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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Gourmet Galley marks a 25-year milestone and has a popular new site in Niantic

    Owner Anna Lathrop poses for a photo at GG At Home in Niantic. Lathrop has run Gourmet Gallery for 25 years. It began as a catering business and has expanded over time, most recently opening the Niantic site, which offers fresh and frozen food as well as local goods. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The East Asian Salad at GG At Home in Niantic (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Rhonda Ann Marsala steals a potato chip from her husband John, of Branford, as they eat lunch on the patio at GG At Home in Niantic on May 10. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Chef Felicia Gotta works on making an East Asian Salad at GG At Home in Niantic. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Local food and goods for sale at GG At Home in Niantic. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Local goods for sale at GG At Home in Niantic. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    It’s lunchtime on a weekday, and GG At Home in Niantic is buzzing with activity. Some folks are nibbling on food as they sit at the window seats that overlook Niantic Bay. Others are scanning the refrigerator cases stuffed with a plethora of prepared dishes, from “Impossible Meatloaf” to Cajun swordfish to lasagna Bolognese. And some queue up at the counter to order a sandwich, and then, while they await their order, peruse the tables of gifts and food-related items.

    GG — the nickname for Gourmet Galley — At Home in Niantic opened in December. It’s located in The Norton, a new building that houses condos above and several other businesses on the ground floor, including Sift Bake Shop.

    This is just the latest iteration of Gourmet Galley, which Anna Lathrop has been running for 25 years. What started as a catering company has expanded over time, first with Café Flo, which GG has operated at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme since 2012, then with the creation of GG At Home in North Stonington in the fall of 2020. And now comes GG At Home in Niantic.

    As she looks back over her time leading Gourmet Galley, Lathrop says, “I’m pretty proud. It doesn’t seem like 25 years. And I feel like we’re still growing and perfecting, honing, learning. I still feel very energized by the whole thing. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and conquer another day.”

    The team that Lathrop leads has grown, too. There are now 20 full-time employees and 15 part-time employees, along with 150 per diem staff members who work events.

    Food and music

    Lathrop grew up in the Jordan Cove section of Waterford and says, “My parents are both Italian, and so food has been part of my life from the time I was young. My chores for the day when I came home weren’t clean your room, take the garbage out. They were making the dough for the pizza or making sauce for the pasta or whatever, so a lot of cooking. (My parents) were consummate entertainers. They were always throwing parties, themed parties.”

    Lathrop loved music and earned her degree from Hartwick College in music performance, “which is not a very marketable degree,” she says. She played piano and flute, and she says her schooling, where she had to practice for eight to 10 hours a day, taught her traits like discipline.

    When Lathrop graduated, she didn’t know what she was going to do, so she returned to Waterford and got a job at the now-defunct restaurant Box Office in Niantic.

    “They needed a server, so I started serving. I learned to bartend there. The owner had me doing payroll and books for him and paying bills … But I really, really loved to cook so I was constantly standing next to the chef in the kitchen, saying, ‘What are you doing? Show me how you’re doing that. What are you making?’ Driving him crazy,” she says, adding that the chef was great and taught her a lot.

    From customer to owner

    At first, Lathrop was just a client of Gourmet Galley. She hired the company to cater her wedding. Two years later, a friend was getting married, and Lathrop recommended Gourmet Galley to her.

    At that reception, Essie Spencer, who founded Gourmet Galley in 1983, approached Lathrop to say she was selling the business. She asked if Lathrop was interested in buying it.

    “I did one of those, ‘Wait. Who, me? Really?’” Lathrop recalls. “She said, ‘I remember you as a bride. You were very into the planning and the food. You were very in tune with all of that, and I heard through the grapevine that you were into the catering business.’ And I was. I had started a little company with my cousins. I didn’t know anything about the catering business, so we were just having fun, you know, cutting tops off peppers and putting dips in them,” she says with a laugh.

    Lathrop, who was 26 at the time, was suspicious of Spencer’s offer. She asked Spencer why she wanted to sell the business. Her answer: “My feet are tired. I’m tired.” (Lathrop says Spencer changed careers, becoming a school guidance counselor.)

    When Lathrop told her parents she was going to buy Gourmet Galley, they asked what she knew about the catering business. Her response was she didn’t know anything but was going to figure it out.

    Lathrop says that when she bought Gourmet Galley, she wasn’t buying anything tangible, besides a catering truck and some serving platters.

    “What I really got was (Spencer’s) knowledge. I got to spend six months with her, going to meetings with potential clients,” she says.

    Spencer’s husband worked as a chef for Lathrop for a year, too, in the commercial kitchen Lathrop built attached to her house in Quaker Hill.

    Early on, it was friends and family who would help Lathrop at Gourmet Galley events. Over time, she started adding positions, including a bookkeeper who is still on staff.

    Weddings continue to be a major focus of Gourmet Galley, which caters about 110 each year. In addition, GG caters about 350 non-wedding events.

