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Restaurants get creative to bring some money in the door

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With restaurants prohibited from doing dine-in business during the COVID-19 pandemic, venues in southeastern Connecticut are trying to make a go of it with takeout. Several restaurant owners discuss how business is going —and what adjustments they have had to make.

The Shack, East Lyme, Groton and Waterford

The Shack, which has three locations, is offering takeout, and co-owner Jeremy Han said, “I think (the locations) are all treading water equally. That’s the thing, there are some days you realize as a business owner, ‘OK, I’m not going to get paid today, but it’s fine because my staff is.’ And you hope those days are few and far between, but there are chances you have to take with that.”

The restaurants are doing maybe 10% to 20% of the business they had before, he estimated.

It hasn’t been a steady flow of customers but more periodic.

“Sometimes, we’re standing around looking at each other for hours, and then other times, we feel like we’re running, but it’s only five or six tickets,” Han said.

Han said they are just trying to take care of people who are willing to come out and get takeout. “It’s a tough time for everybody involved right now, so we’re just trying to follow all the rules and protocols that have been given to us and keep our doors open,” he said.

Discussing the long-term prospects, Han said, “I’m hoping that with the help of the community and what we’ve done over the years that we’ll be able to survive this. There are some days that you look at people you might have been working with for 15, 20, 30 years, and you’re like, ‘Sorry, I don’t need your help right now.’ It’s one of the hardest things to say to someone."

La Belle Aurore, Niantic

La Belle Aurore, which offers farm-to-table cuisine, has long been popular as a place for sit-down dining.

“We’re a fine dining establishment, so we’ve switched gears completely to takeout,” owner Dawn Bruckner said.

People can order off the dinner menu for takeout, and there are “grab-and-go” prepackaged dishes that customers can pick up and eat at home.

“The ‘grab-and-go’ was there (before), to be fair, but the kinds and scope of what we’re serving is different,” Bruckner said.

The change in the restaurant’s move from dine-in to takeout is reflected in the amount of takeout containers Bruckner has ordered; in a month, she is ordering four times what she would normally order in a year.

Realizing the economic difficulties that some people are experiencing during COVID-19-related business closures, La Belle Aurore has instituted a “Help a Neighbor” program. It gives customers the option of donating to a fund to help a “neighbor,” meaning anyone in the community. When people donate, that money helps customers who are struggling financially by defraying the cost of their meal. If, when the COVID-19 crisis is over, there is money left in the fund, it will go to Care and Share, which provides food, financial and emergency support to individuals and families in East Lyme and Salem.

It’s hard to compare business before and after the COVID-19 outbreak because, Bruckner said, March is usually her worst month anyway. May, though, is traditionally a peak month for La Belle Aurore, “and I’m a little concerned about that,” she said.

La Belle Aurore has different expenses now. In addition to the takeout containers, the restaurant, for instance, is doing some local deliveries and not charging people.

Bruckner is handling everything mostly on her own as much as she can. Her adult children are home, and they have been helping out, as have a dishwasher and server.

Bruckner echoes the sentiments of a number of other restaurant owners in saying, “People have been incredibly supportive.”

The Draft Choice, New London

The Draft Choice officially opened the first week of March — and had the unfortunate timing of debuting just before the public began hunkering down at home because of the coronavirus.

But the venue, a sports restaurant that specializes in local craft beers, is remaining open for takeout every night but Monday, from 5 to 9 p.m.

“It’s slow, but the thing is, we want to keep our name out there so people know us,” said owner Beto Zuniga, who is running The Draft Choice with his wife, Anne Bernhard.

The venue is located in the former site of High 5’s on State Street, and Zuniga said, ”Some of the regulars (from High 5’s) are coming back, but there are some people from downtown starting to pop in for takeout.”

It has seen an average of two orders per day — sometimes more, sometimes less — and customers have been buying dishes ranging from wings to vegetarian burrito, with about half of them purchasing a growler of local beer, too.

The Draft Choice did have seven employees, but now it’s just husband and wife working there, and they are not paying themselves.

Zuniga recently retired from his job as a computer technician at Connecticut College, and Bernhard is the college’s associate dean of faculty.

As far as finances go, they have talked to the landlord, saying they could pay this month's rent but weren't sure about next month, and they have suspended DirectTV.

“As long as we keep the other utilities down, I think we’ll be OK. ... We’re hoping we can ride the storm,” Zuniga said.

S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar, Mystic 

After a cautious several weeks during which it was closed and while owners and staff evaluated the situation, Mystic's popular S&P Oyster Restaurant and Bar reopened Friday for curbside pickup service.

"We're going to try a Friday through Monday schedule and see how it goes," said Jeremy Socha, general manager at S&P. "We wanted time to settle in and determine if we could get fresh product and come up with a limited but appealing menu. We spoke with a lot of other restaurateurs and compared notes. And, importantly and gratifyingly, we heard from so many customers wanting us to do this."

Socha said chef Edgar Cobena has created a special, price-conscious menu that best represents S&P favorites as well as samples from what will be — if conditions allow — its summer menu. Customers will order over the phone and pay by credit card, and their food will be placed in hands-free fashion on a stand-alone and sanitary pickup table.

In grateful acknowledgment, S&P also is featuring a promotion that offers a 20% discount to health care workers, dispatchers, police and firemen.

"The timing seemed right to try this," Socha said of the reopening. "We've given it a lot of thought, not just for the present but going forward. All of us are very worried, of course, and hoping this passes quickly. And we're already planning for a different dining-out dynamic when this is over. Customers are going to be tentative, as they should be. We'll space tables differently and there will be a renewed commitment to consumer and staff health and safety."

Mr. G's, New London

When Peter Farnan, a Los Angeles-based special events planner, came to New London four weeks ago to see family, the timing was unintentionally fortuitous. With the COVID-19 virus starting to hit hard, Farnan stepped up to help his uncles, Peter and George Gianakos, who co-own Mr. G's.

Operating as a sort of interim general manager — thus allowing the elder Gianakos brothers to safeguard at home — Farnan said he's proud and happy to help out with the popular restaurant. Mr. G's is open for takeout daily (though it'll be closed for Easter), with a mostly full menu and specials ranging from dinners-for-two or -four to pizza kits so kids can make pies at home.

"We're trying to stay creative and do active marketing on social media," Farnan said, "and make the best of a bad situation." He said that while sales are down substantially, the restaurant's expenses are down, too, with a reduced staff anchored by a core group of G veterans.

"We know (these employees) are working and going straight home. And some of the other staff members weren't comfortable coming in. It's totally understandable," Farnan said. "We're doing all we can to keep everything safe."

Meanwhile, they're putting the time to good use inside the dining and tavern areas, doing a lot of remodeling that can't easily be accomplished in a seven-days-a-week restaurant. "It's going to look great when we reopen," Farnan said, "which is particularly good because there are so many loyal customers. We have one regular who just came in one day and wanted to give us some money to help out. He wouldn't even accept a gift card."

Farnan said the decision to stay open wasn't easy but "we're hanging in pretty well. If we make people happy, that's good. And you know what? A lot of our customers are first responders and hospital workers. If we can help them out, that's even better."


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