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Restaurants benefit from increased confidence, but challenges remain

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Last Wednesday, five days after Gov. Ned Lamont lifted capacity restrictions on Connecticut restaurants, Paul's Pasta Shop in Groton posted a picture of a sign on its door: "Although the State of CT has started to allow 100% capacity at restaurants, they still have to maintain six feet social distancing. For restaurants our size, this really means Nothing, sadly. Therefore, we will continue offering curbside takeout as long as the 6 ft requirements are in place!! Sorry."

Other restaurant owners in southeastern Connecticut agree that the lifted limits don't mean much on their own, given distancing requirements, difficulties hiring staff, and a lack of widespread consumer confidence.

But with more people getting their COVID-19 shots and warmer temperatures on the way, they're optimistic.

Jim Caramante, owner of Hideaway Restaurant & Pub in Old Lyme, said as people are getting vaccinated he's starting to see faces he hasn't seen in a year.

"We have a 235-seat restaurant that we can't utilize. There's just not enough business right now," he said. 

With only two of his five dining rooms open, Caramante said the restaurant is doing OK and the outlook is "definitely positive, compared to three months ago, when it was scary."

But he is struggling to hire people.

Restaurateur Dan Meiser, chairman of the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, attributes hiring difficulty to three factors: expanded unemployment benefits, the increased speed of restaurant re-hiring, and people leaving the industry.

"It's not hard to find a restaurant job right now, so if you are a talented cook, you're probably looking at five or six or 10 different places that would love to hire you ... so everybody's fighting over that one person," he said. Meiser also knows of line cooks who decided during the pandemic to return to school or work in construction this summer.

He said the lifted capacity restrictions didn't make a difference in the ability to seat more people in his restaurants — Oyster Club, Engine Room, and Grass & Bone. But he has seen an uptick in reservation inquiries and people walking in, "so while we can't actually seat any more people, the wait list might be a little bit longer and that's a really positive thing."

When the governor makes an announcement, Meiser said, "Every newspaper across the state and every news channel is telling that story, and then that's what the residents in the state of Connecticut hear, and that has an extraordinary impact on people's decision-making."

In Norwich, Namoo didn't reopen until mid-August, and there were multiple stops and starts since, due to employees potentially being exposed to the coronavirus. Owner Jason O said the lifted capacity restrictions don't put him in a different position, as his space is the same.

"At this point, we literally take it day by day, because the thing is, no matter what we do or what we plan, at the end of the day, we don't have really any control over what the governor decides to do, or what the president decides to do, or what the virus (decides to do)," O said.

Takeout used to be less than 10% of Namoo's business, but now O said it's a crapshoot on a given day whether takeout will be 50% of business or more than 90%.

Restaurateur Ricky Au said before the pandemic, takeout was about 25% of business at Spice Club in Niantic and 10 or 15% at Pink Basil in Niantic, but now it's flipped: Those are roughly the percentages for dine-in. He and his wife, Tai Au, also own Samurai Noodle Bar & Grill in Mystic and Thai Sawasdee in Groton.

Ricky Au thinks if anything, Lamont lifting capacity limits "gives people more confidence in coming out," and he said dine-in and takeout have been busier. He attributes that to a combination of the governor's action, vaccines, nice weather and stimulus checks.

All of his restaurants are open for dine-in and takeout, and Pink Basil has a large patio while Samurai Noodle Bar has a small one and Spice Club has a few seats out front. Au said hiring has been difficult, but he thinks "we're going to have an extremely busy summer."

With three rooms, The Green Room in New London is seeing an improvement from being able to operate at 100% capacity, co-owner Jonai Phillips said, commenting, "We're just fortunate to have that big space."

She said about 30-40% of business is takeout and a lot of business is coming from private parties, since patrons can have their own room under the state guidelines "and they kind of like that better. They're in their own space with their own people."

Phillips is starting to see the older crowd come out again, as they're getting vaccinated. She also is trying to get a grant or funding to improve outdoor seating.

Like The Green Room, Mint Leaf in Groton is spacious, though the restaurant didn't open for indoor dining until the fall. Owner Gauri Sharma said Mint Leaf opened for takeout May 1 and later opened the patio for outdoor dining before permitting indoor dining.

The buffet was a feature at Mint Leaf when the restaurant opened in 2017. But it isn't now, with Sharma describing a buffet as "the worst thing for the pandemic, because everybody will stand by the buffet and use the same ladle."

But he is now offering a customizable $10 lunch special, plus a "lunch box" to-go special ranging from $5 to $7.

Sharma said he's not as scared now as he was. He said staff "were really in shock" at the beginning of the pandemic and weren't confident they could stay in business, but things didn't go quite that badly.

"We are paying our bills. We are standing," he said.

e.moser@theday.com

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