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New London's Muddy Waters Cafe to change hands

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New London — Muddy Waters Cafe is a Bank Street institution, a homey coffee shop that's a required stop for politicians on the campaign trail and a place inhabited each day by a cast of locals sharing the latest gossip. 

Co-owners Barry Neistat and Sue Devlin, who established the eatery in 2004 but who are now on the verge of leaving, would like to see it stay that way. The couple on Thursday signed a sales contract for the 42 Bank St. building and the business. The closing won’t happen for at least another month but they expect few changes.

The buyer is David Preka, president of Mystic-based general contracting business Advanced Group. He is well-acquainted with the building, having spent two years completing extensive renovations on the second and third floors to accommodate Danish offshore wind company Ørsted. Ørsted signed a lease in December but hasn’t actually occupied the space because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My goal is to maintain what Barry and Susan have built and expand on that legacy,” Preka said. “I have no intention of changing the rhythm of downtown.”

Preka is also the owner of 90-94 Bank St., home to Berry’s Ice Cream & Candy Bar and New London Ink. In addition to the substantial renovations at Barry’s, Preka completed a deck addition at Hot Rod Cafe at 114 Bank St.

"I’m a strong believer that New London and the downtown will come together sooner rather than later,” Preka said. “I’m in it for the long run and want to help make a difference for the city. I’m seeking support to be able to do that.”

The sale will be bittersweet for Neistat and Devlin, who have spent the better part of 17 years building a strong business and meeting countless numbers of people they now call friends.

“We’ve met some of the most incredible, wonderful people here. We say it every day,” Devlin said.

Devlin said Muddy Waters is a place where you’re as likely to run across a table full of judges as you are construction workers, and where regulars often show up for both breakfast and lunch. The eatery is one of the favorite stops of former Gov. Dannel Malloy, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney and state Sen. Paul Formica.

Resident Reid Burdick is a fixture there.

“Barry and Sue have run a premier coffee shop and local meeting spot for years,” Burdick said. “They are like family to the downtown crowd and will be missed for sure but have worked hard for an enjoyable retirement. It is also nice they have found someone with a strong interest in downtown, that was a customer as well, to take over.”

The building, constructed in 1833, has been in Neistat’s family since 1940, when his grandfather opened a hardware store that eventually morphed into a restaurant supply store. A photo of his grandfather moving a safe out of the building, which formerly housed the First Whaling Bank of New England, is on the wall of the restaurant and among numerous photos and memorabilia scattered throughout the dining room.

Neistat opened Muddy Waters following the closing of a coffeehouse called Mugz at a time when he needed it to generate revenue. He met Devlin soon after and “thank God she came along,” Neistat said. The two later married.

Devlin is the daughter of the late Hughie Devlin, who ran the former Hughie’s on Howard Street, and she helped get the restaurant off the ground, he said.

The sale of the building came sooner than expected. Devlin said she and Neistat had talked about future retirement but didn’t have immediate plans until talks with Preka came along.

“I figured by the time I was 70, I’d want to do something different,” Neistat said.

He's still a few years shy of 70.

As for the future of Muddy Waters, Neistat said, “There’s an expression: If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. David knows that.”

It’s part of the reason Neistat said he intends to leave the restaurant pretty much as is, with no plans to pull personal items off of the walls and expects Preka won’t be making changes in staffing.

“We want Muddy Waters to continue,” Neistat said. “It works. We’ve had 17 good years. COVID twisted and turned us a little bit but the last several months have been very normal here.”

The eight weeks of quarantine, in fact, “wasn’t all bad,” Devlin said, and gave the couple a taste of what retirement might look like. The two now have plans to spend more time with their children and grandchildren.

They said they're also likely to show up at Muddy Waters for a bite to eat and continue some of the conversations with customers that have been cut short in the past because of work.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of Berry's Ice Cream & Candy Bar.

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