    Catering a wedding is mostly fun, Lathrop says, but does have its stresses because everyone wants to perform their best.

    “We understand this is one of the biggest days in their family’s life. We are really honored to be a part of it,” she says.

    A product of the pandemic

    Fourteen years ago, Gourmet Galley moved to its North Stonington site on Norwich-Westerly Road.

    Lathrop had wanted to get into the food-to-go business, but the catering side was so busy, she never had the chance to figure out the takeout side of things.

    “That’s retail. … Catering is a different beast,” Lathrop says.

    When the pandemic happened, of course, there were no parties or weddings to cater. Lathrop had to lay off a lot of her employees.

    In the fall of 2020, Lathrop was talking with a friend, Victoria Mueller, who used to work for Gourmet Galley and is now her attorney. Lathrop was going to try to rent out some of the space in the North Stonington GG location because she didn’t think her staff was going to come back, that everyone was going to stay remote.

    Lathrop recalls what Mueller said: “Why don’t you open that store you’ve been talking about for 12 years?”

    Within about six weeks, GG At Home in North Stonington was up and running. It started offering delivery twice a week before expanding. GG set up a new system online where folks could order.

    “We were just having fun. … We were just so happy to be working,” Latrhop says.

    What are the dishes?

    While it’s hard to describe the wide-ranging food that GG At Home offers, Lathrop figures it could be categorized as American cuisine. She says that they are proud that it is made-from-scratch food — they don’t use pre-made sauces, and they make everything in the GG kitchen.

    Asked what the three top-selling prepared dishes are, Lathrop points to the braised beef short ribs, the chicken pot pie (“Can’t keep that one on the shelf,” she says) and then a few after that that are pretty much tied: lemon chicken, shepherd’s pie made with lamb, and lobster mac and cheese.

    As for prices, here are a couple of examples for prepared dinners: The aforementioned lasagna Bolognese is $15.99, and the “Impossible Meatloaf” is $16.99.

    Retail or not

    Originally, the North Stonington location had more retail items such as specialty food ingredients and handmade pottery, but Lathrop soon realized that patrons just wanted food to take away.

    “It’s not really a retail area there. People travel that road, but it’s really a commuter road when you think about it. They’re going from one spot to the next. They might be stopping into Dunkin Donuts (next door), but they’re definitely not stopping on a regular basis,” she says.

    “That’s the main reason we had our sights set on this (Niantic) store — its location, which is definitely a retail area, and Niantic is an up-and-coming place. So we’re excited to be here at the inception of it. The feedback from people coming in has been overwhelming. They are so excited we brought this to their little town. And when I say we, (I mean) the four of us here, collectively,” she says, referring to the other businesses in The Norton: Sift, Azalea Home & Gift, and Pearls & Plaid, which features clothing, accessories and jewelry.

    Lathrop says she thinks GG and Sift complement each other, rather than compete for customers. She notes that Sift owner Adam Young has a very large following and “I’m not ashamed to say I benefit from that.”

    Lathrop had been considering Narragansett and Westerly for a Gourmet Galley expansion, but when a friend told her about a new building planned for Niantic that Sift might be moving into, Lathrop contacted the builder.

    “We negotiated which spot would be best for me, and we went for it,” she says.

    Food and drink

    When figuring out the menu for the Niantic site, Lathrop says, “I knew I didn’t want to serve what everybody else has, because why would you do that? … I wanted it to be different and maybe offer some things that would surprise people, that maybe they haven’t had before.”

    One of her favorites is the sweet potato glass noodles, a Vietnamese dish that is gluten-free. She says it’s delicious and healthy.

    As for the sandwiches, The West Coast, which boasts turkey, bacon, avocado and ranch dressing, sells thee times more than the other sandwiches, which surprised Lathrop.

    “I just think people like that combination,” she says.

    GG’s Niantic site recently started a new feature — an afternoon cocktail hour, which is actually several hours, starting at 3 p.m. on Thursdays through Sundays. Patrons can order small, sharable plates and have cocktails. GG At Home sells wine and beer, and batch-makes its own cocktails. Lathrop says it’s a great place to come to before heading out elsewhere for the night; GG at Home currently stays open until around 6:30 p.m., she says, but that closing time might move later.

    And more?

    Talking about the business, Lathrop says, “I certainly don’t do any of it by myself. I have amazing people who work for me.”

    Those include manager James Roth, executive chef Jeffrey Crawford and head of finance and administration Peggy Schlink.

    Lathrop’s husband, Jeff, has retired from his job as a fire inspector for the town of Waterford and now works for GG taking care of the buildings and the fleet and, as Anna says, “fixes anything that breaks!”

    Lathrop says, “My husband wouldn’t want to hear this, but I’m looking for the next spot (for GG).”

    She’s not sure where. It might be in a westward direction.

    But first, she says, “I want to get through the summer here (in Niantic) and see what the summer brings.”

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