event calendar, NoRA Cupcake Company's Carrie Carella and her business partner Heather Kelly are about to open a brand-new restaurant in Middletown bearing both their names.
Harrie's Jailhouse, a comfort-food eatery with sandwiches, snacks and craft cocktails situated in a former jail building, will open by the end of March.
Carella and Kelly have been talking about the project for five years, they said, but — almost improbably — the upheaval of COVID-19 pushed them to get it off the ground.
To casual observers, the effort might seem infeasible. What would make an entrepreneur want to open a brand-new restaurant at a time when the industry has been devastated?
But across the state, several Connecticut restaurateurs have moved ahead to launch new businesses, taking advantage of flexible rents, streamlined operations or even drastic changes in life circumstances to pursue their endeavors.
Almost overnight in March 2020, Carella's Middletown-based cupcake business was upended, as COVID forced months of event cancellations and rebookings. She laid off the majority of her staff, and handled day-to-day business on her own. But she needed to keep Kelly, her operations manager, working. The two began to discuss their restaurant concept again, and found the right fit in the former Pameacha Jail on Warwick Street.
"COVID kind of kicked us into a situation where we had to act on it, because I couldn't keep Heather employed at NoRA, and justify it," Carella said.
"Heather [needed] a job, a future path, because I wasn't sure how long this was going to be and how NoRA was going to bounce back. So I wanted to at least start building out what we had originally talked about."
"We'd already been talking about it for five years," Kelly said. "[We said] if we don't start working on this now, then we won't."
Since the partners had been planning for the future, they had accumulated equipment over the years, saving them from having to lay out a lot of capital during the down period, Carella said.
"When time came to move into this new location, we had so much stuff already," she said. "And on top of that, the place that we that we moved into came with a lot of stuff. It was a really kind of a perfect storm of a situation."
Carella and Kelly have planned out their business projections with "worst case scenario" numbers, but expect that improving conditions will work in their favor. They plan to offer outdoor seating, and anticipate a busy summer.
"Hopefully, we're on a trajectory now...things are only going to get better, right?" Carella said. "If things are going to get better, well, then our numbers hopefully are better than what we're originally projecting."
Mark Turocy's Black Rock Social House opened March 15, taking over the former Walrus & Carpenter space in Bridgeport's Black Rock neighborhood. When Turocy began planning his restaurant in September 2020, he had the benefit of six months' knowledge of COVID protocols, and an expectation of what business might look like with continued restrictions.
He wrote his business plan based on sales projections with limited seating capacity and a higher percentage of takeout. He paid close attention to the news, and as he learned vaccines were expected to roll out in Connecticut through spring, he grew more confident in his decision to aim for a March opening.
"Yes, it was a gamble, but I thought it was a gamble that might pay off," he said. "The state's looking fantastic right now when it comes to vaccines...I really feel that we'll get a real sense of normalcy [in] probably July."
Before finding his restaurant space in Black Rock, Turocy looked at a vacancy in New Haven. He was "very interested" in the Elm City spot, he said, but the timing wasn't right. It was early on in the pandemic, and the landlord was not yet grasping the severity of the situation.
"The landlord just didn't want to budge with any negotiations because they thought it was just the flu, it was going away, and no, you're going to pay full price," he said. "But as the time went on, people started to realize that it's more than what some people are saying it is."
But several months later, he had better luck negotiating with his Black Rock landlord and his chosen vendors, who offered more flexibility with rent and fees. He also kept the furniture left behind by the previous tenant, which saved him an estimated $10,000.
"I opened this restaurant at a much lower opening cost than I would have normally done, if it was just an everyday business model and the pandemic never existed," he said.
Turocy is looking forward to a robust summer, as the weather warms and more age groups get vaccinated. He was also thrilled to hear news about The Acoustic music venue's planned reopening, as it's directly across the street from his restaurant.
"I think there's going to be such a bounce back in this industry — this summer, this fall, and the holiday season, like we have never seen before," he said. "I really think that's what's going to happen."
For other entrepreneurs, pandemic-related life circumstances sparked a decision to open an eatery. In January 2020, Andrea and Armando Brito were living in the Bay Area with their two young daughters, mulling over a potential move back East to be closer to Andrea's parents in Fairfield County.
When the pandemic hit two months later, their discussions intensified, as they worried about the virus and its impact on their jobs — Andrea worked in social and recreational services, and Armando as a chef for a University of California — Berkeley sorority house. They decided to see if their home would sell, and when it did, they made the cross-country trek to Connecticut.
As they settled in with Andrea's parents, Armando determined he didn't want to work for another restaurateur, and it was time for him to open his own. They found a former pizzeria in Westport for what would become Capuli, their California-Mediterranean restaurant that debuted in January. "We were able to do this because we weren't paying rent, living with my parents, and we weren't paying a mortgage," Andrea said. They had also specifically sought spaces that were already used as restaurants, as a buildout could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The experience hasn't been easy, she said, with continued pandemic restrictions, customers nervous to eat indoors and bad winter weather that disrupts normal business hours. The couple is running the restaurant by themselves, unable at this point financially to hire staff. But they're hoping to see more foot traffic in the area as the weather warms and more people come out to dine.
2020 was also a year of transformative change for Charlie Gilhuly and Molly Healey, a husband and wife who opened two separate businesses during the pandemic. Healey is a partner in Westport's Manna Toast, which opened as a takeout and delivery-only spot in May and then launched a sit-down cafe in July. Gilhuly launched Grammie's Donuts & Biscuits, a Westport ghost kitchen, in January 2021.
The first Manna location was in the works before COVID hit, Healey said, "so we were just already well on our way to building out everything. And we just decided to keep going, because we didn't just do it for nothing, we wanted to make it happen. We all believe in the brand a lot. We just wanted to see it come to fruition."