Local restaurants boast curbside pick-up in wake of virus

Seanlou Gilmore considers himself a happy regular at Norm's Diner in Groton.

Which is why, on Wednesday morning, barely 30 hours after Gov. Ned Lamont's announcement Monday night of a mass shutdown of bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters, Gilmore has swung by the diner for "the usual," which is a meat-lover's omelet with cinnamon raisin toast.

"I'm hungry," Gilmore says, "and this is where I like to be. I'm not afraid to go out to eat. I'm wondering if this is all blown out of proportion with people reacting to social media. We'll see. But I love Norm's, so I'm here even if it means we can't sit down and stay."

Along with his friend B.T. Smith, Gilmore pays for the to-go orders and bids farewell and good luck to the only other people in the popular diner: Brother and sister co-owners Steve and Kerystal Stoyanoff and longtime waiter Peter Wilson, who have been scrubbing the restaurant and strategizing.

"There was no advance warning," says Steve Stoyanoff of the ban. "We did really well on Sunday and Monday. Things were good. Then there were the restrictions. We were closed (Tuesday) to figure out what to do and decided to open today and see how the take-out thing works. I mean, it's a restaurant. Restaurant society is about social gathering, not social distancing. Here, it's the banter and the friendships between staff and customers and families. Our STAFF is family. I don't know what to tell them except, you know, file for unemployment."

He pauses, somber. "The thing is, we get it. We understand why. This thing is worldwide, and we have to do something. But for us, I just don't know if we can afford to do this."

As he speaks, daily regulars Trudy Gillette and Steve McBride enter to get their pick-up orders. Regulars who eat at Norm's daily, the new situation has them a bit sad.

"We support this place, they're like family to us," says Gillette. "We're going to miss the social element of being here; we bring our grandchildren all the time. It's a special place."

"I don't know, maybe it's unusual, but I like to eat out every day, and I like Norm's," McBride adds. "We'll do what's best, but I don't understand why crowded grocery stores are OK but not restaurants? What's the difference?"

After a few more hours, the Stoyanoffs make a decision: They'll close and reassess, then open with to-go orders again Thursday through Sunday to see how it works.

One sandwich

Brian Brother is sitting on a low stone wall between his home and The Bayou, the New London restaurant he owns next door.

"I tried the take-out thing yesterday, but it's not going to work. I sold one sandwich all day. I'm closing," he says. "It's not something I do impulsively; I just know what we're about and what our clients are about. We're an eat-and-drink place where customers know the staff and each other. This is a place to go and spend time. So, this ban, it's not gonna work for us. I'll donate the fresh food to some people who can use it."

Brother explains that he wishes there were more clear-cut decisions nationwide. "Shelter in place?" he says. "Fine. My obligation to society is to draw back. Happy to comply. But I could do without seeing more videos of spring breakers at the beach in Florida."

He excuses himself to make a call to the bank and vendors. "I'll try to take advantage of whatever help they'll give me. Hopefully, they'll be kind to the small businesses. I want to take care of my employees, but there aren't any good choices."

Food is family

Rod Cornish is on the phone from his Hot Rod Café, one of the longest-running and most popular spots in New London. It's Thursday night and, he says, curbside pick-up service is holding steady.

"We had a woman come all the way from Stonington because she wanted our wings," he says. "That makes you feel good. We have something special that we offer, and we have a lot of loyal customers who appreciate that. We'll do all we can to see if we can continue to provide that."

Cornish says he knows everyone in the restaurant and bar industry is scrambling; they frequently talk to one another and share a community spirit in New London. And no one saw this coming.

"The last few days have been strange," Cornish says. "Sunday, we had a private party and it was a full house, and I made sure to be compliant with the gathering-of-50 rules. We counted and had people separated by floors. Then Monday: We had no advance warning the ban was coming, and my first thought was for my people. It's ironic. We're very much a family here, and we'd all recently returned from a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I want to do whatever I can to keep this special thing together."

Cornish says he and his staff are in group online chats constantly and are searching out ways to stay afloat. One employee, for example, did research for the best and most efficient ways to work through the file-for-unemployment process, which was then shared with the whole staff.

"I think our attitude is, you know, to keep pushing forward," says Cornish, adding he may have to close his recently opened 1784 Restaurant and Bar on Eugene O'Neill Drive. "It's hard to say right now. But if we've gotta do take-out for six months at Hot Rod, that's what we'll do, as long as we can. There are a lot of sad faces out there. I get it. But let's all try to smile and help one another."

Cornish says they're trying all sorts of things, from silly online videos with pictures of food (to "bolster spirits and make people hungry") to lowering prices on some menu items. He says, "The idea is for ALL of us go get through this, you know?"

In Recovery

Through the windows of New London's mainstay Recovery Room, a customer pulling up for curbside service can see a line of pizza boxes and to-do orders.

"This is our third day of doing this, and it's going pretty well," manager on duty Troy Sainsbury says, explaining the restaurant is providing their regular menu and daily specials, posted on Facebook, for delivery and pick-up. 

"Truthfully, we were prepared for this. We watched what was happening and, you know, if it came down to something like actually closing the dining rooms, we were ready. We got extra to-go boxes and paper cups and bottles of soda and things you associate with take-out and delivery orders."

As with others spoken to for this article, Sainsbury talks about the importance of staff camaraderie and, above all, customer loyalty. "We've made the best of it because you have to. Ordinarily, this is a gathering place. People like to be here, and we have a lot of people who are regulars. We've had a steady stream of people that we know coming by to get the take-out, and they're all into the spirit of it and supportive. It's humbling and reassuring.

"And thanks to them, we've been able to maintain staff and split the shifts up a bit to make sure everyone's got some shifts. We're hopeful at this point with the idea of doing what's best for everyone through this."

Regardless of the choices made by individual restauranteurs, there seems to be the sort of determined and cautiously optimistic mood required to succeed in the service industry to begin with.

As the Bayou's Brother says, heading inside to talk to banks and vendors and hopefully arrange new payment plans, "I've got some food here at home and some nice wine and I live in the greatest little town in the world. I'm looking forward to reopening when I can and seeing all my customers and staff. It's going to happen."



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